Money makes the world go around

PhD students in Australia are under a lot of pressure to finish their degree ‘on time’ – but why?

I thought I knew a lot about the system, until Mary-Helen Ward who is just completing a PhD on the PhD in Australia at the University of Sydney, sent me her draft thesis. I asked Mary-Helen if she would do a post to explain the dark arts of research student funding and this is the result. I hope it makes the situation a bit clearer,  for those in Australia at least!

Do you feel that your institution is putting pressure on you to submit your PhD?

A lot of students complain about this. They feel under pressure to complete and move along, but they are often not really clear about why this pressure is put on them. It feels quite personal sometimes, as if no-one really cares about you or your project. So, let me ask you a question: What do you think you cost your institution every year?

coins on a tableIf you don’t have a scholarship, it may not seem much: some hours of your supervisors’ time, maybe a desk and a computer, access to the library and, of course, to the internet. But there’s all the infrastructure those things require (buildings, plumbing, wires and cables, heating and cooling, books and journal subscriptions, staff to keep everything running so it’s there when you need it). You might have sat in on a taught class, or have attended research methods training, or an orientation program. You might work in a lab and need special equipment, or use chemicals or other renewables that incur ongoing costs.

Even this blog is partially subsidised – by the Australian National University who pays Inger’s salary. And we shouldn’t overlook the contribution of other universities, whose academics might write for the Thesis Whisperer occassionally.

You might need to travel to see your participants or to do some of your research away from your institution. You may have a scholarship, and funding that your faculty or the university makes available for software, travel to conferences and other things that are part of the PhD experience. And there’s quite a bit of administrators’ time taken up in processes like annual reviews, ethics processes and examination. And don’t forget your supervisors have undergone some kind of training for supervision at the institution.

All of these things are pretty much taken for granted as being available for free at Australian Universities, where domestic research students usually don’t have to pay fees.

The money to support them comes from the government, which provides money to institutions for research students. Research is assumed to benefit the nation, so the government invests in training people to do it. A series of arcane and complex formulas are used by the government to decide how much money it will give each institution to fund PhDs and Masters by research.

Every year, Universities make a series of reports to the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRTE). These contain an accounting of the grant money that academic staff been granted in the last twelve months; a list of ‘countable’ items that academic staff have had published (what is countable is decided by a government body called Excellence in Research Australia (ERA); the number of Higher Degree by Research (HDR) students students who are enrolled; and the number of those students who completed their degree in the last twelve months.

At the same time as these figures are being generated and collected, the government is deciding how much money it will put into research and research training, what it calls the Joint Research Engagment (or JRE).

In 2012 the JRE was $1.63 billion; in 2013 it will be $1.67 billion, which is divided among the universities (if you’re really interested, there are a lot more details here.) A lot of this money (called a block grant) is for institutions to provide postgraduate award scholarships (APA), and to offset fees for domestic HDR students. How the amount each institution gets is calculated depends on the returns from the university for the previous year in three categories:

  • HDR student completions are weighted at 50 per cent
  • research income (successful grant applications) is weighted at 40 per cent
  • research publications are weighted at 10 per cent

Many more complex calculations are done to decide exactly how much money each institution will receive, but you can see that getting grant money and graduating research students are the two most important things a University can do in order to continue receiving the money it needs to do more research and take on HDR students in the future.

Also, you can see that half of the money that’s received depends on how many students have completed their degrees. So the university has been supporting its HDR students while they are enrolled – up to four years for a full-time student, and eight years for a part-time student, and most of the money for this isn’t paid until the year after graduation – between five and ten years after a student starts their degree.

This funding model affects what Universities can provide for their students.

A report done for the government by DeloitteAccessEconomics (pdf) suggests that wealthier universities match the money they receive from the government from their own resources up to 69% – they add $2 to every $1 they get from the government. These Universities will be able to be more generous with inter-library loans, for example, or provide better working spaces or more conference money, or some UPA awards to add to the APAs the government pays for.

Some universities can’t or don’t do this, and their students probably won’t even know they could have had more elsewhere.

