Scientiae Doctores

The season for recruiting new research students is well and truly upon us and at the same the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is consulting about changing the way that it allocates PhD studentships to departments.

Most postgraduate students studying for PhDs in Astronomy are funded by STFC (although some Universities also fund their own internal studentships). The result of this arrangement is that successful applicants to a PhD course can receive a stipend which amounts to about £13K per annum. It’s not a huge amount of money, but it is a stipend rather than a salary so it’s tax-free. Since a PhD student also remains a student and therefore qualifies for various other fringe benefits (Council Tax, student discounts, etc), it’s not actually a bad deal for the student. Anyway, if it were significantly more then it’s possible PhD students would have to start paying back their student loans, which would make things worse. STFC also pays a tuition fee to the University concerned, but this is done directly and the student doesn’t even see that element of the funding.

Since about 1995, PPARC and then STFC has funded research studentships in areas within its remit by means of peer review. Departments have bid for studentships (every two years) and a panel awards an allocation depending on the quality of the bid. Of course, everyone asks for many more studentships than are available so what you get is a fraction of what you ask for. I wrote the application for the first ever quota studentships for the Astronomy group at the University of Nottingham, and did it again a couple of times after that. Each time, despite going into best bullshit mode to write the case, I was frustrated by the relatively small number of studentships we were awarded. Although we succeeded in building up gradually from zero to 2-3 per year, it was a very slow process.

In recent years, the funding mechanism has evolved slightly so that studentship fees and stipends were devolved to the departments concerned in terms of Doctoral Training Grants (DTGs) rather than being administered centrally by PPARC/STFC. In the old days, students used to get their stipend from PPARC/STFC whereas now they are paid by their department from a cash grant.

Anyway, for various reasons (chief among them being no doubt to save administrative costs) STFC has decided to consult on changes to the mechanism for allocating the DTGs to the various departments around the country. The most serious proposed change is to follow the practice at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and dispense with peer review. Instead, the proposal is to award studentships based on a formula involving how successful the department is at obtaining postdoctoral research assistant (PDRA) support from STFC.

Here is the proposed formula:

 Specifically, the studentship award per department should be proportional to the product of volume and average quality per academic within the department, that is to:


V * Q


The Committee has followed guidance in developing measures of V and Q that are non-subjective, repeatable and transparent.  The volume V is defined as the number of academics (including Fellows) eligible to hold STFC research grants. The  quality Q is measured by the number of STFC-funded PDRAs (P) awarded per academic (i.e. P/V), since this measures the success of the academic staff in securing STFC funding for PDRAs through peer-review.  More precisely we define quality per academic as Q = [1 +(P/V)].


Although the Committee felt this definition of quality applied primarily to responsive-mode PDRAs, it agreed that PDRAs on project grants should be included, but with a weighting, relative to responsive-mode, of 0.33.


Using these definitions, the Committee recommends that the studentship award per department should be proportional to a simple product of volume and average quality per academic within the department, that is to:


N(students) µ V * Q


where Q = [1 + (P/V)]


And so the departmental quota is proportional to: 


V[1+(P/V)] = V+P


In addition, recognising that very small departments offer more limited training opportunities on their own, a threshold is proposed, such that no studentships are awarded for V < 3. Instead, these very small departments/groups would be able to collaborate with other larger departments in seeking STFC studentship support.




         N(students) µ V+P  for V ³ 3

                             = 0        for V < 3


The constant of proportionality is chosen such that the total number of studentships equals the number available for allocation.



I think this is a fairly reasonable proposal, actually. The one thing I don’t really understand relates to the fact that STFC doesn’t just fund PDRAs on its grants, but under the Full Economic Cost regime (FEC), it also pays for fractions of academic staff effort for people working on its projects. On my recent successful STFC grant, for example, I was awarded 25% of my time (i.e. 0.25 FTE, full-time-equivalent) to do the research as well as a PDRA. Since the proposal above will have to cope with the question of what staff are “eligible” then why not make the quantity V proportional to the total FTEs funded, or at least only count those for whom some FEC time is allocated? And why not include staff FTE in the Q-factor too?

My guess is that such a modification wouldn’t make much difference to astronomy departments, but the original proposal has caused cries of anguish from particle physicists. This is because the number of PDRAs in particle physics is much smaller than in astronomy, so many large groups face a big reduction in their PhD quota. Including FEC numbers in the mix might well smooth the transition for them. For your information, the number of PDRAs per active astronomy researcher  is around 0.5 at present.

Anyway, the deadline for consulting on this has passed (on February 20th) so we now wait to see what STFC actually does. Probably the consultation period is a purely cosmetic exercise anyway and what will emerge is exactly what was proposed.

