Doctoral loans, what supervisors need to consider

Rebecca Teague is a PhD student at the University of Sussex, studying genome stability. She is a doctoral research representative for the University of Sussex U-DOC project, working towards understanding the mental health of doctoral researchers, and a student researcher at the SMARTEN project, the Student Mental Health Research Project lead by Kings College London. 

Dr Billy Bryan is a policy consultant at Technopolis Group, specialising in higher education. He researches on the topic of doctoral value with Dr Kay Guccione; the most recent (2018 publication). He recently published an article on the topic of doctoral loans in the Guardianand was invited to present at a recent UKCGE workshopon the topic.

The new loans for doctoral study in England and Wales were launched this academic year. Over 4,000 applications had been made by January 2019 according to the Student Loans Company. You might now, or in the future, supervise a student in receipt of this loan. In this post, we explain what this loan is and what it means for you in your role as a supervisor.

What are the doctoral loans? 

Prospective and current UK and EU students under 60 can apply for up to £25k over a maximum of eight years of study (full-time or part-time) to contribute towards the costs of doctoral study. Students in receipt of, or intending to apply for, any amount of UKRI funding or NHS bursaries will be ineligible for the loan, but it can be combined with university studentships or charity funding. The Government aims for around 3,000 students per year to access the loan, plateauing at 10,000 students receiving loans in total after three years, equal to £250m of loans. 

There is no London weighting on the amount available to borrow. Demonstrating ‘progress’ will be a factor in whether recipients continue receiving their payments. You will be the one who reports on this and there is no guidance on how to make that judgement. A student must apply for the loan 21 months before the end of their doctorate if they need it for their final year. This means they must be able to foresee needing money a year-and-a-half in advance or be caught out with no money to finish their course.

What it means for you

As a supervisor, you have a key role in ensuring your students’ doctorates are of value to them, the research community and beyond. We present some issues that might be experienced by students receiving doctoral loans, and provide ways you can support them. 

Ensure the project is genuinely accessible for self-funders

Depending on discipline, a doctorate can cost the candidate different amounts – the loans will not take this into account. In sciences, you may need to pay for reagents, equipment, computers or software for processing data. Others may require extensive travel for fieldwork or access to specific datasets. If any of this may be true for the project you’re offering, consider whether you have the funds independently to support a loan-funded student who takes that project on, in an equitable way, and for the duration of their doctorate. 

You will know more about the financial requirements of a project, and you should ensure whether it is suitable for any student, particularly those with limited financial backing. 

They’re not just a doctoral student

Your previous students may have had full funding to get them through their doctorate, amounting to around £57k (not including bench fees). Students in receipt of doctoral loans have only £25k for that same period, meaning that – after tuition fees – they will have around £2,250 for living costs per year (assuming a four-year degree). Unless they have another source of funding, such as their parents, savings, or a separate scholarship, this is not nearly enough to pay rent, bills and commuting costs, regardless of where they live. 

Students will have to supplement their loan income somehow and it might be with additional employment. Some may take on teaching work at their university, others may hold a part-time job outside of campus to make ends meet. If so, they will be splitting time between their research project and their job(s). 

Before you take on a student who is self-funding this way, make it clear to them what hours you expect them to work each week, and how flexible that can be. When sitting down in catch up meetings, ensure you know vaguely what their upcoming work schedule looks like, and don’t give them a to-do list of research goals that will far exceed the research time thay have allocated themselves.

There’s more to a Doctorate than the thesis at the end

Presenting at conferences and attending networking events are integral parts of the doctoral development – but can be expensive. Doctoral loans students are less able to access these paid experiences. Unlike many institutional and UKRI stipends, there is no ‘conference allowance’ attached to the doctoral loans. The student may apply for their own funding – in this case, be on hand to look for grants they can access and help them with applications.

Building strong networks during the doctorate can bear fruit for employment after graduation. Splitting time between a doctorate and a job can make it hard to access formal and informal networking opportunities but encourage it where you can. Outside of their peer networks, students can find support from: co-supervisors, personal tutors, professional services staff, researcher developers, and more. Ensure that your student knows about these people and is encouraged to access them regularly.

Financial precarity is stressful

A recent survey found that Doctoral students are at risk of “strikingly high rates of anxiety and depression”Financial precarity can also exacerbate mental health issues. Even fully funded students have financial worries, with rising rent costs, expensive childcare and sky-high commuting expenses, there’s bound to be moments of financial stress for self-funded students on top of their research. This might be occurring without you knowing it.

As a supervisor you’ll need to bear this in mind, particularly around submission time when the money is likely running low and they’re avoiding extra paid work to spend time writing (or writing in the evenings). Avoid adding to their stress and anxiety wherever possible – keep emails within working hours, allow them to work from home where it’s appropriate and remind them of their holiday entitlement, and that they should take breaks to rest and relax.

This financial stress, or stress in general, may manifest as them not spending as much time in the office/lab, or making sporadic progress due to overbearing anxiety about money, work or research. This does not mean they are being lazy or that they are not committed to the work. They need an understanding and motivating discussion with you about how things can progress, taking into account any concessions they might need to pull through. 

We hope these tips help you support your students in receipt of doctoral loans to get the most out of their studies, ensuring they don’t miss out compared to their funded colleagues. Visit the gov.uk website for further information on the loans, or click here for a discussion on the policy implications of this loan.