New HEPI report shows PhD students’ voices left ‘unheard’

The average PhD student works over 50% more than the average undergraduate, the report shows

The author of a new report from The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) on the experience of PhD students has said their voices can go “unheard”.

PhD Life: The UK student experience, by Bethan Cornell, uses previously unpublished data from Nature and the Wellcome Trust to uncover the reality of life as a UK PhD student*.

One of the key findings was that the average PhD student works 47 hours per week, which is over 50% more than the average undergraduate and three hours less than the average academic. For PhD students on the basic Research Council stipend, this equates to earning less than the minimum wage.

Furthermore, 63% of PhD students see their supervisor for less than one hour per-week.

The data also revealed findings about mental health. The majority (80%) of PhD students believe a career in research can be lonely and isolating, and over one-third (37%) have sought help for anxiety or depression caused by PhD study.

Cornell, who is currently studying for a PhD in physics, said: “Despite PhD students making a valuable contribution to UK research output, there are huge variations in the way they are recruited and funded and the quality of support they receive. This makes it hard regulate their experience and means PhD students’ voices can go unheard when things go wrong.

“Where good practice exists in the UK and abroad, the sector should take note and use it to form a more cohesive and uniform approach to PhD training. This would benefit not just the students, but the quality of UK research output.”

Where good practice exists in the UK and abroad, the sector should take note and use it to form a more cohesive and uniform approach to PhD training – Bethan Cornell, HEPI

Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, added: “Too often, people taking PhDs are regarded as neither one thing nor the other. They are not seen as students the way undergraduates are and they are not seen as staff the way academics are. Sometimes, PhD students receive excellent support but, too often, they fall through the cracks, making them demoralised and unhappy. When that happens, we all lose because the world desperately needs people who push forward the frontiers of knowledge.

“We know far more about undergraduates than we used to and we now need similar levels of research on the student experience of postgraduates to help policymakers, regulators and funders improve their lives.”

What else did the report show?

  • Over three-quarters of PhD students (78%) are satisfied or highly satisfied with their degree of independence
  • 23% of PhD students would change their supervisor if they were starting their PhD again now
  • One-quarter (25%) of PhD students feel they have been bullied and 47% believe they have witnessed bullying
  • One-fifth (20%) of PhD students feel they have been discriminated against and 34% believe they have witnessed discrimination


Read the report here.


*The report is based, with permission, on data obtained by the Wellcome Trust, who surveyed 7,646 researchers over five weeks from September 2019, and Nature, who surveyed 6,320 current PhD students worldwide for six weeks between June and July 2019. The report combines the responses of UK-based students from both surveys, making the maximum number of respondents for any question 1,069. The confidence interval is 95% with a 5% margin of error.

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