by Mark Bennett
, posted on 25 Jan '19

What do Prospective PhD Students Think About the F-word?

PhD students do a lot of thinking. I'm going to assume that this fact isn't really an original contribution to knowledge. I myself did plenty of thinking ahead of my viva last November and some of it was even related to the content of my thesis (as opposed to wondering how to get the thing printed and bound, where to put all the post-it notes and whether I'd fail after finding a typo in the abstract).

But do we know what PhD students think? As professionals interested in postgraduate policy and recruitment, we probably should. That's not to say we need to know everything they think about – protein folding, ion trapping, eighteenth-century travel writing (ahem) – but what about the things we think about? Things like programme content, student wellbeing, work/life balance, degree value and so on.

We have some of this information, thanks to the great work Advance HE (formerly HEA) do each year with their Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES). We've been pleased to work with them and help communicate PRES insights via FindAPhD; after all, helping prospective students inform their decisions based on previous students' experiences is a pretty sound principle.

But there's still a pretty important gap, I think. And it concerns the F-word.

This (current) academic year saw a significant step change for UK PhD funding as England and Wales both introduced doctoral student loans. There's been plenty of really excellent comment about this: what it means for institutions and their provision and what it also means for the postgraduate student experience; indeed some have quite reasonably asked who a limited loan of up to £25,000 for a three-to-eight year doctorate is actually for.

What's still missing though is any real sense of what prospective students actually think about the new funding. Do they agree that £25,000 is enough to make a difference? How do they feel about potentially taking on a third student loan, after undergraduate and postgraduate-Masters? Will this new student finance actually make anyone more likely to study a PhD?

We can't answer these questions ourselves at FindAUniversity, but, through our unique FindAPhD community we do have access to a huge audience of prospective students who can. So we asked them.

The answers we've had are interesting and important, particularly when it comes to understanding perceptions of the loans across different subject areas or getting a better sense of how students expect to use them.

I'm really pleased to have been given an opportunity to say a bit more about these findings at a UKCGE workshop on the the loans taking place at the University of Birmingham this coming Tuesday - all the more so because I'll be talking to prospective students about the loans that same morning, as part of our Postgrad LIVE! study fair event. Being able to work at this intersection between prospective postgraduate students and higher education professionals is an exciting part of my role at FindAUniversity – and it feels like an increasingly important one too.