What if the PhD were treated as a job?

I am a happy PhD student. I am glad of the career choices I have made so far. I enjoy working on difficult problems and I feel accomplished whenever I manage to solve some of them. I feel lucky that my schedule is extremely flexible. I feel privileged to be surrounded by incredibly smart, fun and talented people. I love to travel and interact with fellow scientists in conferences and workshops. I feel a deep sense of personal growth from all that I have learnt and all the skills that I have gathered. I am a happy PhD student,  except that I don’t consider myself a student at all! I am an early-stage researcher.

A PhD is a job, but it is not treated as such. PhD students “pay tuition”, but receive a “stipend covering your tuition”. This is the University’s way of not actually charging us to work for them. PhD candidates don’t receive salaries but “scholarships” to pursue their “studies”. They don’t have a boss but a “supervisor”. They are not hired to work on a funded or ongoing research project, they “pursue their dissertation topic”. They don’t gain research experience, they obtain the title of “Doctor of Philosophy”. The PhD is a job, but it is not treated as such: Should it be?

I’m not sure. Research has enormous benefits for society and treating PhDs as students instead of employees gives Universities a vast pool of talented and motivated individuals willing to work for them for cheap. So there is certainly an argument to be made that humankind as a whole greatly benefits from this system. On the other hand, we are very aware of the many drawbacks, on the individual’s level, of pursuing a PhD. We have heard innumerable stories of struggle, bitterness and disappointment. We know there are serious issues and we know that they are not being addressed. Some of us may be enjoying our PhD despite these problems, but it doesn’t make us blind to them nor does it prevent us from wanting something better. I won’t try to convince you that the PhD should be treated as a job, since I am not convinced myself. What I want to do is to consider a handful of very common criticisms of the PhD and how they would change if PhD candidates were treated as workers instead of students.

1. PhD candidates don’t earn enough money.salary

If the PhD were treated as a job, there would be no justification for a salary as low as the current value of an average stipend. Instead, they would more closely resemble salaries for postdocs. Bonus: Universities would not be able to hire as many PhD candidates and hence the ratio of available permanent academic positions to people qualified for the position, would drop considerably.

2. PhD candidates work extremely long hours. AAAwork

If the PhD were an actual job, there would either be monetary compensation for the extra hours of work or a legal right for researchers to stop working overtime if they desired to do so.

3. There is too much uncertainty in the duration of a PhD.


If the PhD were a job, there would be no need to award a degree! A PhD worker would remain doing their job for as long as they desired. Bonus: with no academic title at stake, there would be less pressure in quitting.

4. There are too many PhDs and very few permanent academic positions.


A PhD worker would earn work experience, not an academic title. If they wanted to continue in this line of work, they could. If not, they could change paths, just like anyone else can after they land their first job. Bonus: Same as in item 1.

5. Writing a thesis is a waste of time: It involves only concatenating research papers. And no one will read it.


If the PhD were a job, there would be no thesis to write!

I am frequently astounded by the many problems which are nothing but an example of QWERTY phenomena: a difficulty on updating past choices because of how widespread and engraved they are. I think the PhD is an example of this. The way it is designed is a remnant of a model that was created centuries ago but would not have been our choice had we created it now. There are many problems with it, but changing them may be too costly, there may be too many obstacles to overcome. Will I live long enough to see it transformed? I hope so.

Featured Image courtesy of my love Aleksandra Ignjatovic.


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