Fund­ing taken away from PhD stu­dent af­ter can­cer di­ag­no­sis

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Rachael.pells@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

A PhD stu­dent whose re­search fund­ing was with­drawn af­ter she was di­ag­nosed with can­cer has launched a cam­paign to guar­an­tee post­grad­u­ates the right to sick leave.

Clau­dia Pama (pic­tured above), a neu­ro­science re­searcher at St John’s Col­lege, Cam­bridge, was di­ag­nosed with the ill­ness dur­ing the sec­ond half of her first year of doc­toral study in 2015.

As a re­sult, Ms Pama said, she had “no choice” but to post­pone her re­search for 10 weeks while she re­ceived the nec­es­sary treat­ment. De­spite ini­tially hav­ing se­cured sup­port from two fund­ing bod­ies – whom Ms Pama has cho­sen not to name – she said that she was sur­prised to learn that one had no sick pay pol­icy, and that both sources planned to sus­pend her fund­ing for the du­ra­tion of her treat­ment.

“It was an im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion at first,” she said. “With­out this fund­ing – my main source of in­come – I would cer­tainly have had to drop out of the project al­to­gether,” she told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion.

“We reached an agree­ment that I would con­tinue to re­ceive it for the mo­ment, but then at the end of my treat­ment I wouldn’t re­ceive the last 10 weeks of fund­ing. At that point I was very con­fused but, since I was in the mid­dle of get­ting treat­ment, I wasn’t in a po­si­tion to do much about it. It was an in­cred­i­bly stress­ful time.”

While some fund­ing bod­ies in the UK do al­low for paid sick leave in spe­cific sit­u­a­tions, for in­stance with train­ing grants, there is cur­rently no stan­dard pol­icy in place. With most PhD stu­dents re­ceiv­ing a stipend in place of a salary, there is of­ten no obli­ga­tion on fun­ders to pro­vide ex­tra sup­port in such in­stances.

Ms Pama later learned that a friend had been di­ag­nosed with can­cer while do­ing his PhD at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford, and an­other stu­dent at UCL had been left in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion.

The trio set up an on­line pe­ti­tion and pub­lished a let­ter in Na­ture urg­ing fund­ing bod­ies to adopt a stan­dard pol­icy for pro­vid­ing stu­dents with sick pay, sim­i­lar to the statu­tory sys­tem avail­able to full­time em­ploy­ees.

More than 400 aca­demics have now signed the group’s pe­ti­tion, and Can­cer Re­search UK has pledged its sup­port by agree­ing to adopt its own for­mal pol­icy of four months of fully paid sick leave and a fur­ther four­month pe­riod of half-pay if needed.

“Can­cer Re­search has done a good job of set­ting a great ex­am­ple to other fund­ing bod­ies,” said Ms Pama, who is in re­cov­ery and due to fin­ish her PhD in De­cem­ber this year. “I am very lucky to be in an en­vi­ron­ment like Cam­bridge, which has been very sup­port­ive of my sit­u­a­tion – but I am still look­ing for fi­nan­cial cover for the fi­nal part of my PhD.

“Fund­ing bod­ies re­ally need to re­assess their ap­proach to PhD stu­dents be­cause in the end it is also their in­vest­ment wasted when peo­ple have to drop out. I hope this cam­paign can make a dif­fer­ence.”

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