PhD funding and time to PhD completion in Portugal

March 25, 2020

This paper investigates the impact of PhD funding on the time to PhD completion, using data of PhD holders working in Portugal. Time to PhD completion has been a major cause for concern for research funding agencies, universities, academics, and doctoral students facing increasingly constrained labor markets, particularly in academia. The Higher Education Funding Council for England reported that, in 2013, around 73% of those starting Ph.Ds. in 2010/11 were projected to take 7 years to receive the degree, while in the USA all fields of knowledge reported median times of more than 6 years to complete the Ph.D., and some were around 9 years. A key factor associated with time to PhD completion is funding.

Previous studies found mixed findings concerning the effects of PhD funding, but these were mostly focused on single disciplinary fields, or a single university, and the vast majority considered the US higher education system. This study makes use of a representative sample of the population of PhD holders working in Portugal in all fields of knowledge. This dataset allows for a more comprehensive and robust analysis, and focuses on several research questions. What determines the probability of receiving funding to pursue a PhD? Do PhD funded and PhD self-funded students differ in the time to PhD completion? Are there differences between those students receiving funds from PhD grants and from research project grants? The empirical approach to answer these questions deals with the concern that the factors leading to student’s receiving funding are likely to also affect the time to PhD completion.

The paper finds that the probability of receiving funding to pursue a PhD is higher for younger students, females, Portuguese nationals, and those with multidisciplinary educations.

The paper also finds that the time to PhD completion increases for financially supported students, though it decreases for funded students with high research productivity–a critical credential in academic and scholarly settings with clear relevance for hiring. The paper does not find a statistically significant difference in the time to PhD completion between those funded by PhD grants and those funded by research project grants.

The results show that PhD students respond to incentives and that these incentives shape the behaviors related to the completion of their doctoral studies. This is evident when one combines the probability to receive PhD funding with research productivity during the doctoral studies. Accumulating these two credentials (PhD funding plus publications) gives Ph.D. students more confidence to face the labor market after finishing the degree, knowing they have a signal edge in the competitive (and constrained) market they will be facing (which in Portugal is still mainly the academic labor market).

Regardless of whether the support is through a fellowship or a research assistantship, when students receive funding support to engage in research-related activities the time to the Ph.D. increases. This result should not imply that funding to support Ph.D. students should be reduced or constrained to improve the overall time to completion. Without funding, the number of potential doctoral students may substantially decline with potential detrimental effects for universities and countries trying to raise their human capital. Rather, funding support for Ph.D. students appears to be critical to attracting good candidates to doctoral programs and giving them enough time to prepare for the constrained national and global postdoctoral labor markets.

Click here to go to the paper by Hugo Horta, Mattia Cattaneo and Michele Meoli.