I have the good fortune of having three PhD theses on my desk at present, two where I am the external examiner and one where I am the internal. They are all on interesting topics, one very related to my own work and the other two a little more obliquely related. While reading theses for examination is a chore – you need to make lots of notes and make sure you have sensible questions to probe the student on, it is also a really good way to concentrate on a specific subject and hopefully learn something along the way.
Having picked up the first one to read my heart sank a little as it became clear that there were going to be lots of rather strangled grammar. If you are an aspiring or current PhD student, you need to know that the quality of your science is what will take you through in the end, but your viva is likely to be a hell of a lot easier if the examiner does not need to stop every paragraph to note how you have deviated from the norms of good English.
My strong advice: throughout your PhD, write as much as you can and get feedback on your work. This can be from your supervisor, lab mates or friends or through courses that I imagine all Universities (certainly in the UK) offer on academic writing. Or maybe by writing a blog. Also try, and this can be hard, to thoroughly proofread your final thesis, and get others to do so too. This will make your examiner’s job so much easier, and so much more enjoyable, allowing them to focus on what you have done. Words your means of delivering your message. Make sure they are your friends.
Or perhaps my question is, “how the hell do students choose what PhD to do?” I was having a discussion (not the first of it’s kind) with a colleague about a PhD position he had, and the bottom line was that we still really have no idea how students choose which PhDs to do and where they do them. The biggest issue I think is how do students find out about PhDs? Clearly local knowledge will help, so finding stuff in the department you are working in isn’t too hard, but beyond that?
When I was a student the web was still a bit of an infant and most departments had postgraduate research brochures, sort of like undergraduate prospectuses. You could ask for one and it would give an overview of department research and who was doing what. It gave no real indication of current PhD funding in specific projects and you tended then to email someone doing something that looked interesting and seeing where it got you. Of course many of the people listed weren’t terribly research active and even if they were they didn’t necessarily have any PhD funding that year. So it was a bit confusing. My final year project supervisor, Miles Padgett, gave me me sage advice – make sure that you go and visit everywhere and then only come back here (St. Andrews) if you’re convinced it’s the best. He suggested some people I should speak to and I went and visited a bunch of places. Looking back though, it’s clear I had a very poor overview of what was going on in most of the departments in the UK. I was also fairly uneducated in assessing the relative merits of research publications, finding out if PIs had grants, and if ,in genera,l the people I was seeing were really any good. I’m not sure undergraduates these days are any better prepared than I was. The web has a lot more info on it, but still how do you find that perfect PhD…
The nature of PhD funding is complicated in many instances and PhD positions come up at different points of the year, so it may not be possible to have some form of centralised clearing house for projects. Also funding is often nebulous – if there is department funding available and you can find someone good to take it, you may just get an award, even if others have good projects on offer. The Doctoral Training Centres act as sort of clearing houses for some areas, but these are often not the most transparent. Other approaches let students apply to a department and then they can do little rotations and choose a supervisor – like in many American Universities. This idea is more focussed on the place than the project for my liking though, and I find it a bit unsatisfactory.
It’s also not clear to me if things like advertising making any difference, or if it does where is the best place to advertise – is the best thing just to email every Academic Departmental Secretary in the UK and ask them to send an ad to all their final year students, or do any students know of the existence of jobs.ac.uk or findaphd.com? IS the time of year your ad goes out important/critical? Also is location/perceived prestige a big factor? What role do personal recommendations play? How much info on a potential project do you need? Do DTCs have a big influence? How many academic groups are you aware of going into your final year?
I’m not sure I have an ideal solution, but I’d be keen to hear the views of those who have PhDs, are doing PhDs or are thinking of doing them – how did you, or are you, choosing?
Last year I had an enquiry from a prospective PhD canidate, from Libya. He seems like a decent enough bet: he had a MSc from Cardiff, and his references from there were fine – so there were no major concerns with his English or his general background knowledge. His MSc project was in an area relevant to my own work. So, it looked like his could make a go of a PhD. The basic paperwork was in place for him to come, he just needed to acquire a visa. Then the revolution started. Communications went down, and there was no way to know what was really happening. Thankfully, sometime after things had settled down I got an email to say my applicant was OK, and was the offer for the PhD still open? So we sorted the paperwork out again and an application was made for a visa. Note that the Libyan Government would pay the overseas fees (>£12k per year) and that his stipend would be around £1900 per month (much more than the EPSRc stipend of around £1150 per month). The visa request was turned down – the reason given was the monthly income was less than £2400! If one includes the fees and stipend, the Libyan Government was prepared to pay more than £3000 per month to fund this student.
In the Sunday Times this weekend there is an article [paywalled] about Indian students ‘shunning’ the UK as visa regulations get tougher and courses increasingly expensive. Damian Green, the immigration minister is quoted as saying:
There is no limit on the number of genuine students who can come to the UK and our reforms are not stopping them.
Well Mr Green, in this case they clearly are, unless of course you are coming from a country that is prepared to pay, not only 3-4 times the fees of a UK/EU student, but also more than twice what the UK Government is prepared to pay it’s own physics and engineering PhD students. It seems we are quite happy to support regime change in Libyan, but not quite so forthcoming in helping to educate their students.
I don’t really understand the decision making process here, but if this is the general rule for overseas PhD applicants relating to visas, then I think UK Higher Education may have a very serious problem, which is not just brewing, but well underway. ‘Cos clearly we can afford to turn away decent students with the money to finance their studies behind them.
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.