If you ask me (and nobody did), all this is mere tinkering. I think there are serious problems with graduate funding in the UK and these require much more radical remedies. At the risk of (and indeed with the intention of) being provocative, here is my diagnosis and suggested remedies:

  • There are too many PhDs in astronomy. STFC funded 160 studentships in 2006, compared with 88 in 2000. There are nowhere near enough PDRA positions to accommodate this number of PhDs in academic research. And even those who get their first PDRA position have very limited prospects of getting a permanent job. The result is a generation of disaffected students employed as low-paid assistants for 3-4 years and then thrown aside when they have got their PhD.
  • Of course, applicants for PhD places don’t know what research is really like and some will leave academia of their own volition when they find out that it’s not for them. In my experience, though, most graduate applicants simply don’t realise how heavily the odds are stacked against them. Less than one in ten can possibly stay in research in the long term, and the more PhDs are funded the worse the odds against them become.
  • The short duration of a British PhD disadvantages our students with respect to those from the USA or continental europe, who all do a lengthy Masters course before taking their PhD. These take at least 5 years to complete.  The result is that our home-grown PhDs are seriously disadvantaged in the job market against competitors from abroad. Similar points have been made forcefully by Ian Halliday.
  • My remedy is simple. Reduce the number of studentships but extend each one to five years and require each hosting department to provide a proper graduate school with intensive graduate-level courses to make up for the progressive reduction in content of undergraduate physics courses.
  • Even more unpopularly, I think the UK should scrap 4 years Masters (MPhys) programmes and embrace the structure of the Bologna agreement, i.e. a universal 3+2+3 structure of 3 years Bachelors, 2 years’ Masters and three years PhD.
  • Currently STFC stipends can only be paid to UK nationals and residents. It’s an open secret that most departments would preferentially recruit European physics graduates to their PhD positions if they were allowed to do so, because their undergraduate preparation is much better than that provided in UK universities. I propose that we abandon this protectionism and open up PhD opportunities to European applications, just as we would legally have to do if a PhD were considered to be a job.
  • Finally, I think the UK should consider the introduction of a common graduate entrance examination, perhaps based on the US GRE, to ensure the maintenance of appropriate standards for postgraduate entry and eligibility for STFC funding.

There are of course some advantages to the current British PhD system. For one thing, the PhD is earned very quickly. I was 25 when I got my PhD, and already had several publications. Most of my European collaborators were at least 30 before they got theirs (additional years have to be added for national service in many countries, but we don’t have it in the UK). But I am painfully aware that my technical knowledge outside the immediate area of my PhD is much thinner than most academics in the field. Now, in middle age, I feel like a long-distance runner who had inadequate preparation, went off too fast at the start of the race, and is now struggling along while people overtake him with monotonous regularity.

The nature of research in astronomy and cosmology has changed so much in the 20 years since I got my PhD that the old system has to go. Instead of tinkering with funding formula, driven principally by the need to save adminstrative costs within STFC, we need a radical overhaul of the entire graduate education system in the UK, involving all research councils and their political masters.

Unfortunately, though, for the time being at least the politicians have other more pressing matters to worry about, such the collapse of the economy.

9 Responses to “Scientiae Doctores”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    More forms to fill in; When do you guys in universities find any time to get your own thinking done?

    I thought our PhD was shorter because our school and university education used to be of higher standard. But if that is no longer the case, then the overhaul you propose makes sense – although you get doctored at a disturbingly late age in such systems.


  2. Actually the new proposal will reduce the amount of forms. If PhD funds are allocated by an algorithm there will be no need to write a lengthy case every two years like in the old days.

    I’m afraid over the years the physics content of A-levels and subsequently University degrees in physics has been watered down so much that your argument no longer holds. I think the main reason that the funders are refusing to consider changes to postgraduate education is the issue of who will pay for it.

  3. Adrian Burd Says:


    I’m disturbed by your reply to Anton’s comments. Having been out of the UK for 17 years, I still remember it as it was when we came through the system. The US system has major flaws in it as well – though I suspect it might serve astronomy better than it does oceanography where incoming students have such a diversity of backgrounds (in content and quality).

    The issue of who will pay for things is a sore point. Unless a graduate student has a scholarship, students are paid through research grants or teaching assistantships. Tuition is usually waived. This means that ones success at recruiting students is, in part, determined by ones funding success, which depends in part on getting papers published, which depends on having students working on those papers! For those faculty who are successful at recruiting and have half a dozen graduate students at any one time, the faculty member finds a significant part of their time is taken writing more grants to maintain the funding in the lab, one basically becomes an administrator and this can occur at a very early stage in ones career.


  4. telescoper Says:


    I suppose the UK system is a consequence of being funded from the public purse. Since the 1980s government no longer trusts public institutions to get on with what they are good at, but instead insists heavy-duty accounting for every penny. The result is that we all spend much more time filling in forms than anything else.

