Wellcome Students Have Their Say

Ph.D. students funded by the Wellcome Trust may be well paid, but they are sceptical of the long-term professional value of current research training, say researchers at the Wellcome Trust in two reports published earlier this month. Next Wave spoke to Patricia Chisholm, scientific programme manager in the Trust's Career Development Section, about their findings.

The first report, The Student Perspective, discovered that almost 25% of the 146 final year Trust students who completed a questionnaire in 1998 and 1999 were dissatisfied with the supervision they had received. And in-depth questioning of 45 current students threw up specific concerns about training in academic communication. Although all Trust students are encouraged to attend a course on communicating their science to a public audience, several suggested that training in how to write their thesis, or put together conference talks and poster presentations, might be more relevant. "Despite quite a lot of changes in the last decade in the quality of graduate school-type support for students, there are clearly large numbers of students who are not yet being given the kind of academic mentoring that one might have thought they would be getting," says Chisholm.

Unsurprisingly, the survey found that the vast majority of students are very happy with their financial support. Wellcome Trust stipends are notoriously generous--£11,962 per annum compared with £6455 from BBSRC--and the greatest concern was over the probable pay cut that students would take on becoming a postdoc. Chisholm makes no apologies for the Trust's generosity. "What is wrong with student stipends is the derisory level at which everyone else's studentships are set. No Ph.D. student should have to earn a living at night or weekends," she says. Given the long hours they work, most are not even paid the minimum wage, she asserts.

The Student Perspective also warns that the Trust has uncovered "some considerable disillusionment amongst current students about the value of a research career, particularly in an academic setting." Chisholm is not surprised. Although a majority of students still intend to follow a research career, industry now appears to be a far more enticing prospect. The increased administrative and teaching burden has eroded research time, making academic jobs less attractive. At the same time, careers in all fields have become more fluid. "To remain in [research] all your working life is maybe something that will no longer happen," she suggests.

The second report, Career Paths, traces the career paths of the 136 students who were awarded Trust-funded studentships between 1988 and 1990. "As a benchmark, that's a very important first cohort," Chisholm explains. It will allow comparison of different funding models (for example, the traditional 3-year Ph.D. with the Trust's more recent, innovative, 4-year programme), says Chisholm, "and we can also map the changing face of student finance, student motivation, student commitment."

The raw statistics from the Career Paths report do throw up some worrying questions about the progression of women in academic research careers. Chisholm notes that their experience differs from the men in the study in four ways. First, more women resigned their studentship before completion. Second, those women who completed their Ph.D.s were more likely to have no resulting publications. Third, women left postdoctoral research more rapidly and in greater numbers than the men. Fourth, those women who have remained in academic research attained half the publication productivity of the men (an average of 6.76 papers compared with 12.41). Unfortunately many of the questions which might have helped tease out the reasons for these discrepancies simply were not asked in this piece of research. "We don't know how many of the women who remain in academic research have more teaching, or are part-time--we didn't ask that question," admits Chisholm. And it's just possible that the reasons are less than obvious. "It could be the women, by chance, are in scientific disciplines where publications are relatively few," she suggests.

Now that the students have had their say, the Trust is likely to turn its attention to the supervisors. "If there is to be [a third report], it probably ought to be the academic supervisor perspective," and the Trust is committed to this in principle. "I am going to invite ... people who are involved in graduate education to join us in a forum that would explore the respective roles of host institutions and funders in creating a type of Ph.D. training which meets the needs of biomedical research," says Chisholm. In this way, she thinks the Trust can "open a dialogue, which everyone could join in, about what is responsible supervision of Ph.D. students, what is the contract between the student and the host institution, and what role does the funding agency play?"

Professor Martin Raff, chairman of the UK Life Sciences Committee, which recently produced a report on postgraduate training, welcomes the Trust's research. "The reports confirmed what our working party had seen," with regard to an increasing reluctance among young scientists to pursue research careers, he says. They are useful in providing strong evidence that this general feeling pervading the biosciences community is real, rather than just ad hoc hearsay, he comments, and warns that something "has to be done quickly, otherwise there's going to be a great big hole in science in years to come."

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