The Scientific Activist

A couple of current American Rhodes Scholars ruffled a few feathers today after writing an unabashedly critical account of their Oxford experiences for their undergraduate alma mater’s paper, The Harvard Crimson. Melissa Dell and Swati Mylavarapu write:

Take it from two veterans, the glitter and prestige of big name scholarships may be less appealing under closer inspection.

This admission may be shocking, since to many, being a “Rhodes scholar” foretells a future of success and celebrity. After all, William J. Clinton, Kris Kristofferson, and David H. Souter ’61 are just a few former Rhodes scholars who immediately come to mind. But for those of us who have spent time at Oxford on the renowned scholarship, the title bespeaks a frustrating academic experience.

As enchanting as the university’s ancient spires may seem, Oxford’s outdated academic system is far less charming. The university’s trimester system means students are out of school more than in. In contrast to Harvard professors’ regular office hours, Oxford advisors spend more time avoiding emails than supervising students. Here, where DPhil students struggle to have supervisors read their dissertations before submission, poor supervision is the rule, not the exception.

Not surprisingly, the article set off a firestorm within the Rhodes community. This was due more to its unpalatable tone of Harvard entitlement and complete omission of the many positive aspects of studying at Oxford than to its specific content. In fact, many Rhodes Scholars, including myself, would agree–to an extent–with several of their complaints. What the article fails to mention is that the benefits of an American Rhodes Scholarship (and, I’ll just focus on the American experience here, even though only roughly one-third of Rhodes Scholarships are allocated to the US) are by and large not academic. The opportunities to step out of the isolated comfort of America for a couple of years, to live in a country from which most of the world becomes much more accessible, and to be a part of a community of young budding intellectuals and leaders (and to do so on someone else’s dime) are reasons enough to enjoy the experience. The fact that one also gets to pursue a degree at one of the world’s most prestigious (although still often disappointing) universities should not be taken in stride either.

With that said, Oxford still leaves much to be desired on a variety of academic fronts. Instead of listing them all here, I’ll just focus on one that gets very little attention despite its ominous implications. It certainly isn’t a problem restricted to Rhodes Scholars, though, and it isn’t even specific to Oxford. It’s the UK’s continued acceptance of three year PhD programs (or “DPhil” programs in Oxford and a couple of other universities). I’ve spoken briefly on this problem before:

When a student begins working on a D.Phil. (Oxford’s equivalent to the Ph.D.) in biochemistry here, he or she hits the ground running in the lab that he or she is going to spend the next three or more years in. There’s no coursework and no laboratory rotations. Instead, there’s just a singular focus on the eventual writing of a dissertation. As biochemistry and its related fields grow and mature, individual scientists by necessity focus on increasingly specific areas of research, risking losing sight of the big picture. A graduate student in biochemistry spends his or her entire career at Oxford focused on a subject that only forms a drop in the ocean of the life sciences. It’s no wonder, then, that someone defending a dissertation in X-ray crystallography of cytoskeletal proteins might know almost nothing about the genetics of cell division.

Contrast this to the U.S., where students generally take two years of courses while also rotating through different research laboratories, conducting a small project in each, before finally settling into his or her final lab. The downside is that a Ph.D. is the U.S. takes much longer to complete. On the other hand, these students probably graduate with a more developed global perspective on biochemistry and the life science. Although one could argue that truly motivated students should seek out this knowledge on their own, it’s unfortunate that no institutional structures exist at Oxford to encourage this academic growth.

To put it bluntly, three years is not enough time to complete a PhD. Even here in Oxford, where the standards are arguably less stringent than in major US universities, it’s a kind of running joke that nobody finishes a DPhil in three years. It might be a funny, if it weren’t true. In fact, only a very small minority of students finish in three years. I wouldn’t consider this a particularly dire problem, if it weren’t for the fact that the funding bodies still consider a PhD or DPhil a three year program. That’s not a bad motivator to finish up as quickly as you can, although that goal is still rarely realized. There’s certainly no motivation to explore multiple areas, learn as much as you can about broad areas of science, or take on risky projects when you’re counting the days until your funding runs out.