So how do you contribute to the costs of your PhD? If you’re part of a team that has been granted money in a competitive process such as ARC or NHMRC, you may have earned your fees and even your scholarship yourself; you are probably doing research that is contributing to a much bigger project that will bring publications and more grant money in the future.

Have you published anything in an academic journal or a book chapter? That’s good for you and will help your professional profile, but unless the name of an academic staff member appears on it the government won’t count it in the ERA roundup.

You may have helped organise a conference, or contributed to the running of seminar series in your department, and that will also have improved your professional skills. But by far the best way you can contribute towards the cost of your own research degree in Australia is by finishing it. Many don’t; statistics show that between a quarter and a third of research students drop out. If you feel you’re under to pressure to complete your degree, this may be why: the institution wants the money it will get when you complete because it’s been supporting you in various invisible ways for years.

Are you under pressure to finish your degree? Do you think the time limits imposed by the universities and the government are fair?

Related posts

5 ways to save Money while you are doing your PhD

Are you just a student?

50 thoughts on “Money makes the world go around

  1. Hey MH,

    This was a really interesting read, but what this doesn’t explain is a situation one of my fellow PhD students is having; she’s just finished her second year, and her supervisors are furious she is unlikely to finish in 3 years. Her supervisors claim that will impact the amount of money they get.

    This suggests that as long as its finished, it doesn’t affect that.

    Secondly, how does the breakdown of that funding happen within the University? Does PhD completion affect that at all? Could that be explaining the pressure they’re under?

    Cheers

    • It is a myth that the uni is ‘taxed’ for late-finishing students. As far as anyone can ascertain, this was part of an earlier policy, but was never actioned by the government. It is still believed to be true by some people, though. Maybe her supervisors have fallen for this myth – funding was extended to 3.5 years last year, anyway, so they probably haven’t been able to keep up with the latest policy changes.

      Breakdown of funding within the Uni is an completely internal matter, and will vary across institutions. I couldn’t even suggest a way to find out – even Deans may be a bit vague!

  2. Yeap! I’m definitely under the pressure to finish. When you’ve a ticking time bomb and financial constraints, much of the enjoyment in doing research and learning has somewhat disappeared. The current APA scholarship and most of the scholarships provided in Australia for PhDs (that I know of) goes on for 3 years, with a maximum extension of 6 months. Perhaps some scholarships goes on for 4 years. For PhD students with a one year coursework in the first year, this makes the completion of the PhD in 3.5 years (i.e. the thesis itself in 2.5 years) an almost impossible task, unless you have entered the PhD with a clear idea of the research you will be doing, and have had a head start on the research. That said, there is always tutoring and other sort of jobs to help with the finances when the money runs out. However, knowing that money runs out before you can finish isn’t quite a pleasant feeling.

    • One of the problems with Unis mandating coursework within the PhD, as you say, is that scholarship students may find their scholarship runs out before they can complete their thesis. This is an ongoing issue. Personally, I’m not convinced of the rational for ‘compulsory’ coursework for everyone.

      • I agree with M-H. I have a friend who was working as a researchers at a university and chose to do his PhD elsewhere due to the compulsory coursework requirements. It simply made no sense to require him to study courses which were of a lower level to which he is now teaching. Flexibility is the key. Offer it to those who feel they would benefit from it, but don’t let it slow people down from completing on time.

    • It doesn’t, Dale. That’s a myth. It was in government policy earlier but was never actioned, and has now been removed.

  3. Fantastic article, it unfortunately doesn’t address any of the exploitation aspects that some University leverage from their students. Personally, I have racked-up nearly 1000 hrs of voluntary contribution, over three years thus I feel in my case the balance may not be adjusted fairly. Students should never feel that they have a debt to owe the University although I do believe education is a privilege all have the right to experience.

    • This is so true. I’m a HDR student in the biological sciences and due to the funding situation in my research group, I’m currently the only person working in the lab. As a result I’m expected to train and teach the honours students, maintain the technical equipment, and look after undergraduates as well. The tension between the supervisors (Who are happy to have the (unpaid) student labour around of course, in the most unmalicious sense) and the Graduate Research School (who want you to finish as soon as possible) is really irritating when you are stuck in between trying to do good research of your own.

