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Postgraduates chosen for their “excellent potential” to become future leaders in environmental science and sustainable business should consider selling Avon products, pet-sitting and joining clinical trials to cope with the cost of living crisis.

The advice – issued on Wednesday by the prestigious Aries Doctoral Training Partnership funded by the Natural Environment Research Council at the University of East Anglia – provoked outrage among researchers who described the letter as “appalling”, “ridiculous” and “unbelievable”.

An email to PhD students on the programme recognised that many were finding it “increasingly challenging” to live on their stipends, £15,600 a year at present, and attached a three-page document from the UEA careers office setting out options to make ends meet.

Before making specific recommendations, the document warns that many students are not allowed to do more than six hours of paid work a week, because to do so would interfere with them completing their course on time.

The letter describes how PhD students can boost their finances with university level teaching and training, tutoring, and exam work, and goes on to suggest dog-walking, pet-sitting, paid-for clinical trials and selling Avon products as alternative sources of income.

Adriana Lowe, who was awarded a PhD from the University of Kent in 2019, said she was “outraged” at the suggestions. Natalie Starkey at the Open University called the advice “unbelievable”, while Jess Wade at Imperial College London called it “appalling”. Prof Thibaud Gruber at the University of Geneva said it was “freaking ridiculous”.

“This is just another example of how PhD students are completely let down by the system. While they’re called students, they’re producing vital research which in many cases has a direct and meaningful effect on wider society,” said Lowe. “These are people who are advising government on policy, advancing medical research, tackling the climate crisis and so on, and we’re expecting them to live like teenagers despite the fact they’re often adults with kids of their own.”

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A spokesperson for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the major UK science funding programme, said the letter did not reflect their position, adding: “We do recognise the effect the increased cost of living is having on students and we are looking to see if we can provide further financial support.”

Prof Jenni Barclay, director of the doctoral training programme, said: “Firstly, and unequivocally we are sorry for any offence caused. The primary concern here is the cost of living crisis and its disproportionate impact on our research students. Action is needed soon – many students are reporting extreme financial difficulties now.

“UKRI is reviewing this and following discussions at our Aries summer school we undertook to gather evidence for how best to lobby UKRI around this. But we also undertook to offer some practical advice. The intention here was to provide support as an interim measure as we try to improve global response to this problem for students.”

PhD students told to consider selling Avon products to make ends meet

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