    While I agree that spending taxpayer’s money must be justified, I think we’re so stranged by paperwork that it’s just a question of time before some Universities decide they’ve had enough and go fully private.


  5. Adrian Burd Says:


    We have the same problem here, particularly in our public institutions like the University of Georgia. From what I understand, if a university has a significant base of wealthy alumni, then going private can be a good thing.

    The US is most definitely a different place than it was in the 90s. Did you know that state employees such as myself have to sign loyalty pledges!? The ironies abound but seem to go unnoticed!


  6. […] In the Dark A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « Scientiae Doctores […]

  7. Bryn Jones Says:

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and … no.

    So your GRE score from me is 86%.

    I agree strongly with most of your recommendations for the future of postgraduate training in astronomy, and agree strongly with much of it. The one where I disagree is your suggestion that there should be an examination to assess candidates’ suitability for PhD admission. It seems to me that the GRE test, or some alternative, would be a complication that would not help much in reality.

    But now to the other issues, where we agree.

    Yes, we certainly take on too many people to study for PhDs in astronomy: the problem, as you said, is that the very poor career prospects mean that very few people with PhDs can continue in astronomy, and those who leave have considerable problems in finding new career paths. Potential employers outside academia often regard people with PhDs, and particularly with postdoctoral experience, as being “over qualified” or “over specialised”.

    You are right with your reasoning behind the calculation in your subsequent posting of the likelihood of PhD students finding a permanent academic position in astronomy in Britain. I fear that your figure is somewhat conservative, because the average number of new PhD students per academic may be greater than one every three years. PPARC used to quote a figure of 1 in 6 people starting PhDs in Britain going on to obtain permanent academic positions (if I remember correctly), which was clearly wrong.

    Another way of estimating the number, of course, is to take the current number of new astronomy PhD students each year and dividing it by the estimated number of vacancies for permanent lecturerships each year. Taking 160 and 8 per annum would suggest only one in 20 new PhD students will get a permanent academic position. The rest will leave academia or leave the U.K. (Although I used to quote a figure of 90 new studentships in astronomy per year in 2005: things may have changed.)

    The current system produces a number of significant problems within the research community. These include abandoned research projects, a demoralised community, and a negative impact on the national economy caused by gifted people failing to find employment commensurate their inherent abilities.

    One thing that must be understood at this point is that the STFC – and previously PPARC and SERC – argues for astronomy funding on the basis that the money is used to train considerable numbers of people to a high level (PhD standard) in science, which is claimed to be of vital benefit to commerce and industry. The truth is that business in general has little interest in people with PhDs in astronomy or particle physics, with the possible exception of computing and, until late last year, finance. But the argument was made to get Treasury funding all the same. Reducing the number of PhD studentships reduces the power of this argument, unless balanced by other changes.

    I agree that most people who stake up PhD studentships do so without any real understanding of the true career situation in astronomical research. There are genuine issues about whether university departments are acting in an ethical manner when they fail to convey the real situation to potential PhD students. When I taught a Research Methods in Astronomy module on a MSc course, I did try to explain to students what the true career situation was. Interestingly, despite this, a number of the students did apply for PhD positions. All the same, there is a strong danger that applications for PhD studentships might collapse if the true situation did become understood among undergraduates.

    Adoption of the Bologna model would greatly improve postgraduate education in the physical sciences. People who wish to study beyond a first degree would take a two-year master’s course with lectures at an advanced level, and with a serious research project that would be expected to produce at least one research publication in most cases. The two-year master’s degree would allow students to learn research techniques properly and get a taste for front-rank research. They would then know whether they wanted to commit to a further three years of research work to get a PhD. My view is that the research-intensive MSc would satisfy the interests of many people who now choose to study for a PhD.

    Training considerable numbers of people with serious research-level MSc degrees might fulfill the expectations of research councils and government when funding basic science in terms of the impact on the national economy. Industry and business might be interested in recruiting such people, instead of the disinterest or even disdain that they show to PhDs. There would then be a genuinely positive impact on the economy.

    As for the new allocation formula for distributing STFC studentships, I don’t have particularly strong opinions, except that the proposed system would multiply the importance of success in grant applications. As the number of postdoctoral researchers funded in any department is modest, random issues become important (small number statistics, whether the grant committee happened to have somebody favourable to a particular research area, and others). I would expect that the STFC will normalise astronomy and particle physics PhD studentship allocations differently so that there will not be a collapse in the number in particle physics. The STFC will surely do the sensible thing as it always does …

  8. Adrian,

    What on Earth is a loyalty pledge?


  9. Bryn,

    I put the thing about GRE in at the last minute. It’s essentially independent of the rest of my argument, but I think the logic is sound. Ipso facto, it won’t happen.


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