      This is not an uncommon situation: most of the other 10 PhD candidates I know are in variations of this particular situation. It’s very personally stressful to have to manage the expectations of the graduate research school for you to not be a “drain” on resources when you are actually contributing many hours of labour to to university which is never acknowledged. (Whenever you confront the Graduate Research School about this they will state it’s your problem to sort out and that you shouldn’t be doing this work, but that’s difficult if you know your supervisor has no other choice but to have you do this work, and realistically it’s because the University rarely gives adequate support or renumeration to those involved in teaching activities).

      I also assume this is more common in the sciences than in the humanities due to the nature of the research which is undertaken.

      • I understand now. This is a tricky situation, which essentially comes about because the limits of what a student is expected to do or not do have not been defined. I am sorry that you have been stuck like this. Would it be. Possible to talk to your HoD or HoS about how difficult it is to do your own work when you are, really, doing someone else’s.
        On the other hand, you can list all this work and experience on your CV, I guess.

  4. Hi!
    Thanks for a great article.
    What about the benefits that the supervisors get when their PhD student completes their thesis? Doesn’t it add to their research quota and raise their profile?

    My supervisor says I should be able to complete mine in under 3 years (yeah right!!). He is puttting a lot of pressure on me.

    Do you think this is valid?

    • Glad you enjoyed it! Thesis completion doesn’t directly raise your supervisor’s profile in any measurable way, although academics often list completed students on their website. If you publish journal articles or book chapters with your supervisor(s) as co-author(s) this is counted in their profile by the ERA.

      I would ask your supervisor why he thinks it is important that you complete in three years, as the government funds your enrolment for 3.5. He may still believe that the Uni will lose money if you don’t complete in this time.

  5. It’s true. Money makes things go around…however, without students Unis would go nowhere and not many of us want to do a PhD. So therefore where we must do our best to end on time, we should also talk to our Universities and keep the communication channels open so they know if there’s any problem and we should request help if we need it. There’s a lot that Universities can do to support their PhD students so they don’t feel like they are on their own and completely abandoned!

    • Yes, you’re right. Many students feel that their supervisor is the only person they need to deal with (or, indeed, are allowed to deal with!). There is whole structure behind your supervisor: department, school or faculty, then a central administration with an office for graduate students, or some local equivalent. There are many ways to get connected and solve problems.

  6. Thanks for such a detailed post MH. I think more students (and their supervisors) need a good understanding of the funding model for HDR students.

    Within my PhD cohort there was actually quite a lot of conversations about the way the HDRs are funded, and most of us were aware that the university got money when we completed. I actually found this information quite empowering, since it meant that the University is hardly going to kick you to the curb if they can avoid it. If they only get paid when you finish then hopefully they’ll do everything they can do to help you get there!

    That said, I was lucky though to be in a situation where I was never in danger of going over the 3.5 years and so never felt any pressure to complete (in fact I was told in more than one annual progress report that I might want to slow down and take an extension!). But I do I know other students’ weren’t so lucky though and did feel like they were being pushed to finish – most often by finances once their scholarships run out.

    I’m not quite sure how I feel about all this since the government and universities obviously can’t pay for unlimited PhD’s but students feeling pushed out isn’t desirable either. I find it interesting that given the pressure on completing for both students and departments that so many students design projects that aren’t achieveable within 3 years. I know people who started out with 4 year plans, so it’s not surprising that they weren’t ready to submit at the end of 3!

    Hopefully if more students and staff properly understand HDR funding at least some of these problems can be avoided.

  7. Thanks for the illuminating article. My faculty and university has always been quite open about the funding situation for PhD students, but I’ve always taken it as a positive that they actually do want us to complete.

    Also, while APA scholarships only run for three years, some internal institutional scholarships may be different – I qualified for both an APA and a university scholarship, but as the uni one lasted for three and a half years automatically (ie no need to apply for an extension) I went for that one. It also gets paid till the end of the three and a half years no matter when you submit (unlike the APA, although the situation may have changed since I began).

