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Hot take alert.

Having worked in university-adjacent and research-based institutions for the last 5 years in the UK, I’m acutely aware of the challenges around getting research done. A common solution is, of course, to have undergraduate or graduate student researchers. This can be for an honours, masters, or PhD degree, for example. And while student training hasn’t been a formalised part of my job, I recognize it as essential for the progress of professional science (and not just in research, but cutting across many spheres, like communication, policy, industry, and more). Long story short, the way to get more research done is, unsurprisingly, to have more people working on it. And I know I’m not alone in having a lengthy list of projects that I think need doing.

So what are the mechanics of this in the UK? Unfortunately they do not tend to work in researchers’ favour.

The first is the masters programmes. The museum participates in three such programmes, run through two London universities. Students cycle through varying numbers of modules (taught, and research projects) over the course of a year, meaning a student dedicates ca. 4 months to a single project. There are also longer MRes programmes which tend to be 8-12 months as well, but we’re not formally partnered in any of those at the moment.

Leaving aside the £9000 tuition fees and other barriers to entry from an undergrad degree, the reality is that 4 months is frighteningly short to accomplish a research project, particularly if any data collection is required. The result is the prioritisation of the student’s research report so that they can achieve their degree, which inevitably means a lot of “we can do that later when we turn it into a paper”. But upon graduation, seldom do students have the time (and indeed they are doing it in their own time if at all) to revise reports, do additional analyses, and turn their thesis into a manuscript. It then falls to the supervisor who must often engage in manuscript necromancy and spend a not inconsiderable amount of time doing the revisions, submitting the manuscript, responding to reviewer comments, and more. And this assumes that the analyses are correct and complete, that the data are collected appropriately, and analyses can be reproduced/altered. In my experience (n = 4), only one (my masters first student) has gone on to getting it published, and that was thanks to an additional collaborator who took the brunt of the work. The whole process took 4 years after graduation. And this is by no means a dig at the students! They’re in a tough spot where increasingly masters degrees are seen as an essential precursor to a PhD (in a way that North American research-based masters degrees haven’t been over here). But the time allowed just isn’t enough.

What then of PhD students?

In the UK, there are basically 2 ways of securing a PhD student for your research group: a) have a huge grant that can pay for it (the full cost of a PhD student is ca. £25k a year, plus research costs), or work through one of the Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs). For those not in the know, NERC, the Natural Environment Research Council (and it’s companions in other fields) funds these studentships. But rather than dish them out directly, and likely in an attempt to make sure not everyone who gets one goes to Oxbridge, they award the funds to consortia of universities. There are 17 DTPs through NERC, each of which covers a particularly theme/group of universities. Note that if your university isn’t covered, you don’t get students through this route.

But there are also all kinds of unwritten allocation rules to prevent one university in the consortium from taking all the students (and all the money, which happened in the first year at one place). But it means a rigid system of quotas. For example, the museum is part of the GW4+ DTP, covering Bath, Exeter, Cardiff, and Plymouth. But we only get one “lead-supervised” studentship in the whole 5-year cohort (It could be one a year, but that’s not entirely clear). Either way, given the same student, same project, and same supervisory team (we need someone at a uni because the NHM can’t award degrees) the student may or may not get funded because of who’s listed as the “lead” applicant. This happened to me last year.

Take another case: the London NERC DTP receives >700 applications for a measly 13 PhD studentships. This means that one must basically have an absolute top undergrad degree, an absolute top masters, have publications, volunteer (yes, volunteer!) experience, and more. That’s imply not attainable for many students, and is a sure fire way to limit diversity.

As a consequence, it means that at conferences, students want to come and talk about doing a PhD, but even if we work with them, carefully craft a project around their interests and for which they’re uniquely qualified (i.e., game the system), they could still not be awarded the studentship. Equally, a student need not be in touch directly with a potential supervisor before applying, so if they’re admitted to the DTP, the DTP is essentially forced to get them a project.

Lastly on DTPs, because students aren’t linked with specific projects (in some DTPs) until after a 12-week “rotation” across the different partners, there’s a lot of wooing and spoiling of potential students who know they are valuable to supervisors, and I have been dragged on and on by some in the past who ultimately choose a different project.

The system, dear reader, is broken.

I’m not saying it’s better or worse than what came before (I wasn’t here), but it’s pretty clear to me that my time as a PI is better spent just doing the science myself, or working with students overseas where entry requirements aren’t as convoluted and disconnected (e.g., Australia, Canada, US). Which is quite sad for me, as it means I’m unlikely to have “my own” lab, or cohort of students to whom I can impart what I think the culture of science and scholarship should look like. And I really miss that.

If you’re a current (!), or prospective student reading this, though, don’t take it as a signal that you shouldn’t get in touch. There may well be other ways of making things work, but so far I’ve found discussion of the frustrations of supervisors in student recruitment in the UK to be largely hush-hush.

NERC, and other research councils, need to rethink this system. I’m happy to consult, at my usual rate.


Post edited 02 Aug to clarify the masters-level courses and their varying requirements.