Supervisors Talk Back

Last year the Wellcome Trust published two studies that looked at trust-funded PhD students' career paths and levels of satisfaction with their training. In an interview with Next Wave, Patricia Chisholm, programme manager in the trust's career development section, promised that supervisors, too, would be asked for their opinions on the PhD experience at the beginning of the 21st century. Now, the report on that follow-up survey of 172 supervisors of Wellcome Trust PhD students has been published, and it makes for some interesting reading.

Given that many PhD students are disillusioned by the prospect of following an academic career, according to earlier surveys, it is perhaps reassuring that only 6% of the supervisors questioned are unreconstructed enough to believe that the purpose of a PhD is training solely for a career in academic research. Most (72%) think that successful candidates should finish their theses ready to take on a career in scientific research in general, and one-fifth believe that PhDs should be trained for a range of careers.

There has been much discussion in the last year or so about making the duration of PhD studentships more flexible. Indeed, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has now changed funding arrangements so that supervisors can receive up to 4 years' worth of funding per student. In light of this, it is interesting that 53 of the Wellcome Trust supervisors who responded to the survey commented specifically that they believe 3 years is too short a time for completing a PhD. "The 3-year model is flawed and limits innovation in PhDs. A 4-year model is more appropriate for research training," commented one supervisor. Another suggested, "It is, in practice, very difficult for students to complete a PhD in 3 years, and even very good students take a little longer," adding that being able to apply for an extra 6 months' support would greatly improve the current system.

Worryingly, almost half (48%) of supervisors say that they find it more difficult to recruit high-caliber PhD students now than they did 5 years ago. Reasons suggested for this were the increasing level of undergraduate debt and bigger class sizes at the undergraduate level, which means that students are beginning PhDs with less laboratory experience. But other supervisors suggest that work needs to be done at the other end of the PhD process, too, in order to encourage the best and brightest to stay in science. Action to increase academic salaries would help, they suggest, but beyond that, "it is not always a pleasing prospect to spend upwards of 10 years learning how to do good research only to get drowned by teaching and administrative duties in a lectureship." On a more positive note, however, another academic asserts, "The career situation is not as bleak as many students perceive it to be. We could do more to stress the very positive aspects of academic careers and of course emphasize that the training a PhD provides can be useful in other careers."

The full report is available online from the Wellcome Trust Web site.

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