Michael Clarke-Whittet

PhD student in quantum biology tackling molecular noise and quantum decoherence.
I like playing music, hiking, and the rule of three in lists.

  • Michael Clarke-Whittet

How starting a PhD can be a turbulent or even inaccessible journey

Updated: Oct 7, 2018

As I sit watching an episode of ‘The Circle’ on channel 4 at the end of my first week as a new PhD student at the University of Surrey I can’t help but reflect on my journey just to get here and the various barriers that make the journey I have made so difficult for many other students.

Moving to Surrey in the south of England from Dundee, Scotland wasn’t the smoothest thing in the world for me. The anxiety about actually securing a place to live in one of the UK’s most outrageous rent markets consumed my attention since graduating with my master’s degree. A few close calls and dead-ends with scummy letting agents and utterly depressing bedsits transpired before I decided I could not afford the legalised shake-down of letting fees. In Scotland this practice has already been banned and it is hard for me not to see it as being charged for the privilege of paying an already bloated rent. My irrepressibly charming girlfriend managed to sort us out with a private landlord but to illustrate we are paying more than double in rent than we did in Dundee city and that’s one of the best deals we found.

Moving down was quite a sight, the old run-around car I drive loaded to the gills with two persons’ worth of clothes and goods. Once the back seat and boot were nearly full two bicycles were attached tenuously by a cheap bike rack which caused me endless anxiety about its stability and a large canvas bag containing a deflated kayak. I had to leave the guitar and a box full of records but, I must admit, I do have some hoarding tendencies.

That was in September, but my own studentship was not due to be paid until I started formally in October. I am lucky to come from a middle class family who could put up a deposit and my first month in rent, but imagine the unpleasant surprise of finding that my source of income – a studentship - would be delivered “sometime late in October … we are very busy”. Sometime late in October would not leave my landlord very happy, so I pressed for it in advance. Fortunately this was arranged and I made rent on time, only because I had arranged to pay rent 9 days later than most who pay on the first of the month.

As a young scientist I really am consumed with the desire to meet my new colleagues, start researching and performing experiments as fully as possible but what struck me most about getting from my undergraduate to the postgraduate was all of the pitfalls that essentially only money could overcome. Unhappily I think this is a problem very much of our time and on some level everybody knows continued study is difficult to access but it is quite a surprise to go through it and feel first-hand how tenuous it can be. Not to mention the intended even playing-field of the automated application system, the pre-application, the application, the negotiation stage and navigating often arcane admissions systems. Not to complain specifically about my own experience, mine was very much the standard in the UK, but there is a troubling hidden barrier to the whole system.

I am glad that doctoral study hasn’t completely been flogged off to the ‘do-it-for-the-love-of-it’ mentality but the studentship many get by on is hardly a glamorous wage when you spend 50% of it just to keep a roof over your head. The most common rate for a funded PhD studentship is £14.5k per year which is, perhaps unsurprisingly, also the UK minimum for such studentships.

For somebody who is just trying to get some money in their pocket and build some security for themselves, you can earn as much in Asda and you work 37.5 hours per week instead of 60 or 70 doing a PhD and you know when your money will come in. It is harder to justify the direct product of a PhD, especially in something as esoteric-sounding as quantum biology, but investing in knowledge is always a winner and I am looking forward to making my own contribution. I guess I do it for the love of it.


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©2019 by Michael Clarke-Whittet, all views expressed here are my own.