Thursday, 10 April 2008

Where have all the students gone?

The Independent has picked up on a report published by the Royal Society earlier this year which found that there has been a significant drop in the proportion of UK students studying doctorates in science from 65% to 57%. This drop is in contrast with the total number of PhDs being awarded in UK which has increased, due largely to the amount of EU and overseas student coming to study in the UK.

Judith Howard, chair of the Royal Society's higher education working group is quoted as saying, '"We have to be concerned and we have to be concerned now. There could be a lot of consequences for the economy."' The Royal Society would like to see incentives for students to take science, such as bursaries and reduced fees. It also believes increasing the time it takes to achieve a PhD should be increased from seven to eight years, in order to compete with other countries in the Bologna accord.


Anonymous said...

I don't quite understand why increasing the length of the Ph.D would help at at. A Ph.D in the UK is 3 years, which should include a significant fraction of the write-up. I don't understand what on earth Ph.D students are doing with their time when it takes them 4+ years to submit their thesis. I think the problem stems from the lack of practical science education in schools - student start University with no bench skills whatsoever and then don't do enough practicals in their B.Sc and so start their Ph.D not knowing basic methods. The number of Ph.D students in Biochemistry which I have come across a year into their Ph.D who don't know how to do basic mole calculations is a real worry. I even found one who didn't know what 1% of 100mL was!

Anonymous said...

A) Yes, it is difficult and getting hands dirty seems awkward nowadays.

On the other hand, a policy of PhD extension could well have the opposite effect. People might think this policy is only there to keep them longer as a cheap research labourer. In this respect other, major reasons for science not being a popular PhD subject are probably:
B) Lack of job prospects that promise an above average income. Any role models out there (on TV etc) that make the study appealing??
C) Lack of job-security/career progress in science after a PhD. Only a very small number of bright and lucky people can continue to do their (research) work. Become a PI or leave is the current practice, with the latter as the most probably outcome as it is hard to foresee one will be in the right group at the right time studying a sexy topic and getting the appropriate results....

Thinking about science careers seems based on the assumption that everyone wants his/her own group. Apart from scientific interests, main motivator for this is probably the job-security linked with these positions. But many researchers would not mind to miss out on a PI position, preferring the bench work instead if they could sustain themselves that way.

Further, how valuable people with their post-doc experience could be in other work-environments is not generally recognized/appreciated. People with such a practical experience are still frowned upon as 'too set in their ways to change for a novel job'. Which is nonsense. The current research environment is very demanding making people very resourceful, eager to learn, critical and hard working. Most people are in it with the motivation to get the job done, to make things happen, and solve problems. It might be better for our society that these qualities become recognized.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely right - the lack of job security is the main issue I think. If only there were a perminant position which wasn't a PI and was bench-based but not a Research Tech or Lab Manager or "Scientific Officer" (whatever that actually means). I know plenty of postdocs/Ph.D students who don't want to spend their days in an office doing admin - they want to work at the bench face all the time. I also know several PIs who love lab work yet for whom their University doesn't provide benchspace (for them personally) as apparently PIs "aren't meant to do bench work".