Life Sciences Training Needs Shake Up

Research Council-funded Ph.D. students in the life sciences should receive a minimum stipend of £9000 per year, recommends a report published last week by a working party of the UK Life Sciences Committee (UKLSC). And the working party, chaired by Sir Brian Follett of the University of Warwick, says that if this means that fewer Ph.D. places can be funded, so be it.

The current stipend for most tax-exempt Research Council studentships is just £6620, compared with a median post-tax income for new graduates entering the job market of £13,300. The last decade has seen a switch from grants to loans, meaning that students are finishing their first degrees with an increasing debt burden. The recent introduction of tuition fees adds to this, to the tune of £1025 for each year of study. A conservative estimate, according to the report's authors, is that from 2001, students will finish their first degrees with debts of £10,000. According to a Survey of Postgraduate Study Intentions conducted by the Office of Science and Technology last year, rising debts are discouraging students from entering postgraduate study. That comes as no surprise to Liz Sockett, education secretary of the Society for General Microbiology. "Research Council stipends are too low -- it's ridiculous to ask graduate students to live on the breadline to do scientific research," says Sockett, "They need a stipend which allows them to live normally, especially in light of debts they are often carrying due to the costs of undergraduate studies."

But it's not just the salaries. A doubling in undergraduate numbers over the last 20 years -- with no corresponding increase in per student funding -- has put pressure on practical classes, with more students fighting for bench space, equipment, and increasingly scarce chemical reagents. Consequently, claims Martin Raff, chair of the UKLSC, "there is no doubt that some of our best young graduates are not being attracted into research careers."

To address these concerns, the UKLSC working party developed a two-part proposal. First, they argue, the fight for space and materials has made it more difficult for students to learn fundamental lab skills in only 3 years. So the UKLSC is encouraging the life sciences to adopt a 3 + 1 + 3 year model, with "much greater use of the Master's year before the Ph.D.." The so-called "MRes plus 3-year Ph.D." mirrors the Wellcome Trust's popular 4-year Ph.D. programme. Under this scheme, students spend the additional first year undertaking short projects in a number of labs and afterward they choose where they will carry out their final 3 years of doctoral research. Sockett confirms that the idea of an MRes coupled to a Ph.D. programme is very popular with her undergraduate students. But she warns that "there should not be a great expectation that the MRes will shorten the research time during the Ph.D. Students may do better research, but not necessarily any quicker, due to the nature of science and the time it takes to give results."

Part two of the UKLSC proposal is to increase per student funding. That sounds easy enough, but there is a catch. The working party cannot guarantee that the total funds available will increase to meet the needs of all the students currently in the system. So if it is accepted, the working party estimated that the proposed funding plan could cut the number of Research Council studentships by as much as 25%. The group's priority is to find ways of ensuring that the very best students continue to be attracted to Ph.D. training, UKLSC working party secretary Ken Sloan tells Next Wave. Sloan adds that while the working party would prefer not to see a reduction in numbers, it would be acceptable if this was the only way to get increases in the stipend and improved training.

Although she supports raising student stipends, Sockett worries that reducing the number of research studentships will completely shut down research in some smaller groups, particularly those with only one student and one supervisor. "There are already few studentships available," Sockett tells Next Wave, "and funding for such 'groups' might dry up if the number of studentships is reduced."

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