Oxford still calls the DPhil a three year program, so the funding bodies offer funding for three years of study. The funding bodies only fund students for three years, so Oxford insists that students should finish a DPhil in that short window of time. You get the picture.

Even if one does accomplish the rare feat of finishing in three years, what has he or she accomplished? Probably enough to pass a thesis viva, but not much else. This quick finisher has likely published few–if any–scientific papers, and he or she can all but write off any hopes of a future academic career. Sure, there are exceptions, but this scenario is all too common. Should we be surprised that so few graduates in the basic sciences in my department, biochemistry, go on to pursue postdoctoral fellowships? I’m sure they’re lured by the prospects of making buckets of money in consultancy or investment banking, but their CVs probably can’t compete with someone from a longer and more comprehensive PhD program. They just haven’t had enough time.

Although this is a problem for all of Oxford and the UK, the Rhodes Scholarship is particularly dismal in this area. Many scholarships do provide the opportunity for students to apply for a fourth year of funding, but the Rhodes cuts off at the end of the third year, with no available funding for the fourth year. I brought up this issue with Sir Colin Lucas, the current Warden of Rhodes House (the person who administers the scholarship in Oxford), and I was told that this issue “isn’t even on the radar.” I do know, however, that others on the Board of Trustees are in favor of fourth year funding, so I can only hope that these more sympathetic voices will win out in the end. I don’t expect that I would ever see funding for my fourth year in Oxford from the Rhodes Trust, but I do fear the Rhodes Scholarship becoming increasingly unattractive to those in the basic sciences.

With that said, though, the Rhodes experience has been overwhelmingly positive, and I’m disappointed that some of my colleagues chose to air their personal complaints in such a public forum and in such a nonconstructive way. Regardless, prestigious institutions like Oxford and the Rhodes Scholarship need constant prodding to keep from relying on name and reputation alone. Certainly, then, the Warden and others can expect to hear much more from me regarding fourth year funding.


  1. #1 Paul
    February 27, 2007

    Thanks for raising this Nick, I couldn’t agree more. It’s rare for PhD/DPhil students to even start writing up their thesis before the 3 years are up, let alone finish it by then. Apart from the potential problem of encouraging a narrow focus on their particular field a far more immediate problem for many PhD students is how to support themselves when their funding runs out after 3 years and there is no guarantee that they will receive any further funding or be able to fuind suitable part-time work.

    There is some hope though, the Wellcome trust has been moving towards 4 year PhD program for several years, and where the Wellcome Trust leads the research councils are often obliged to follow. To be honest I think the more immediate priority in recent years has been to raise PhD stipends to a decent level. Until very recently the very low stipends paid to PhD students barely covered,and in some cases didn’t cover, basic living expenses and constituted a significant disincentive to graduates contemplating a career in science.

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    February 27, 2007

    I agree, although so far the Wellcome Trust programs haven’t been completely successful. For example, although the Wellcome Trust fellowship is generally considered the most prestigious source of funding in my department, the program has only yielded, to my knowledge, one person who has remained in an academic track. In my opinion, I would call that a huge failure. I do believe, though, that if four year programs become the norm–rather than the exception–the percentage of graduates remaining in academic science should increase substantially.

  3. #3 gengar
    February 27, 2007

    I think you have the funding thing the wrong way around – it is the funding bodies, and not the universities, which determine how many years you get to do your PhD. At my old department they were quite happy for students who were given four or five years of funding by e.g, foreign governments to take four or five years to do their PhD.

    That’s not to diminish your major point, though, that even allowing for the differences between the US and UK systems, three years is generally too little time to do a PhD. There is some recognition of this, though – at least one of the UK funding bodies (NERC) has recently started to provide additional funding for students who overun (see here).

  4. #4 Mike
    February 27, 2007

    Agreeing with gengar here – funding is the problem, particularly with overseas students.

    My group is rather abnormal in that our students do tend to finish in just over three years, we often have a small project for them to do while writing up that will cover extra costs for a few months, and they don’t seem to be doing too badly, as all of them have gone on to postdoc positions at good UK universities (including Cambridge).

    My PhD was only three years – although it took me four to finish, but the last year of writing up was done while an RA at another university. If I have a broader understanding of my field, it’s because I did a one year research masters before.