    My supervisors have also been pushing for a three year completion, however it’s been in the cards since I began (now in my second year) so I’ve always been working to a timeframe of three years (meaning I can spend the remaining six months using the scholarship money to try and write something from the thesis). In this case, it’s not so much a situation of supervisory pressure (far from it), but rather having a clear completion goal and everybody in my team working to achieve it. I suppose it also works out if something happens to derail the progress substantially, I have an extra six months up my sleeve. However, apparently I’m well ahead of schedule so have no reason to move away from our original plan.

  8. A great article. Unis should talk more honestly about money: staff and students will appreciate it.

    As a Head of Postgraduate Studies, who for three years has managed 50-70 students at any given time, I can vouch for the resources that go into managing students and providing such support as exists. I can also vouch for the effort that goes into dealing with situations when things go wrong for whatever reason or when students start going overtime, which causes project and personal problems. The input of academic and general staff time quickly adds up. Moreover, much as I might like to support students taking their time to produce the best thesis they can, the view from the other side is that scarcity of resources, such as desks and office space and computers for students, places considerable stress on school and faculty and prevents us supporting new students or even making it harder to take them on.

    Timely completion, however, is not just a financial issue. Getting the project done happily and moving on is healthy for students and supervisors. Getting realistic goals and project design is key. As HPS I see over ambition by staff and students causing problems. Supervisors have a key role here.

  9. Good article. I have now also read the replies, and most seem to be from students lucky enough to get a scholarship. I am one of those who didn’t get a scholarship, and have had to work to support myself (and my family) whilst at the same time doing a Masters. An APA usually pays the same as a Centrelink pension, so even those with scholarships who also have families (as many postgrad students do) need to supplement the income in some form.
    It is this need to earn an income, and fulfil familial responsibilities (and I have a disabled child), that has most impacted on my ability to finish on time, even as a part time student (although I was working on Murri time when it came to some of my interviews). Work I am being paid to do and comes first, followed by familial stuff (including my carer responsiblities, as I am also now paid to do that by Centrelink), so the research (which I am not being paid to do) comes in last. So, yeah, I do think the time frame is a bit unreasonable – after all postgrads do also have lives to live. I am lucky, I have not felt the slightest bit of pressure from either of my supervisors to complete, rather of late from the GRS.

    • Yes, it can be hard to fit everything in. I have worked full-time throughout my study, and have used most of my annual leave to get chunks of work done for several years now. I guess I look at it as a chance to do something I’ve always wanted to do, but I don’t think a research degree is easy for anyone. I hope you can make some time to make better progress soon.

    • I admire your tenacity – it sounds like you have many competing demands and heavy responsibilities. Graduate schools have their eye to the bottom line, but are full of people. If they start pressuring you a lot tell your supervisors and write to the Dean of the GRS explaining the situation. Extensions are possible on compassionate grounds.

  10. I am a prof doc student who has been given 5 years part-time to complete (thats 2.5yrs FTE)! I am also doing it off campus and am required to go to the uni twice a year (self-funding as the uni wont help out). I cannot get any research methods and statistics training as it is only offered on-campus so my research methods/statistics training is via youtube (which has been very helpful). I am also doing my thesis by publication so my supervisors impact factors are getting a boost through my publications. I have a meeting every month with my supervisors (via phone and I have to ring them) so essentially they are getting a boot load of money for not too much input on the uni’s behalf.

    • There are a couple of comments here that speak to exploitation. There is no easy remedy but a HPS should be able to help, even if just to get it kicked to the next level to HoS or Dean. Bringing things up with supervisors can be tough but if you’re supporting their lab and your work is not getting done, you should frame it that way to them. They should want you done and may be letting things slide rather than being scheming. In the end, if you are called to account, it’s all going to come out anyway and there’s only person who really stands to lose out and it won’t be the tenured academic.

      On the issue of thesis by publication, ethical supervisors should have substantial input to any papers they are author on and you should ask for it. Again, though, perspectives can vary. In my experience as a supervisor of theses by publication (2), it is not necessarily an easy path to publication – there is a lot of training of the student that has to go on as the level of writing required for a decent journal is likely to be far higher than the student has ever had to do before. Sometime I wonder if I would be better off just putting my time into my own writing and have my students do a standard monograph. That said, it has been a very rewarding process and I am co-author on some nice work.

