Women in Science

The women we talked to had obtained funding for their doctoral studies from a number of sources. Some had been offered the opportunity to stay on at the university where they were an undergraduate to do a doctorate (PhD).

Finding supervisors

The professor who supervised Katja’s dissertation offered her the chance to stay on for a funded PhD. Persephone was in a similar situation.

Persephone BorrowPersephone enjoyed the project she was doing during her undergraduate degree and got on well with her supervisor, who gave her the chance to do a PhD. It was funded by her Cambridge college.


Alison W wrote to various potential supervisors round the country, saying that she wanted to do a PhD, and one offered her a place, funded by what is now called Cancer Research UK. Sally applied for a job as a research assistant in a laboratory at the Royal College of Surgeons. When she was interviewed for that post she was told that she was well enough qualified to do a PhD, so her new employer converted the job into a PhD position. The money had already been obtained from a Leprosy Research Charity called Lepra.

Others had applied for research jobs that they had seen advertised, knowing that they would have an opportunity to do a PhD if they were successful. In this situation the funds had already been obtained by their future supervisor. This was a competitive situation so they made a formal application and were then interviewed for the post. Some women applied for several before they were successful.

Portrait of Bryony GrahamBryony’s supervisor obtained funding for Bryony to do a PhD from the MRC through what was then called The Capacity Building Studentship Scheme.


Fellowships and scholarships

Some women had applied for competitive personal doctoral fellowships. Those who were already working in research were often encouraged to do this by their supervisor. Xin had a permanent job as a researcher in an institute in China, where she applied for a fellowship with the World Health Organisation and won the award. Barbara had a difficult time with doctoral funding because as an Italian citizen she was ineligible at that time to apply for British fellowships. She was awarded a salaried Junior Research Fellowship at Green College.

Helen A, a GP, was awarded an Academic Clinical Fellowship (ACF). This meant that she had an extra year in which to complete her GP training. She had four years instead of the standard three, and she spent the extra year doing research in the university department where she is now a doctoral student. As well as practicing as a GP she was able to get involved in several research projects. During this time she applied successfully for a Doctoral Research Fellowship, funded by the National Institute for Health Research.

Click for Helen's interviewHelen was awarded a National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Doctoral Research Fellowship. She knows that this is a very competitive funding stream.

Eleanor had finished her job as a hospital registrar. She was determined to start some research, whether or not she found funding. She went to work unpaid for three months in order to collect some data so that she could apply for a fellowship. She said that getting that initial funding is a ‘really difficult stepping stone.’

Portrait of Prof. Eleanor BarnesEleanor won a Fellowship from her hospital and then applied to the MRC for a Clinical Research Training Fellowship, which funded her DPhil. She was determined to find funding.


Some women described the arduous process of filling in application forms, the hard work and the ‘nerve wracking’ fellowship interviews. They made useful suggestions for other women planning to write a fellowship application, such as ‘leave plenty of time’ and ‘don’t be disheartened if not successful first time’ (for more see ‘Obtaining fellowship funding and other grants’)

Portrait of Anushka SoniAnushka was awarded an NIHR Doctoral Research Fellowship. She collected pilot data before she applied. The application forms were long and the interview was daunting.


A few women were from other countries and had obtained scholarships from their own governments or funding bodies. Blanca did her PhD in Spain, where there were not many scholarships for PhD students, so she had to teach full time to support herself, as well as working on her research, which she said was ‘very tough.’ Katja did her doctorate in Germany, where she says there is less admin and quality control and one works more independently. This is good in some ways but because it is less structured it is also possible to ‘fail miserably and no one picks it up until submission.’

Click for Krina's interviewKrina got funding via a scholarship from Holland, a bursary from St Edmund Hall, her department, and then a BUPA Foundation grant, which funded her doctorate (DPhil).


One woman said she had worried about becoming pregnant during her doctoral fellowship. She didn’t know if she would be able to defer the grant. She sought advice from someone in her university HR Department, who was able to guide her about what she could or couldn’t do. Another woman was able to get a small stipend but had to partly self-fund her fees, with financial support from her husband.

Enjoying doctoral research

Doctoral research was mostly described as fun and exciting, and women enjoyed the general atmosphere in the scientific environment and time spent with colleagues. Alison W ‘fell in love with yeast’, Catherine was like ‘a kid in front of a Christmas tree’ and Barbara said it was ‘fantastic- the best time of my life.’ After six years of clinical work Helen M ‘loved’ doing her PhD and feeling in charge of her own time. Irene T recalled a very good quality of life as a senior scholar at Merton College. Maggie had wonderful experiences as a doctoral student in London and remembers going out to lunch every day and pottering around the British Museum and antiquarian bookshops. Molly said that she had been incredibly lucky to have been in ‘the right place, at the right time with the right people, asking the right questions.’ Tao’s PhD project gave her the chance to see how her research might be applied. Working on the HIV virus, she spent part of her time in Africa and part of her time in the UK.

Portrait of Anushka SoniAnushka is enjoying her DPhil. It has given her the opportunity to be creative and do what she finds interesting. It is sometimes hard to decide on priorities.


Portrait of Samira Lakhal-LittletonBeing a graduate student taught Samira how to interact with fellow scientists, how to find collaborators, and how to manage her time and resources.


Women who had full time funding for their doctoral studies said that it was wonderful to have protected time to do their research without having to worry about other work commitments. They liked the self-directed learning and sense of freedom that they experienced at that time. Irene T recalled the hard work but also remembered that during her PhD she had plenty of time for other activities and holidays. Women who registered for a doctorate at a later stage said that they enjoyed the privilege of taking time to think about their own research, but felt that they had not been able to engage in college and student life so much – which was a small regret for some.

Portrait of Dr Christine KiireChristine felt it was a privilege to have time to think about complicated problems without the immense time pressure of clinical medicine.


Portrait of Barbara CasadeiBarbara says that the ‘idea of discovery’ was very exciting. Protected time gave her an opportunity to do her research and learn different techniques.


Highs and lows

People sometimes feel a bit lost for a while during the early stages of their doctoral work, even if it is also enjoyable: women described both ‘high’ times and ‘low’ times during their research. Some projects, supervisor relationships and some working environments were easier than others. Elspeth initially found it a bit hard being the only women in nuclear physics (see ‘Changing the culture in science’). Alison H is Professor of Vascular Surgery. In order to become a senior registrar, she had to have a higher degree and was offered a research job for a year by the head of the Department of Surgery at the Hammersmith Hospital. During this year she planned the research project that became the thesis for her Master of Surgery. She reflected on the process of doing a research project and said that at times it can be hard. Although some women found some aspects of their PhD work difficult, on the whole they found the experience very worthwhile.

Portrait of Prof. Alison HallidayAlison says that when doing research students may feel disheartened for a while until they have some results which other people say are interesting. From that point ‘spirits’ improve.


Portrait of Anna GloynDuring Anna’s DPhil there were ‘highs’ and ‘lows’. She had difficulties with her supervisors. This experience taught her how to manage relationships, which has helped her throughout her career.


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