Isabelle Kohler reflects on her journey to understanding the academic financial landscape and provides useful information on the pros and cons of different types of PhD funding.
When I was a PhD student, I knew nothing about money. All I cared about was the amount of money in my bank account and whether it would be enough to get me through the month. Yet, I wondered how my research would be paid for. I knew that I received a salary from the university to do my PhD for which I spent part of my time supervising bachelor’s and master’s students during their internships, but I didn’t know exactly who was paying for all the consumables I used in my experiments. I remember thinking that the budget had to be huge: a single-use extraction cartridge for €4, a chromatographic column for €350, and the impressive price – which I don’t even dare to mention – of the turbo pump on my mass spectrometer, which broke down twice in one year.
Becoming a postdoc didn’t give me much more information about funding streams in academia. I received an 18-month fellowship from Switzerland, which was transferred to my bank account as a lump sum in the weeks before I started my postdoc. I’ve never been so rich! I’ve also never been as poor as I was at the end of my postdoc, because I hadn’t managed the grant properly. The fellowship covered my living and travel expenses, but all my experiments were funded by my host institute.
It wasn’t until I started working as an assistant professor that I became confronted with the financial side of academia. Applying for grants, drawing up budgets, recording hours worked on projects, drafting reports for consortia, recruiting PhD students, calculating the remuneration of the students we supervised – all this was new to me. New words, such as ‘first money stream’, ‘overheads’ and ‘public-private partnership’ entered my vocabulary.
PhD positions can be funded through different streams, which can impact research, freedom and overall PhD success.
Let’s first look at the main sources of funding for PhD positions:
- Government or public funding. Many PhD positions are funded by government grants or funds allocated to universities. Together with the tuition fee, government funds form what we call ‘first-money stream’ or ‘first stream funding’. This funding is often based on different criteria, such as the number of students, the institution’s performance, and historical budget levels. The amount is typically calculated using three factors: a teaching allowance, a research allowance, and a performance-based allowance.
- Research grants or projects. PIs often need to secure grants from various sources (e.g. government research bodies, the European Union, private foundations, etc.) to finance their research. These grants fund specific research projects, and part of this funding is used to hire PhD students or postdocs to work on the project.
- Industry collaboration or partnership. Less frequently, PhD or postdoc positions are funded through collaborations with industry. Companies may fund research in specific areas of interest and, in turn, have some say in the research focus.
- Teaching assistantship. In this case, PhD students are funded through teaching assistantships where they teach or assist in bachelor’s courses while receiving a stipend and tuition waiver. This is something very common in the U.S., but much less in the Netherlands.
- Other funding options include scholarships (e.g. when a doctoral student is funded by a scholarship from their country to do their PhD abroad), loans or even crowdfunding – the latter two being rare.
In fact, it’s important to know which funding stream is behind your PhD, because it can affect your research. Each type of funding has its advantages and disadvantages:
- With government or public funding, there is often more flexibility in research topics as the funding is not tied to any specific project. However, these positions may be less interdisciplinary than project-based positions and may lead to a feeling of isolation as you are not part of a larger consortium.
- Research grants offer less flexibility since the funding is allocated for a specific project. Often, this project is part of a larger consortium, and your results will have an impact on other members of the consortium. However, a significant advantage is that the entire project has been meticulously planned, and you’re aware of all deliverables from the outset.
- Positions funded by industry can be appealing to those interested in a career in the private sector after completing their PhD. Often, there is a temporary placement of a few weeks or months in a company. However, the industrial partner can have a significant influence on your PhD, and communication between industry and academic colleagues can be challenging (with you in the middle).
- Teaching positions are interesting because they provide valuable teaching experience, which is a great bonus if you enjoy it. However, teaching can be time-consuming, which makes it more difficult to find time for research. Some universities in the Netherlands now offer the possibility of doing a PhD over a longer period of time, with a mandate to actively contribute to education and the possibility of obtaining the University Teaching Qualification (Basis Kwalificatie Onderwijs, BKO).
When considering a PhD position, it’s always a good idea to inquire about the funding source (if not mentioned on the vacancy) and understand how it might impact your research and overall experience. You may enjoy the relative freedom of a government-funded position, or you may prefer the structure of a project-based position. Don’t hesitate to ask questions about this during your interview! This will also be a positive sign for the hiring committee that you’ve done some research beforehand.
All in all, what I’ve learnt during this financial journey is that, whatever the source of funding, the turbo pump of a mass spectrometer breaking down twice in one year is never good news.
If you’re interested in learning more on how to navigate academia and the PhD journey – from securing a PhD position to your PhD defense day, don’t hesitate to join the NextMinds Community! For this, you have plenty of choices: visit NextMinds website to learn more about my work, sign up to the weekly newsletter, and follow me and NextMinds on LinkedIn.