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‘Adjust your projects’: UKRI’s announcement is a red flag for research

  • 25 November 2020
  • By Chris Brasnett

This blog was kindly contributed by Chris Brasnett, former Postgraduate Education Officer at the University of Bristol Students’ Union (2019-2020). Chris is completing a PhD in membrane biophysics at the University of Bristol and you can find him on Twitter @csbrasnett

Increasingly, there is a question at the heart of doctoral education about its purpose that few in the sector seem interested in answering. As has been highlighted previously in Bethan Cornell’s work on postgraduate students, the number of PhDs awarded around the world has increased rapidly over the last few decades, a trend which has had significant effects including on the sorts of careers that ‘successful graduates’ go on to have. Many questions arise from the dramatic increase in the provision of doctoral education, but to me the principle one is: for whom and what is a PhD for?

At the most cynical level, a PhD could be described as an ‘academic apprenticeship’, with students learning the trade of academia, to follow, once they have finished their ‘apprenticeship’, in the footsteps of their supervisors. The ‘traditional’ full-time model of a PhD, turning up on Day One and knuckling down to a single project for three-and-a-half years is increasingly unfashionable, with – particularly in STEM areas – the doctoral training entity model being preferred in recent years. The doctoral training entity (DTEs) model usually has  a timetable of subject-specific training and personal and professional development in the first year of study, before the students move to their research projects for the next three years. These models certainly have their benefits for producing students who have greater all-round training and professional skills, preparing them for any workplace that they choose.

But is then a PhD solely for the student doing the research? By dedicating several years of their career to supervising a student, supervisors must expect to  be able to develop their own research in turn. This is often drawn out by disciplinary differences, where (to put it over simplistically), students in the arts come with their own projects and money (not necessarily directly related to their supervisor’s research), whereas students in the sciences come to join existing projects that a supervisor has the funding for.

To add to this already complex picture, the funding of PhDs is diverse, with many projects either part or fully funded by non-research councils, for example charities like Cancer Research UK or companies like Rolls Royce. They too must be expecting some sort of return on this as an investment, whether expecting the student to work for them afterwards, or carrying out research for their own benefit in a significant and different way.

All in all, to a student these can feel like fundamentally competing demands on students’ time and interests – should they spend their afternoon in the lab or the library – or rather do some professional development for the job they really want to do which sits outside academia? The answer will vary depending on who is asked There is an urgent need to improve understanding between research students (both current and future), their supervisors and their sponsors about who is ultimately benefitting from their work and what a PhD should look like. This is important not only so that we can attract the best and most diverse candidates to academic research in the first place, but to ensure that a PhD continues to be recognised as a qualification of the highest quality both inside and outside of academia.

These problems are compounded by one of the most notable features of doctorates in the UK, in that they are relatively brief. In many other European countries and the United States, PhDs are usually longer by at least a year or two – and are preceded by a two-year Master’s degree. Examination methods also vary compared to the sector-wide standard of a viva in the UK – whether they take the form of a public defence, or a thesis by publication. This combination of factors means that UK PhD students need to be uniquely aware of the demands on their time and how that can reflect on them as candidates when applying for high-status international academic posts after graduating.

Two weeks ago saw the publication of perhaps the most consequential piece of policy about postgraduate research in recent memory, with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) advising students whose work has been affected by COVID-19 to ‘adjust projects’ in order to complete their doctorates, but without diminishing the quality. As I have written elsewhere, the Office for Students (OfS) and UKRI have agreed to collaborate on a number of issues, including a framework with which to monitor the quality of research awards, as well as potential risks to postgraduate research students. It seems likely that this decision from UKRI will leave scores of students unable to complete their doctorates successfully – and therefore driving up otherwise relatively low non-completion rates on doctoral programmes across the country. Many universities have strict timescales on how long a doctorate should take. With students having had either no, infrequent, or restricted access to labs, libraries, and other facilities for multiple months this year, many have been seriously set back in their research. In a year or more’s time, many students may find their theses are incomplete, and that they are without the necessary time or funding to be able to finish them to the undiminished standard dictated by UKRI. Without a joint framework in place, the Office for Students has not yet commented on this profound risk which threatens the ability of tens of thousands of students across the country to complete their courses.

For those who are still able to complete, the combination of already short PhDs – which have likely been changed fundamentally part-way through – will render UK-trained students at a fundamental disadvantage compared to their peers. Moreover, the nature of the already short time period in which UK PhD students carry out research means that the time to change focus (which is dependent on a supervisor’s expertise) and to learn new skills (which is dependent on facility and equipment availability) is a challenge which few students may be able to meet. Looking to the future, this means that students will not be able to work on a publication record for the next stage of their academic careers  and the opportunities for presenting the work will similarly be curtailed. Unable to do so, many potential leading researchers of the next generation may simply leave research all together.

The way in which we enable the current cohort of PhD students to finish their studies in unique and difficult circumstances speaks to how we value research as a society. UKRI exists to fund research because original research is seen as a valuable way of progress: to understand the frontier challenges we face as a society. The principle problems for Postgraduate Research students struggling with their projects as a result of COVID are time and money – neither of which UKRI can generate out of thin air, or at least in the case of the latter, without detriment elsewhere. If support from UKRI directly is unavailable, the Government should be urgently providing the means to support Postgraduate Research students across the country. Yet again, we are reminded of the ill-defined status of Postgraduate research students between government departments, public bodies, and agencies, and how the lack of coordination and planning has failed them throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Ultimately, if PhD students at the frontline of cutting-edge research are to be encouraged to continue that work – in whatever setting – the very minimum that we should be doing is ensuring that the current cohort of students are able to complete their research in the way and standard that they set out to do.

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