No funding, no placement

Today the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published Elitist Britain?, a report on social mobility in the UK. The conclusions aren’t surprising. Numerous outlets have covered it (e.g. BBC, Guardian).

Careers in the media, politics and law are often singled out as being tough to crack unless you’re from a privileged background. What about science? A search for “science” in the report returns zero hits. It’s interesting that it’s not mentioned.

Every summer, departments at Imperial host students on the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme, my department included. I’m sure other universities run similar things. There are bursaries for living costs but competition is tough. In roughly five years I’ve yet to come across a recipient. So really they are unpaid internships, no different to those that are criticised in industries like the press or fashion. Only the offspring of the rich can afford to work for free, especially in London.

In 2009 I applied for a college bursary but I was unsuccessful. I thought it was game over, as I worked full time every holiday to pay off debts that accumulated during term time (when I only worked part time). But the principal investigator generously paid me to do the project anyway, for which I’m still very grateful. I think this is quite rare.

If I had not completed the placement would I have been accepted onto my fully-funded PhD programme? I don’t know. Is it fair that only the wealthiest students can afford to undertake placements and gain valuable research experience? No. If I were a PI, I would not employ unpaid students in my lab, even though I’d be losing out on free labour. Considering the gulf between the richest and poorest and lack of social mobility in the UK, I think a policy of “no funding, no placement” is well overdue.