Sybil Low by Sybil Low

PhD students in the UK are expressing the urgent need for improved financial backing as the cost of living soars. This plea for assistance comes from Hannah Franklin and Emma Francis, two PhD students at University College London (UCL). They state in a letter to Nature Human Behaviour that current doctoral stipends are “insufficient and unsustainable”. So, are universities and funders doing enough to cushion these scholars from the brunt of this economic crisis?

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PhD Students Urge for Enhanced Support amid Rising Living Costs in the UK

Key Takeaways:

  • UK’s PhD students label their stipends “insufficient and unsustainable” amid the escalating cost of living.
  • Financial pressures are forcing PhD students to take part-time jobs, affecting their studies.
  • PhD students urge for employee recognition and regular stipend reviews to ease financial insecurities.

Financial Strains for PhD Students

The UK is witnessing a steep rise in the cost of living, with students bearing the brunt of it. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) recently boosted the minimum stipend by 10% to £17,668 for 2022-23. However, according to Franklin and Francis, these increases fall short. “We would like universities and funders to recognise that what is currently being financially provided—low stipends and one-off hardship payments—is not enough to adequately support students in this climate,” they told Research Professional News.

The Balancing Act: Academics and Part-time Jobs

An unfortunate fallout of the cost of living crisis is the rise in PhD students resorting to part-time jobs. This balance between study and work often compromises academic performance. Notably, this is not an option for all students. International students face work hour restrictions, and students with disabilities or care responsibilities often cannot manage extra work.

Francis, serving as the research students’ officer at UCL’s student union, drives home the point: “many of us cannot fully dedicate ourselves to our PhD due to low stipends forcing us to take up additional work.”

Challenges in Financial Aid Accessibility

Universities have directed students towards means-tested hardship funds for temporary financial relief. However, Franklin and Francis note that the application process can be “cumbersome and require sensitive information which dissuades students from applying”.

PhD Students Urge for Enhanced Support amid Rising Living Costs in the UK

Advocating for Stipend Reviews and Employee Recognition

Franklin and Francis suggest universities and funders should commit to regularly reviewing and adjusting stipends in accordance with inflation and cost of living increases. Furthermore, they believe recognizing PhD students as employees could help alleviate financial pressures.

Higher Education Bodies Respond

Universities UK, the vice chancellors’ group, acknowledges the need for a review of the current systems. “We need to look more closely at how well the current system and government’s own support measures are helping students and what changes need to be made,” the group stated.

Melanie Welham, UKRI’s people and culture champion, emphasises the funder’s commitment to doctoral students, stating that the increased stipend for 2023-2024 “shows [an] ongoing commitment to supporting doctoral students”.

The Bottom Line

The escalating cost of living crisis in the UK has put considerable strain on PhD students, especially those at UCL, leading to calls for more robust support from universities and funders. The students maintain that the current stipends are insufficient, pushing many to take on part-time jobs and deal with the burden of accessing financial aid. Proposals include regular stipend reviews and recognizing PhD students as employees to ease financial insecurity.

Mapping Your Financial Future: A PhD Student’s Guide

Starting your PhD is both an academically and personally enriching experience. However, it often comes with financial challenges. Balancing the demands of rigorous research with personal finances requires a sound long-term financial plan. It’s crucial for PhD students to be proactive and strategic in managing their finances to ensure not only the successful completion of their program but also a stable financial footing post-graduation.

Strategies for Ensuring Financial Sustainability:

  1. Budgeting and Expense Tracking: Create a detailed budget including all your income sources and expenditures. Keep track of your expenses to avoid overspending.
  2. Secure Funding and Scholarships: Explore and apply for scholarships, grants, and fellowships that can significantly reduce the financial burden of your PhD program.
  3. Side Gigs and Part-time Jobs: Consider taking up part-time jobs or freelance work that is related to your field of study. This will not only provide an additional income stream but also potentially contribute to your research.
  4. Living Frugally: Start saving on lifestyle. This could include sharing accommodation, using public transportation, and minimizing discretionary spending.
  5. Building an Emergency Fund: Save a portion of your income or stipend in an emergency fund to safeguard against unforeseen expenses or income losses.
  6. Investing Wisely: If you have some savings, consider investing in low-risk financial instruments that can generate passive income.
  7. Networking and Collaboration: Build a professional network and collaborate with peers. Sometimes, collaborations can lead to shared resources or funding opportunities.
  8. Planning for Post-PhD Life: Think about your career path post-PhD early on. Establish connections and explore job opportunities that align with your research.
  9. Consider Student Loan Options: Research and consider taking student loans if necessary, but be cautious and understand the repayment terms.
  10. Seek Financial Advice: Consult a financial advisor or take advantage of university resources that offer financial planning advice.

Managing your finances during your PhD journey is essential for reducing stress and maintaining focus on your academic goals. Making informed and thoughtful financial decisions can pave the way for a fulfilling and prosperous career.

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