  5. #5 Mike
    February 27, 2007

    Sorry, should have said “funded for”. Four years was typical of that department, one poor chap took seven.

  6. #6 Nick Anthis
    February 27, 2007

    I can’t argue with any of this, although I think that by calling it a three year program, the universities are perpetuating the three year funding problem.

  7. #7 joltvolta
    February 27, 2007

    Interesting article. It is odd (at least to me) that the establishment would be hard-nosed about the duration, and the setup for a Ph.D or the Oxford equivalent. With so many different fields, and areas of specialization, it would seem reasonable if educational institutions start to develop different versions of a Ph.D in order to accommodate a reasonable time frame for accomplishing a certain level of knowledge. And with the increasing difficulty to establish funding or maintaining funding for education at any level, having funding that matches a realistic duration I’m sure would be wonderful.

    Also, you might have posted on your Oxford experience previously, but would you be willing to discuss what you liked and disliked about going to Oxford? I’ve made it my goal to study abroad, and it would be great to hear about it.

    – jolt

  8. #8 Dave
    March 2, 2007

    Perhaps it’s a semantic difference about the “three-year program”; at William & Mary, where I got my Ph.D., students are generally allocated three years for research, with the additional time — usually two years — given for required coursework being added onto this base period. I don’t have formal numbers on how many of those students finish within that time-frame, but anecdotally I can report that many of them did (as did I). It is likely that this works because the coursework period also allows the student/advisor to develop a research program that, in turn, allows the student to hit the ground running at the start of the three-year period.

    There are two large questions you pose, in my eyes: one, the lack of outside your dissertation training and education, and two, the oftentimes-lacking level of formal advising by your major professor. My only comment on the first is that it’s also a shame that so many discount the education that one gets in graduate school from one’s own student colleagues, whether in formal courses, departmental seminars, or over a pint in the local pub. As for the second, well, not all scientists should be advisors, or educators for that matter. The best advice given to me for graduate school was to talk with your potential advisor’s students, as to better evaluate your own chances. If more students had this advice, perhaps we could simply claim caveat emptor and be done with it!

  9. #9 The Chad
    March 13, 2007

    Hi Nick,

    I suspect that Oxford and its constituent group leaders would welcome the 30% increase in funding to cover 4 year degrees, and would leap at the chance to plaster “4 year program” across their departmental graduate programs. Their insistance on selling the DPhil as a 3 year program is almost certainly because to do otherwise would be to invite the inevitable deluge of funding requests from 4th and 5th year students. To say “Oxford still calls the DPhil a three year program, so the funding bodies offer funding for three years of study” is , I think, the wrong way around (although you do cover yourself by also making the opposite argument – you’ve played this game before :-)).

    The funding bodies are the decision makers here. As mentioned, the Wellcome Trust provides some 4 year programs. The BBSRC, when I spoke to a representative about 2 years ago, were considering a 4 year offering (2 x 2 year funding blocks so people lacking motivation could jump ship with a Masters degree). It’s no wonder that the Oxford Department of Biochemistry hsa absolutely prioritised increasing its allocation of Wellcome Trust 4 year programs and all but ignored the BBSRC 3 year programs. It has one of the highest proportions of Wellcome positions of any university, and for a department of its size (the biggest in Europe) it has a woeful number and success rate of BBSRC positions. I don’t know how other departments operate, but in Oxford most students are effectively encouraged to take 4 years to complete regardless of funding. The university clearly promotes 4 year degrees, albeit at the student’s expense.

    Where the Oxford Department of Biochemistry disappoints here is in its ability to deliver on the advertised product. Oxford receives students for free, paid for by charities (e.g. Wellcome Trust) and the tax payer (e.g. BBSRC). In return, it should be able to deliver 3 and 4 year programs that operate according to the allocated budgets of time and money. If time/money allow for only 3 years to produce scientists, that’s a national debate rather than a university one. Oxford’s failure to manage resources, rather than its failure to provide funding, is its primary contribution to the widespread disappointment felt amongst its students.

    If Oxford were given more time and money to develop its graduate students, would it be able to produce more able and fulfilled scientists than it currently does? That’s one for its students to discuss. Whether the departments want to listen in…that’s a different matter.