      • As someone completing a PhD by publication externally at a university in the Netherlands, I think there are great benefits for both the supervisor and the student. It would not suit everyone (indeed perhaps most), but I think it is a severely under-utilised method. I am dumbfounded by most Australian universities who treat this method with suspicion and derision, as if peer-reviewed publications undermine the integrity of the PhD.

    • Nick’s said a lot of the things that I would have. But, also, I’m not sure where you are, but in Aus a Prof Doc has a lot of coursework, and the thesis section is relatively small. Also, they are not considered research degrees so are not funded by the government in the same way. So if you are in Aus it might be worth finding out whether you wouldn’t be better to transfer to a PhD.

      • Can someone explain how prof docs are funded? The practical sciences such as optometry have increasing numbers of prof doc students for those who are clinicians and not necessarily wanting an academic career. In my area it is looking likely that at least a prof doc will be required for an advanced clinician role. Yes, I am in Australia and at the university that I am at they are considered a higher research degree and the course work was one research methods paper (Which the PhD students do as well). The rest of the course is thesis work (and publishing).

  11. Thanks for clarifying BJ. I was a bit quick off the mark this morning – I need to remember not to post before coffee. Yes, some profdocs are considered research degrees – they need to have less than 33% coursework to fit that description and be funded by the government. It sounds as if the requirements for the ProfDoc and the PhD are exactly the same at your Uni. A look at the Uni website should clarify any differences. In any case, the government funds all doctoral research students for at least 3.5 years FTE, so I’m not sure why your Uni wants you to finish in 2.5 FTE.

  12. Hi again,

    One further query – what happens with payments if you transfer Universities part way through?

    I have transferred from UTAS to ANU and wondering who gets paid.

    Thanks,
    Dale.

    • Hi Dale. As I understand it, The graduating Uni gets the money for your candidature. As many Unis aren’t always clear about how this works, it may not be something administrators think about when transfers are done..

  13. Fantastic post. Are you sure that publications by PhD students are not included in ERA? I went to considerable efforts to have our PhDs’ publications registered at The University of Melbourne. My understanding was as long as they include the university as their affiliation, they can be included.

    • Hi Peter and thanks for your comment. The latest information I can find is that, while the University may collect this information, only the publications of academic staff (‘researchers’) employed more than 0.4FTE are counted in the ERA. Work by non-academic staff (like me), staff employed less than 0.3FTE and students aren’t counted. This information is from the ARC site here: http://www.arc.gov.au/era/faq.htm

  14. Yeah you are probably right about students: “The researcher eligibility criteria for ERA 2012 are derived from the Higher Education Staff Data Collection (HESDC)”. Students would not be recorded as staff. I assume that this would also apply to the highly prolific “honourary” staff members.

    However, I am not so sure about the fractional appointments, my reading of it is that it is fine as long as there is an affiliation in the bi-line of the paper: “For those researchers with an FTE of less than 0.4, the institution must be able to prove an association between the researcher and the institution, either through a by-line on one or more of their outputs…”. Perhaps this opens the door for honoraries too?

    Still, I am sure that at Melbourne PhD publications are used for internal allocations of fund to the faculties.

  15. You’re probably right about the hons and >0.4FTE people. But there really doesn’t seem to be any way to count either students or non-academic staff.

    Also, I have tried (fairly desperately!) to ascertain the basis of how HDR funding is distributed to faculties within my own institution, without success. I hope you’re right about Melbourne; that would be a good thing.

  16. I have hardly met a PhD student that didn’t feel manipulated and exploited by the university and their supervisor. I had an extreme exampel where I invented something which my supervisor, with full support from the uni, proceeded to try to manipulate himself in order to become an inventor. The patent application was drafted and filed without my knowledge even though I was listed as an inventor! I had to hire a lawyer who was so disgusted he refused to bill me a dollar after representing me for over a year. Eventually the uni gave me my intellectual property BUt I am in no financial position to exploit it. They wasted a great deal of uni money. Not a single apology from anyone and of course I changed supervisor. Much better now.

  17. This is a horrible situation to be in, and worse becuase you weren’t supported. I’m glad you were able to resolve it and continue your work. I’m sure many people would have given up in disgust. Thanks for your story.

