How can the hard sciences attract more PhD students?

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The Independent Online

The number of home-grown chemistry and physics PhD students is in a worrying decline, according to the Royal Society. What can be done to attract more young people into these subjects?

It is discussed at every gathering of engineering or pharmaceutical companies, says Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. It affects the economy and our ability to participate in modern society, according to Judith Howard, chair of the Royal Society's higher education working group.

Academics fear it threatens the credibility of UK higher education, while for some small businessmen it raises questions about whether their businesses will want to operate from this country in future.

Falling numbers

Concerns about the declining science skills of UK graduates have been voiced with increasing force over the past few years, and the latest evidence shows their fears are more than anecdotal. A report published by the Royal Society earlier this year found that there has been a significant drop over the past 10 years in the proportion of UK students studying doctorates in science, from 65 per cent to 57 per cent of all PhDs awarded to home students.

This is in spite of a 79 per cent growth in the number of doctoral degrees, and a 133 per cent rise in stand-alone Masters degrees, awarded in the 10 years up to 2004-05.

Much of these increases are due to soaring numbers of overseas and EU students coming to the UK to study for postgraduate degrees. But even among UK students the overall growth in masters is 65 per cent, and doctorates 63 per cent. What concerns the Royal Society, and others, is that while science has generally held its own in the expansion of Masters degrees, remaining at about 30 per cent of subjects taken by home students, it has not done the same at doctorate level. What is more, while there has been spectacular growth in biological sciences and subjects allied to medicine at both levels, physical and mathematical sciences have grown at below average rates, while both chemistry and physics have declined.

Training the future competition?

"It would be rash to argue that even holding market share in comparison with ten years ago was enough," the report states. "The future is going to need a more highly scientifically trained workforce."

This is the kind of workforce that is fast developing in countries like China and India – exactly the nations that are sending their students to the UK to study for postgraduate degrees in science. The fear is that we are training our competitors.

"We have to be concerned and we have to be concerned now," says Howard. "There could be a lot of consequences for the economy." Her worry is that if some of the UK's major firms are now employing nearly as many foreign Phd students as there are students from their own country, they may consider moving their manufacturing base to another, cheaper, country, as well as moving research and development too.

Attracting students

Economic competitiveness aside, the modern world demands a higher level of scientific knowledge because so many of the questions it poses – over genetically modified crops, human fertility, the environment – are to do with science, she argues.

Laurence Eaves, professor of physics at Nottingham University, and a member of the working group that drew up the Royal Society's report, says there are also implications for UK higher education, with people from Eastern Europe, China, India and elsewhere less likely to study or work here when their countries become richer. "The future wellbeing of the world's population and of commerce and industry depend on advances in science, medicine, mathematics and engineering, so it is important that the best of our young people are attracted to these subjects," he says.

He fears that many UK students take up courses in the arts and social sciences because they see them as softer options. "It takes more training to understand the mathematical equations and physical laws which allow aircraft to fly or which govern the operation of a transistor or a medical imaging machine than it does to write an essay on English literature or a period of history."

He argues that Britain has traditionally failed to give science the attention it deserves – not helped by the fact that relatively few politicians and business leaders have backgrounds in science and engineering.

'Schools have a responsibility'

School experiences are also key. Cosmology PhD student Andrew Pontzen says he would never have chosen to study physics if it hadn't been for teachers giving him the big picture and explaining where all the hard work was leading. According to Howard, league table culture is to blame for preventing students becoming excited by science and being able to think creatively about it. Gilleard argues that pupils are asked to specialise too early and don't realise how many options close off if they fail to take sciences at A-level.

All this means that fewer students with science backgrounds are available to feed into science subjects at postgraduate level. And this is self-perpetuating. One of the problems with the decline in postgraduates in some science subjects is that there are fewer available to inspire the next generation. A report by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2006 found only 25 per cent of teachers who taught science had a degree in chemistry and only 19 per cent a degree in physics.

PhD or the City?

Then there is the fact that anyone who has a degree in a hard science can walk into a highly paid job in the City – often a more appealing prospect than racking up student debt by doing a PhD.

Or at least, it was before the credit crunch. The worsening economic climate may, like past recessions, prove a boon to postgraduate study and thereby to the sciences. In any case, says the Royal Society, industry must collaborate more with universities in developing curricula, providing work experience and commercialising research if the country is to secure the skills it needs.

In addition, the Royal Society wants to see bursaries, reduced fees and other incentives to encourage more students to take science at postgraduate level. And, controversially, it wants the normal study period from a first degree to a PhD extended to eight years, instead of seven. This is essential if the UK is to compete with other countries in the Bologna accord, says Howard. It would also, she suggests, make students more employable.

The government has yet to respond in detail to the report but Howard says action must happen soon because it takes time for students to feed through the system. Delay much longer - with other countries fast developing their higher education systems, increasingly providing courses taught in English - and it could be too late.

"We need to be on our toes," says Gilleard. "Not only do employers not have to recruit in the UK market to fill vacancies in the UK, they don't even have to operate here any more. If the skills gap widens any further it looks bleak."

Case study: Andrew Pontzen, third year cosmology PhD at the University of Cambridge

Andrew Pontzen is in the third year of a cosmology PhD at the University of Cambridge and is considering applying for postdoctoral posts, but it was touch and go whether he would study physics at university at all.

A keen keyboard player and son of a musician, he was tempted by a career in the theatre, and it was only the advice of a few key people that focused his mind on a more cosmological kind of stardom. The first was his father, who advised him that studying for a degree before trying anything more theatrical would keep his options open. Then there were some great school teachers. "I had some bad teachers as well but it only takes a few inspiring teachers to open your eyes to what's possible and point you at the exciting stuff that's going on," he says.

Next was a supervisor who suggested at the start of the third year iof his physics degree at Cambridge that he might as well apply for the four-year course. This would enable him to graduate with a Masters, and he could always drop out before the fourth year if he didn't like it.

"At that point I was pretty sceptical because the undergraduate degree was very hard work," says Pontzen. "But he said it would get better, and it did." The fourth year involved research rather than simply having to learn a load of equations, which meant that "the creative element comes back into it". By the time it came to applying for PhDs, he was enjoying himself, and when he was offered a place felt he couldn't turn it down.

He studied A-levels in physics, maths, further maths and computing, as well as music, and achieved a first class degree. He was also always interested in the big questions about where we came from that cosmology is all about. And he was not tempted by the City or by teaching. Although he enjoys outreach work, he finds the National Curriculum constraining.

"Science is difficult and that's the major problem," says Pontzen. "There's no getting away from the fact that you need to spend a lot of time reading and re-reading textbooks to get some of these ideas firmed up in your mind. But I don't think difficulty necessarily has to equate to boring."