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Why it’s time to start focusing on the wellbeing of PhD students

  • 26 June 2020
  • By Diana Beech

This guest blog was kindly written and contributed in a personal capacity by Dr Diana Beech, Head of Government Affairs at the University of Warwick and former Policy Adviser to the last three Ministers of State for Universities and Science. She was also HEPI’s first Director of Policy and Advocacy.

Yesterday HEPI published a new report by HEPI intern Bethan Cornell, PhD Life: The UK student experience.

Like many others in the world of higher education policy, I got into the profession through earlier lobbying and campaigning efforts. However, while others in the sector have tended to earn their stripes by holding office in students’ unions or prominent university societies, I was a relative latecomer to the policy scene and didn’t start engaging with policymakers until I had experienced life as an early career researcher and had seen first hand where intervention was needed to improve the modern-day research career.

My big break occurred at the European level while still a post-doc, when I was lucky enough to be selected by the European Commission as one of the founding members of its ‘Voice of Researchers’ network. This was a group established in 2012 to give researchers a means of directly influencing European Research Area (ERA) policy. As well as organising major conferences in Brussels to give researchers a platform to air their concerns, I was also involved in making sure something got done about them and effecting positive policy change on the ground.

In particular, I am proud to have left behind two distinctive markers in the sand from my time working with ERA policymakers. The first of these was a package of measures to promote the open, transparent and merit-based recruitment of researchers across Europe, after witnessing far too many academic jobs clearly being advertised with specific candidates in mind. And the second was the establishment of the pan-European RESAVER pension scheme which, although still in its infancy, will allow internationally-mobile researchers within the European Economic Area to continue paying into the same pension plan even when moving between different countries and employers in the future.

Due to the UK’s subsequent decision to leave the European Union (EU), it is now highly unlikely that research-performing organisations in the UK will have the opportunity to associate to the RESAVER scheme unless, of course, the UK Government makes provision for it in the ongoing UK-EU negotiations. Yet, I still take satisfaction from the fact that researchers who choose to make their career in participating institutions on the continent (some of whom may well be British nationals), no longer have to sacrifice building up a nest egg while trying to make it up the academic career ladder.

I am not ashamed to admit my passion to effect policy change in this area was borne purely from personal experience. Having not had the opportunity to earn a stable wage or pay in to a workplace pension until my third post-doctoral position in the UK, I wanted to make sure future generations of researchers did not have to suffer the same workplace inequalities and do my bit to plug the cracks in the talent pipeline, which cause too many researchers to needlessly give up on their academic ambitions and leave the research profession altogether.

As my own experience of policy influencing has shown, improving conditions for PhD students can, and indeed should, be a starting point for effective and targeted policy change, and not just an afterthought as they have often been in the past. Plus, given the fact that the research and higher education portfolios now fall under the remit of two different UK Government ministers, it is more important than ever that we put PhD students front and centre of future policy debates, to ensure both Departments recognise their responsibility for PhD candidates – as students on the one hand, and researchers on the other.

If the UK Government is still serious about us achieving the status of a ‘science superpower’, then it needs to be taking a people-centred approach now. I have said before that the UK’s future scientific success depends not only on pumping more money into our research base, but ensuring we are nurturing the talent we need as well – from lab technicians through to Principal Investigators, and from PhDs through to fully-fledged Professors.

All this depends on ensuring researchers are satisfied in their work and their wider careers. It also relies on the whole research community buying into a shared vision of research integrity and everybody doing their part to make the research environment the best it can be. That’s why it is essential we understand the attitudes and experiences of researchers from all disciplines and backgrounds, and at all levels, and are designing policy specifically to address their concerns.

Yesterday’s HEPI report by PhD student Bethan Cornell lays bare the stark realities of life for PhD candidates in the UK today, with many working long hours in isolation, and others reporting incidences of depression, anxiety, bullying and harassment – all of which go against the attractive research career we need to be building to keep people in it for the future.

In my final blog as HEPI’s first Director of Policy and Advocacy in July 2018, I stuck my head above the parapet to call out poor behaviour and discrimination in the sector and, with it, set out a five-point plan to bring about a much-needed culture change in research. Yet, as today’s report sadly reveals, almost two years on, we still have a long way to go to achieve an appropriate standard of workplace culture in research, and the bullying of PhD students still clearly goes unchecked to the detriment of future UK innovation.

A ‘world-beating science and research base’ begins at home and, although culture change is not going to be achieved overnight, the onus is on all of us – both in research and in government – to ensure we are focusing on those who are at the start of their research journeys and are committed to ironing out any bumps on their road ahead.

Studying for a PhD should no longer be a marker of having overcome multiple strains on one’s mental health and wellbeing, but instead we need to work together to make the PhD experience a passport to a Perfectly happy Destination and, hopefully for some, a lifelong career in research as well.

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