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New report suggests PhD students work 50% more than undergraduates

  • 25 June 2020

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has published a new report on the experience of PhD students – people who are studying for doctoral degrees.

PhD Life: The UK student experience by Bethan Cornell uses previously unpublished data from Nature and the Wellcome Trust to uncover the reality of life as a PhD student.

The key findings include:

  • the average PhD student works 47 hours per week, which is over 50% more than the average undergraduate and three hours less than the average academic;
  • for PhD students on the basic Research Council stipend, this equates to earning less than the minimum wage;
  • over three-quarters of PhD students (78%) are satisfied or highly satisfied with their degree of independence;
  • 63% of PhD students see their supervisor for less than one hour per-week;
  • 23% of PhD students would change their supervisor if they were starting their PhD again now;
  • the majority (80%) of PhD students believe a career in research can be lonely and isolating;
  • over one-third (37%) of PhD students have sought help for anxiety or depression caused by PhD study;
  • one-quarter (25%) of PhD students feel they have been bullied and 47% believe they have witnessed bullying; and
  • one-fifth (20%) of PhD students feel they have been discriminated against and 34% believe they have witnessed discrimination.

The report incorporates qualitative research that captures the voices of PhD students:

  • ‘Due to being [funded] by a stipend and not through student finance, and not technically being employed by the university means that I am not eligible for childcare funding. The cost of childcare is around £11,000 per year, my stipend is £14,200.’
  • ‘almost all the staff I meet from different universities are “pals from [insert elitist uni here]”. As such they have very little understanding of the challenges someone from a “normal” or disadvantaged background faces, especially financially, giving the overwhelming impression that your skills are secondary to your class.’ 
  • ‘The higher up you go, the more male and white-dominated the environment becomes. There’s only one full female professor in my whole institute, and I have genuinely never met a black PI [Principal Investigator] or professor since starting my PhD.’

The author of the report, Bethan Cornell, who is currently studying for a PhD in Physics, said:

Despite PhD students making a valuable contribution to UK research output, there are huge variations in the way they are recruited and funded and the quality of support they receive. This makes it hard regulate their experience and means PhD students’ voices can go unheard when things go wrong.’

Where good practice exists in the UK and abroad, the sector should take note and use it to form a more cohesive and uniform approach to PhD training. This would benefit not just the students, but the quality of UK research output.

Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI, said:

Too often, people taking PhDs are regarded as neither one thing nor the other. They are not seen as students the way undergraduates are and they are not seen as staff the way academics are. Sometimes, PhD students receive excellent support but, too often, they fall through the cracks, making them demoralised and unhappy. When that happens, we all lose because the world desperately needs people who push forward the frontiers of knowledge.

We know far more about undergraduates than we used to and we now need similar levels of research on the student experience of postgraduates to help policymakers, regulators and funders improve their lives.

In the Foreword to the report, Dr Katie Wheat, Head of Engagement and Policy at Vitae, said:

This report makes an important contribution to current debates on research culture by presenting the views of doctoral researchers in the UK extracted from the recent Wellcome Trust and Nature reports. It highlights several areas of concern, including working conditions, wellbeing, supervision and incidents of bullying and harassment. 

The findings chime with growing recognition of the need to improve research culture.

Watch and listen to a presentation on the new report by the author by clicking on the video below.

Notes for Editors

  1. The report is based, with permission, on data obtained by the Wellcome Trust, who surveyed 7,646 researchers over five weeks from September 2019, and Nature, who surveyed 6,320 current PhD students worldwide for six weeks between June and July 2019. The report combines the responses of UK-based students from both surveys, making the maximum number of respondents for any question 1,069. The confidence interval is 95% with a 5% margin of error.
  2. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) was established in 2002 to shape the higher education policy debate through evidence. It is the United Kingdom’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded in part by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate.
  3. In May 2020, HEPI published Postgraduate Education in the UK (HEPI Analytical Report 1) by Dr Ginevra House, which reviewed the state of postgraduate education since the last recession.

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