Culture for PhD students must change, says report by IOP and Royal Astronomical Society

21 May 2015

The culture surrounding PhD studentships urgently needs to change if all postgraduates are to enjoy their studies and be prepared for life after a doctorate, an audience at the launch of a report on their experiences heard.

Emma Chapman

“There is a problem with the PhD culture itself that affects both men and women but affects women disproportionately,” postdoc Emma Chapman said at the launch of Gazing at the Future: The experience of male and female physics and astronomy doctoral students in the UK, held at the Institute of Physics’ (IOP’s) London headquarters on 19 May.

The report, based on a survey of 995 of the UK’s 4000 physics or astronomy doctoral students in 2014, was commissioned and published by the IOP and the Royal Astronomical Society.

While it found that 72% of men (but only 65% of women) were happy with the way their doctorate was going, levels of satisfaction with their relationship with their supervisor, confidence in their abilities as scientists, and career expectations fell for all students during their doctorate, but much more markedly for women.

In their first year, 93% of women rated their relationship with their supervisor as good or excellent, dropping to 70% in their fourth year; for men the figures were 91% dropping to 85%.

Chapman described her increasing steps up the “anger scale” as she progressed through her studies and witnessed how some doctoral students were treated. One of two invited speakers, Chapman gained an integrated master’s in theoretical physics at the University of Durham and a PhD in astrophysics and cosmology at University College London (UCL), became a postdoc at UCL and is to be an RAS Fellow at Imperial College from October.

As a PhD student she heard rumours spread about why certain female colleagues were given a job, experienced a culture in which peers who boasted of working the hardest or not taking holidays were looked up to, and found that some people unofficially advised her not to consider having a baby until she had a permanent position.

She also found herself barred from the university library at UCL when she went on maternity leave. “UCL realised that this was an archaic policy and I can’t praise them enough because they changed it within weeks,” she said. “But I think it’s symptomatic of a lot of the problems in the PhD experience: doctorates are aimed at someone who can drop everything immediately and has no work-life balance.”

She had also gathered comments from doctoral students at various institutions, some of whom had felt unable to raise complaints about inappropriate behaviour or poor supervision because of academic networks in which their supervisors knew everyone influential in their field.

Chapman said that there ought to be more honesty about the proportion of people with PhDs who gained jobs in academia. Departments might be afraid that they would lose potential students if they did make this clear, but someone had to take the first step and the only people they would lose would be those with false expectations, she argued. “You can really do some damage to people’s lives by not being honest,” she said.

The other invited speaker, Lesley Thompson, concurred. As director of science and engineering at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), she said around 25% of its budget was spent on PhD training and around 39% of those completing doctorates went on to work in academia.

She would like to see a “snakes and ladders” diagram in every department showing the career choices for doctoral students, she said, but noted that “there’s a different game of snakes and ladders depending on whether you’re male or female”. She had herself experienced what she felt was discrimination over a job application early in her career when she became pregnant, and had successfully challenged this, she said.

It was important, however, not to see it as a failure to move on from a PhD to work outside academia, and to ensure that people had mentoring and role models from beyond the academic world, she said. Several speakers said that more should be done to equip PhD students with transferrable skills, such as coding in programs that were used in the financial sector.

During a panel discussion, Prof. John Butterworth, head of the physics and astronomy department at UCL, said: “We should remember that you are doing original research to do a PhD. If you produce a thesis you have found out something that nobody ever knew before, but you’re also gaining skills. It’s a very fine line between saying ‘it’s hell out there’ and giving people false expectations. If you want to have that experience of doing a PhD, you will not be disadvantaged.”

Thompson said that perhaps it would be good to re-run the meeting with heads of department and pro vice-chancellors. She asked those present to talk about the issues to at least three people within the next week for whom it would make a difference. “If it stays with the people who are in this room, we have lost,” she said.