What did EPSRC do? Part 3: Changes to PhD studentships
Once upon a time, about 15 years ago I embarked on my PhD, paid for by an EPSRC grant. I was what was called an ’embedded student’, and without this grant funding I wouldn’t have been able to carry out the project I wanted to do. Undoubtedly the work would still have gone ahead, but mostly likely with a postdoc doing it, rather than a PhD student. So the changes that EPSRC made recently to embedded studentships cut close to home.
You can no longer apply for a PhD studentship as part of an EPSRC grant submission. This, as I understand it, is broadly in line with other research councils, and means that the allocation of EPSRC studentship is dealt with through a quota allocation to the University using a ‘Doctoral Training Account’ (DTA) or through the funding of a thematic Doctoral Training Centre.
The reasoning behind this change is, I think, that a research grant should focus on a research problem, rather than be a training mechanism for a PhD student, and also that by trying to collate students around training centres, a bigger critical mass of expertise is built up. The University quota system has been in place for as long as I can remember, and this enables people without specific research funding to still be in with a chance of having someone to work on a project, or people with funding to try and work on something different. One of my students is currently funded through this type of scheme and this has enabled us to start up a new physics/life science interface project, which will hopefully lead to formal funding in the future.
This sounds OK, right? Well, the issues with this are that the quota DTA funding is limited, and is linked to the number of grants that a University has. At Dundee, with relatively limited funding, compared to many of the bigger departments/universities, we don’t get much of this type of money and getting a student can be difficult – EPSRC leaves the allocation, and the allocation process, up to individual Universities. Even in more successful places, which tend to be bigger, your odds of getting such a student can be slim. When I was at St. Andrews, it worked out as something like one student per PI every three years – assuming an equitable share (which in my experience would be rare). If you work in a department with a DTC then your chances improve in getting a student, but as, I think I am right in saying, a DTC typically has about 10 students per year to hand out, if you happen to be in one of the limited group of Universities that have these you are still limited in your chance of getting one. Because the DTCs are discipline specific, if you fall outside the discipline, you can’t get one, and even within the discipline, in larger interdisciplinary settings you are still going to struggle.
What this tells you is that if you are in a well funded, DTC holding department, your odds of getting a student are higher than if you are in a smaller, less well funded department. And this is probably as it has ever been – but the removal of PhD students on grants has then two big effects on the active researcher at a smaller department:
- I am dependent, to a large extent, not only on how well I do at getting grants, but also on how well everyone else is. So even if I were to have a great run of luck and bag a few grants in the next few years, there is still no real guarantee that I’ll get a PhD student, with the low numbers of DTA positions, and the lack of a DTC. Further, while there are some areas where I could see us bidding for a DTC in, realistically our chances of getting one aren’t great.
- Grants where you would have applied for a PhD student and no postdoc become much more expensive. I’d argue that anybody applying before the change for a three year PhD position will now just apply for a three year postdoc, regardless of whether they really need three years of postdoc time. A PhD student costs around £60k, a postdoc well over £100k for the same period. So I think that this does end up taking money away from the overall research grants budget. I can sort of see the argument for “efficient research = postdoc”, but practically I don’t think people shorten grant lengths because of it.
The consequence of this will be some withering of smaller departments where there are fewer big names and fewer big grants. It means I need to work harder to gain funding. The DTCs should improve student training and develop critical mass, and provided they are reviewed appropriately (which I think they are), there should be no abuse of the system. But I am curious that if we had some sort of half way house – say a grant could have a PhD student or a postdoc, but not both on it, then financially this might be better, or at least more transparent.
To finish this tale, I would say that without a grant funded studentship my life might have been very different. I turned down a job offer to take my PhD, and who knows where I would have ended up. I am sorry to see them go, but I feel that a grant funded before with a student on it will get funded with a postdoc on it, so no huge overall loss – we’ll get used to this change.