I’ve written before about how the UK’s system of funding research puts too much emphasis on students (and also doesn’t work particularly well). And as someone who’s never worked directly in a university (hooray for government, NGO, and museum science!) student recruitment has been a particular frustration of late.
As an undergrad, I was fortunate enough to have someone take a chance on an unproven wannabe scientist, and grateful that someone did again when I started my PhD (for the record, I looked at my CV this morning when I sent it in to my PhD program: no research experience before my 2-year masters, no publications, 1 conference presentation, no grants/awards. Goodness me those were the days). I recognized early on that the traditional metrics by which we often assess and recruit graduate students are biased. And I see this now, nearly 2 decades (!) later now that I am what might be called a “Principle Investigator”.
Early on, I told myself I would do my best to pay things forward, as they had been done for me as a grad student, and one of the areas this includes is in student recruitment. The problem, though, is that being not based at a university, the opportunities for ANY student recruitment are limited and hampered, let alone when one is trying to subvert the very system one relies on.
The Natural History Museum is a research institution (so we can hold grants from bodies like UKRI and ERC, for example), but does not have degree-awarding powers, so we have to rely on finding a university co-supervisor who either a) aligns with the project, and has capacity/interest to take on another student, or b) is happy to be totally uninvolved save for the university admin and box ticking that a graduate degree requires. Neither is terribly abundant or preferable, in my experience.
And this is before we hit on funding. Many universities have their own funding (through teaching assistantships, a central graduate studies pot of money) which can take some of the financial burden off the supervisor for funding the whole cost (a PhD student in the UK has total costs of ca. £25,000/year, including salary and some basic research costs). I’m purposefully ignoring DTP-esque funding here because a) it’s an awful system, b) it rewards the same biases I first noticed decades ago, and c) it still relies on finding that university-based (co)supervisor, who will be limited in the number of DTP applications they can be involved in.
I find this particularly frustrating because I know several amazing people who’ve approached me to join my “lab” (an entity that doesn’t really exist) and who I would take on in a heart-beat. I can’t chat about grad school meaningfully with prospective students at conferences because so much of the process is out of my hands and seemingly uninfluenceable. I can’t pay forward the chances folks gave me, and that’s gut-wrenching.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s lots about being a non-academic scientist that I adore, and I wouldn’t change my current job (much) for the world. But when we think about how the next generation of scientists is being recruited, trained, and funded, and by whom, I wonder if we should be thinking a little bit differently.