PhD students – have they been left behind?

The life and prospects for PhD students is becoming increasingly tough, with numbers of opportunities for funding dipping in recent years, and the prospect of completing a PhD becoming a long haul with quite a proportion of people that will never complete. The dramatic change for me is the first-step-on-the-ladder job opportunities in lecturing now seem to be flooded with high quality career researchers.

In a recent article about PhD students and their role as graduate teaching assistants – GTAs – “Graduate teaching assistants have been left behind by all”  Fern Riddell discusses some of the concerns surrounding the lives and prospects of our postgraduates.  I agree that something is wrong, but I think the problem is broader than GTAs and extends beyond the walls of the university.

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The role of the GTA. Really?

When I was an undergraduate, seminar tutors, or GTAs, were responsible for the majority of student contact and teaching time. They marked essays, delivered feedback and prepared you for exams, supporting the courses outlined and delivered by their department’s academics.

There seems to be quite a mixed perception of the role of GTAs within universities. I am working in my 4th UK university now, and this statement has not been my experience. I have never known PhD students to do these duties to the extent described? I have certainly never seen a GTA design exam questions. I have seen PhDs supervise undergraduate practicals and run the odd tutorial – fond memories of urine physiology and yellow stains on lab coats! We marked lab reports, but we were not responsible for the majority of the student contact time, and in all my academic experience, that has never been the case. I’m not sure that is a fair reflection of the whole sector.

I think the article does tickle the edge of what is a problem though, and that is the use of post-docs and assistant lecturers who do get paid to take a bulk of marking. Now there is a serious quality issue.

The article did irk me that once again university academics took a battering, and if you worked out the hourly rate for which most actually work, they probably aren’t earning much more than a GTA! (In fact, when I tot up as a frequently do a 60+ hour week this equates to £17 per hour). 86% of respondents in the “THE Best University Workplace Survey 2014” survey regularly work more than their contracted hours, so the argument about poor pay is relevant to anyone teaching in a university today (the-best-university-workplace-survey-2014-results).

The hard life of the GTA. But wasn’t it always?

They had been forced to take on multiple contracts and part‑time work in bars or shops just to earn enough money to live on.

That might be true, but wasn’t it always? In my PhD, we all had part time jobs? My PhD stipend in 1990 was £1500 and went up to £3500 as I recall, and I was one of the lucky ones with industrial case-sponsorship. In case you think this was reasonable for the time, it wasn’t, and within a few years, stipends leapt to about £8000. So part-time working was common and I worked 3 nights a week and weekends in an Off-License.

So I’m not worried about people having part time jobs to support themselves, but what does seem a trend with undergraduates is increasingly it is to the detriment of their studies. They are having to work such excessive long hours during the week, that they are missing lectures. I think that is the real problem we have.

Universities are unable to invest in postgraduates?

Why is it that universities seem unable to really invest in their postgraduates?

On the surface this is a sensible statement, but I think it is a more complex picture, although I am NO financial expert. There might be little investment because they are an expensive business taking huge investments in time to support them through to completion. In a HEFCE report on postgraduate degree qualification rates where “research degrees” included only PhD study and not MPhil or Master’s, around 70% of PhDs were projected to qualify within 7 years. Around 12% never complete, and the rest take longer than 7 years!

So for many students, not only must this represent a long and stressful haul, for the supervisor and the university, many students extend way beyond the duration of the funding. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been startled by a conversation the other day where I heard that universities lose money by having PhD students! University overheads, bench fees and ongoing costs are so high, that maybe the university does invest money into having these students, but the value is hidden.

I’m not an expert here, but there must be something within the Full Economic Costing model that relates to this. Applying for small funds – less than £20,000 looks financially ridiculous on paper, with in my applications, around £6-7K going in indirect costs and estates. In one “desk top” research study, I was even costed in with technical time!

In the US, rises in indirect costs outstripping direct costs, with the worry of ultimately a reduction in investment in innovation and research. I’m not sure about the UK, but with indirect costs eating up the money, this inevitably means less money for the researchers.

The hard life of a GTA. 

I do agree with the overall sentiment that life is tough for GTAs, but not only for some of the reasons Fern proposes. I have spent seven months interviewing for 8 new lecturers within my department. These types of jobs used to be the domain of the post-doctorate just out of PhD, the maternity covers, or the year-long fixed-contracts to cover sabbaticals and such like. I am not talking about permanent positions here.

The quality of applicants for a single post is astonishing. We have a post-doctoral researcher with 8 years independence and funding doing a maternity cover. Our academic positions regularly get between 60-80 applications now.

Why? The bottom is starting to fall out of the research funding, and people are jumping ship?


CC BY Viv Rolfe – Boston Bridge Jumping.

I have seen this build over the previous year, and what would formerly have been outstanding applicants – out of PhD, looking for their first teaching experience and welcome the chance of getting stuck in, are being usurped by outstanding research profiles and people with more life and work experience.

So there are two questions come to mind. What are our excellent PhDs going to do? And where is the research funding? These experienced researchers are also the future of our industry and innovation, and good quality researchers should be doing just that, and not being sucked into the crazy world of lecturing.

 This article reflects the individual thoughts of Viv Rolfe.

What do you think? Leave a comment below if you wish.