I’m somewhat uncertain about how to react to the news that EPSRC is cutting the number of studentships by about 30%. If you’ve read some of my earlier posts you’ll know that I feel that we may be producing too many PhD graduates. This isn’t because I don’t believe that PhDs are useful, it’s because I’m not sure it’s necessary to have as many PhD graduates as we currently have. It’s also because there are, in my opinion, real problems with the academic career structure that is exacerbated by the large number of PhD graduates.
Many who start a PhD do so because they would like to end up doing independent research. The main way to do this is to become an academic in a university. The fraction of PhD students who can, realistically, achieve this is now very small. Some argue that this doesn’t matter because those who don’t become academics go into industry and do very well. This is absolutely fine and I have no problem with someone doing a PhD and then choosing to go into industry. A concern I have, however, is that it can still be very disheartening for those who had hoped for an academic career and didn’t realise how difficult it was to do so. We also have to be careful that we don’t discourage, because of the difficulty of having an academic career, potentially excellent researchers from starting a PhD in the first place.
The other concern I have is that some feel that PhDs should become degrees in which people are taught research skills. I sat through a meeting recently where a concern was expressed that our PhD graduates typically were not competitive internationally. Someone then responded by saying that this didn’t matter as their PhD students were snapped up by industry. That’s great, except that in my opinion a PhD from a top UK university should typically allow that person to compete for research jobs anywhere in the world. They don’t have to do so, but it should allow them to do so if they so choose. If this is no longer then case, then our PhDs are no longer degrees in which students learn to undertake independent, world-class research. I think this is a crucial aspect of a PhD, otherwise we’re wasting everyone’s time.
The solution, in my view, is to expand the number of degrees. If we introduce a research Masters degree, students could learn, in a year or two, very useful research skills that will translate very well into industry. The tops students could then go on to do PhDs and the rest could go out into industry where they could contribute greatly. This would be more cost effective and those going into industry would do so a year or two earlier than they would do if they’d done a PhD and probably with most of the research skills they would need. If the cuts to EPSRC studentships was an attempt to rebalance the system, I might be quite pleased. However, it does seem to be purely a cut because of a reduction in their budget and does not appear to be based on any sense of attempting to produce a sensible system that will address issues relating to the academic career structure without reducing the number of research trained people going into industry. Admittedly EPSRC is a research council and doesn’t have any say in the structure of degrees at UK universities. It’s unfortunate, however, that there doesn’t appear to be any attempt to try and use this as an opportunity to address issues with the degree structure and career structure in UK universities.