Students have been left reeling after the UK’s biggest funder of PhDs announced thousands of researchers will not be given extra time or funding to complete their degrees.
The announcement came from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which supports around 22,000 students at any one time – up to a quarter of all doctoral students in the UK – with an annual budget of around £400m.
But thousands have now been told they must find a way to finish their research on time, sparking distress among students who spoke to the Guardian.
“This is a new layer of uncertainty on top of the uncertainty we have all been living with during the pandemic,” said Aline Cerqueira, a marine biologist. “I am concerned that if I do not get an extension, I might not be able to conclude my research analysis and thesis writing.
“With two children depending on me and a mortgage to pay, unfunded extensions would also represent a real challenge to my family, with possible detrimental effects to our financial stability and mental health.”
Alex Kirby-Reynolds, 30, had been doing a PhD on the impact of Brexit on people’s lives, alongside some teaching to keep out of debt, but said he would be unable to work without a funding extension.
“I already had a lot of anxiety around this as it is difficult to complete a PhD in the time we are usually funded,” he said. “Obviously, the announcement of likely not receiving additional funding has only increased this stress. This anxiety makes working on challenging reading, writing, and other kind of work more difficult.
“My only possible solution would be that I could move to a part-time PhD and find some other kind of employment that would allow me to complete my project.”
Doctoral students also raised concerns about being unable to collect data within a shorter timeframe and how missing out on opportunities to publish papers and attend conferences could make them less competitive in the academic jobs market.
UKRI, which brings together seven research councils including the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, said it knew that many research projects had been disrupted by lockdown and social distancing, and that it might take time for access to resources and labs and for field work to return to normal.
It said: “We are therefore advising all students funded by UKRI, including those on grants from any of the seven research councils, to speak to their supervisors about how to adjust their project to complete a doctoral-level qualification within their funded period.”
It says it provided an extra £44m for extensions in April and £19m more in the past week, meaning extra financial support has been made available for up to 12,000 students most affected by the pandemic, such as those in their final year, disabled students and those with caring responsibilities. But thousands will receive no extra support, instead being told to readjust their work to meet their original deadline.
In a 30-page report on the issue, UKRI concluded: “New and early-stage UKRI doctoral students must modify projects with the support of their supervisors and grant holders to ensure they can be completed within their funded period.”
Dr Marc Reichow, a lecturer in geochemistry at the University of Leicester, tweeted his dismay at the news. “How to adjust? Are you asking to cut down to make it fit into the new time frame? Students had no access to research facilities! I am not impressed by this news. This adds another level of stress to all! Thanks for that,” he wrote.
Alexander Joseph Currie, a PhD student investigating Aspergillus fumigatus immune responses in cystic fibrosis, has begun a petition urging UKRI to extend an extra six months of support to all PhD students.
Prof Rory Duncan, UKRI director of talent and skills, said the new guidance was based on consultations with students, university leaders, grant holders and others.
“We know that students and supervisors have made huge efforts already to adapt. We are advising doctoral students who have not yet done so, to speak to their supervisor to adjust their projects and ensure they can complete them within their funding period. We know how hard this will be for students who are dedicated and passionate about their work,” he said.