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The conundrums of a PhD: student or employee?

Sofia Della Sala explains the demands of a PhD and the unfair conditions that come with it.

Do you live to work or work to live? Hopefully the latter, although having a job you enjoy makes working that little bit better. Though an upsetting reality, money is what drives our day-to-day life: will you buy a coffee at Horsebox or are you saving those pennies? Will you opt for the craft ale or stick to Carling? And for most people the way to earn money is simple: you work.

However, there is a section of the population that live in a grey area within the job sector, one that has been contested time and time again – those trying to get a PhD. Are they students or employees?

The answer may appear simple; many will refer to themselves and others as PhD students after all. But then again, many will also say things like: ‘I am at work’ or ‘my colleagues’, both of which are not sentences you expect students to use when referring to their studies or peers. PhD students are trainees, novices in a niche area of research that get a stipend to compensate them for the work they do and allow them to pay their living costs.

We get paid, but don’t have to pay tax, carry out research but are not a member of staff, and sometimes even teach other year groups what we know. It sounds a bit like we are an employee without the benefits of actually being employed.

Even though the UKRI increased its minimum PhD stipend from £16,062 to £17,668 just before the start of this academic year, it is still below what you would earn as a graduate entering the job market. Currently, the UKRI minimum stipend is below what you would earn working full time in an Oxford living wage job. The Oxford living wage is currently set at £10.50 an hour. If PhD students calculated how many hours a week they worked and worked out how much money they could be earning in another job, the result might be extremely upsetting.

The disparities do not only concern pay. Employees also have a set holiday allowance, with companies choosing how much to reward their workers with each year. Oxford students have vacations that last for weeks at a time. PhD students have neither. Technically, some PhD students have a set holiday allowance but whether they take them or not is mainly up to their group and departments.

The role of a PhD student is more than just churning out data and numbers. It is about acquiring new knowledge and information, bringing in money and collaboration, and in general representing and enhancing the reputation of their institution. They may not be full employees, but they aren’t really full students either. They are trainees, like people on a grad scheme at a major company, getting to grips with what could become their career. This should be reflected in the rights and protections offered to them.

As unfortunate as it is, you hear horror stories of PhD students working 14-hour days, seven days a week to meet demands. To me that sounds like living to work, rather than working to live. You should be able love your research and be devoted to it without it consuming your life. Because the reality is that we aren’t being paid enough for us to let it.

Image Credit: Stanley Morales via Pexels.

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