Women in Science
Getting funding for a PhD and being a graduate student
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).
The professor who supervised Katja’s dissertation offered her the chance to stay on for a funded PhD. Persephone was in a similar situation.
Alison W wrote to various potential supervisors round the country saying that she wanted to do a PhD and what is now called Cancer Research UK offered her a place. 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. Other women had chance meetings or pitched an idea to a potential supervisor.
Some women 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 involving formal applications and interviews. Some women applied for several before they were successful.
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 four years instead of three in which to complete her GP training. 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.
Eleanor had finished her job as a hospital registrar and 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.’ Angela was able to secure funding for her PhD from an industry partner.
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’)
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.’
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.’ Charlotte described ‘good times and bad times’ but her doctoral study convinced her she was very interested in the subject of protein structure and function. 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 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. Daniela describes her experience at Syracuse University in Upstate New York as ‘a really remarkable experience. I always find the US academic system is very vibrant, very exciting’.
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. Tamsin found both her Masters and having a year out helped her be ready for her PhD. She ‘loved the freedom of it, the independence’, the scope for curiosity and working ‘at the research frontier’.
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. Some women felt pressured to finish their PhDs if they were offered postdoc positions earlier than they expected. As Kylie described ‘at every stage in your academic career you’re sort of thrown in the deep end when you start anything new’. Although some women found some aspects of their PhD work difficult, on the whole they found the experience very worthwhile.