  18. Life is harder for international students in Australia, for example a student from my research group is late in submitting her thesis, and has gone past her 3.5 years scholarship period, now the university (MQ) wants the poor student to pay $90 a day including weekend till she hands in her work.

    • Goodness, I haven’t heard of this before. I hope she has talked to her International Office, or the Dean of Graduate Studies, or Student Counselling. Or, maybe MUPRA?

  19. Well unfortunately, this is the set rules for international students (iMQRES) scholarship, the HDR office said nothing can be done !

  20. It seems to me that PhD students in OZ are being positioned with undue obligations. If departments are understaffed, we don’t have to fix it. Having a paying job outside the academic environment is healthy and gets out of the climate of self induced pressure. Given that in New Zealand the government is cutting post graduate study funding, so that trades training can have priority, “REAL jobs for REAL people”, Australian students are really well off. So, have a therapist to talk to about all the shit, and then do as you see fit; enjoying your research. You won’t get the time back. Take the time you need as the policy of paying on completion is not a universal phenomenon. University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, struggling with its loss of students, post earthquake, has asked its College of Arts to shed $
    1 million in staff. Potential PhD students are turned away because there are insufficient supervisors. So, what ever the funding system, rejoice that there is open entry, well resourced tertiary education, and that your completion gives your university more funding. Above all, celebrate that tertiary education and research is valued!

  21. I didn’t mean to give the impression that students should feel ‘obligated’ to their institution. On the contrary, I was hoping that some might feel empowered by their position as income-bringer. But I think my point stands that most people don’t think about how PhDs are funded, at the local, institutional or national level, so I wrote this piece to bring some light into an area that is usually foggy darkness, riddled with myth and false expectation. As always, I learned some things from the discussion here.

  22. Thank you for the wonderful article. I am hoping that people have some suggestions for me. I am one year into my PhD (part time enrolled) and have made excellent progress on my project (yes I have that in writing from sups….) and preparing for an early confirmation. Just when I tried to access funding, I was informed that my school had “no money”. When I say no money, I mean zilch nada and I am expected to fund my project expenses! My project involves travel and data collection abroad and although I don’t have a budget yet….I imagine it would be in the realm of 10-15 K…..
    I am in the process of taking this up the chain but I am quite upset. I am at an Australian university as a domestic student. I prepared a short project proposal 6 mos into my candidature which was approved by my sups…and now my school is claiming they have no money. It seems like the admin is trying to lay the blame on my sups (who are excellent)…I don’t know what went wrong with funding….my sups say they didn’t know they were supposed to pay for my project, the admin say that they were, etc….my guess is that this is not my sups fault although they seem to be getting blamed for taking me on….Anyway, as I await for a verdict with the office of research on what can be done….I am obviously concerned. I am not sure what bargaining chips I have. This university is highly ranked for research, one of the top in the world…..and they clearly (in writing) inform students that the enrolling school pays for the direct research costs. (except apparently for me)…..Anyone know what kind of bargaining chips I have? Oh, there was a suggestion for “changing my project” to something more local but I have been working on this now for over 1 year….and I chose this project …to start all over on something that may cost less and delay my phD for another year does not seem fair….Suggestions Please!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Kindly send me the copy of the thesis

      Joe

      On Mon, Aug 5, 2013 at 1:56 PM, The Thesis Whisperer wrote:

      > ** > Tia commented: “Thank you for the wonderful article. I am hoping that > people have some suggestions for me. I am one year into my PhD (part time > enrolled) and have made excellent progress on my project (yes I have that > in writing from sups….) and preparing for an earl” >

    • This is terrible for you. Normally, supervisors have to sign off on expenses before a candidate is accepted by the institution, whether this money comes from their grant funding or the school. This is in NO WAY your problem! The only ‘bargaining chip’ you have is that there is no funding from the government until you complete you degree. So I wouldn’t discuss changing your project. Stick to your guns! I hope the research office can help to sort this out. Also, if you have a graduate student organisation it mightn’t hurt to contact them for some advice.

      Good luck!

  23. Thank you M-H. I have made use of the student advisors in my school and the student union but we are all waiting for the deans etc to make a decision about this before more options can be pursued (if indeed there are any other options….)

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