5 Reasons why PhD students are paid (or why they should be)

Yes, PhD students do get paid. If you haven’t yet worked on independent research you may wonder why these PhD students are paid to study. The thing is you are considered a consumer when you are taking a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. Thus, you have to pay for the education you get.

On the other hand, the PhD students are a little bit different from undergraduates. Yes, they may attend classes and are mentored by the professors, however, they are also workers for academies.

Image is showing the list of Reasons why PhD students are paid

PhD students are paid because

  • PhD research is actually a full-time work
  • PhD funding is one way universities compete with each other to attract best PhD applicants
  • PhD students do assist the faculty and are compensated for it
  • Research professors need PhD students to work on several research projects
  • PhD stipend can help students to just focus on their research

1. Research is actually a lot of work

To state simply, a PhD is a lot of work. The actual goal of a PhD is to train future academics and independent researchers. However, PhD students put a lot of effort and time into their coursework, assistantship duties, and research projects. In fact, many PhD students report working more than 40-50 hours a week. Therefore, it is almost impossible to make them work this much without any incentive.

Read More: Reasons why a PhD without funding may not be possible

This page is showing the prevalence of long work hours in PhD student work
PhD is like a full-time job. Yet, compensation (PhD stipend) is so low for this much work. Details of this survey can be accessed here

Read more: Working but no workers’ rights: the plight of the PhD revealed

Although PhD students are paid meagerly for the type and quality of research work they do during their studies. Many argue that such level and quality of work can pay many times more outside the academy. A good amount of PhD students and academics also believe that PhD students are cheap labor, they argue that they do a lot of work but are paid 1/5th of the salary paid to a full-time faculty for similar duties.

“… graduate student assistants perform work in return for compensation and are thus employees … First, when graduate students work as teaching and research assistants, their work is similar to that performed by university faculty. Second, graduate students teach because they are paid, not because it is at the core of graduate education. Third, universities generally treat any stipend as payment for teaching or supporting the professor’s research, not as general financial support to enable the graduate student to attend class or conduct his or her own dissertation research.”

Columbia University, 364 NLRB No. 90 (August 23, 2016)

Read more: Is PhD really harder than a job?

  How to get a PhD studentship in the UK?

It is true that PhD students are apprentices and are still learning the art and science of research. However, if we change our lenses to see the PhD students as academic workers then their job satisfaction, life satisfaction, minimum living wage rights, and mental health become a concern.

Read More: 3 Reasons PhD students are paid poorly and PhD aspirants should know

PhD students are a workforce for the universities and advisors because

  • they support senior staff in their research projects as research assistants. There is no denial that PhD students are still apprentices and they are learning to do research during their PhD. However, they are a kind of labor (or we can say much cheap labor) for the university who are paid to assist their superiors in research.
  • they support the senior teaching staff in their classes as teaching assistants. As PhD is a training for further academic career and teaching is a part of it. Universities and advisors want to train these students not only as researchers but teachers and communicators of science as well.
  • they execute new projects that are likely to push the human knowledge further. Research, especially the one that really give outputs (solutions to problems) really takes effort. These PhD students do all the work of reading and compiling the previous work on the subject, performing experiments, collecting data, and analyzing each piece of information. These outputs then benefit the employers (university, advisors) and grant lenders (Government, Tech Companies etc.).

Therefore, the PhD students are much more than just “students”. In fact, they are considered full-time employees in many countries.

Take a look at the difference in status of PhD students in educational hierarchy vs academic hierarchy.

PhD student are the cheapest academic/ scientific labor. Contradiction in why PhD students get paid
PhD is usually perceived as the summit in an educational hierarchy however from a different perspective PhD students lie at the bottom of the academic hierarchy

2. PhD funding is a way to attract top talent

A talented knowledge worker that can work on complex projects in a particular area is what makes the most difference for an employer.

Universities compete with each other as well as with the industry when it comes to attracting the top talent.

Highly talented and competitive PhD applicants are in demand because they are the lifeline of research labs.

  Why PhD students are paid poorly?

Although the PhD stipend is much less than a salary one can get in the market, the universities still strive to attract and retain competitive PhD students with various monetary and non-monetary rewards.

To elaborate this more

  • PhD students usually are the cream of academia. It means they are already excellent students and high achievers. If you take a close look at the PhD selection procedure of good research universities, you may come to know the level of competence these PhD students have. The PhD programs of good institutions are severely competitive recording lower than 10% or even 2% acceptance rate.
  • The universities need this top talent in every selection cycle to compete with other institutions in research output. Just like the non-academic businesses universities compete for funds from different public and private organizations.
  • These grants are competitive and universities, departments and advisors need to convince these organizations that they can put this grant money to its best use. The best use considered here is the best research outputs in areas that interest the grant providers.

Overall, more competent PhD students mean

  • less workload for the senior research staff
  • more research outputs
  • higher quality of research
  • better results against grant lenders money
  • increased reputation of the research lab
Story of research grants. PhD students are paid due to their research work funded by the grants.
Research grants are offered to universities and advisors for specific purposes and interests of the grant lenders. The PhD students are compensated to perform that research

4. The advisors need PhD students

It is true that the funded projects in STEM sciences are more when compared with social sciences and humanities.

Professors get various generous grants from different grant lenders e.g., the military, health care, technology companies, and government, etc.

The successful advisors sometimes have more grant money and proposed projects that they may not have time to dedicate full time to all those projects.

Therefore, they hire these early career researchers ( e.g., PhD students, postdocs) to that work.

These advisors then take care of these PhD scholars with a stipend and other benefits e.g., health insurance, etc.

The amount of stipend, however, can depend on many factors including

  • amount of grant an advisor have
  • the number of workers an advisor need
  • the rule and regulations set by the university
  • the minimum / average living wage in that particular area
  • the competition for that particular talent in academic and non-academic market

Read more: Do All PhD students get a stipend in the US?

  5 Reasons a PhD without funding may not be possible

5. Assistantships are Paid work

The research or teaching assistantship work is a norm for PhD students in some countries (e.g., US, UK).

This assistantship work is officially up to 20 hours a week, however, in practice, many PhD students also report working much more than the standard work hours.

PhD students are paid against their work in these assistantship roles.

The duties in the assistantships role include

  • helping faculty in their research projects e.g., analyzing samples, conducting literature reviews etc.
  • assisting faculty in teaching e.g., getting classroom ready, preparing and planning lecture notes etc.

The common complaints regarding PhD assistantships are

Read More: 5 Reasons a PhD without funding may not be possible

6. Scholars can focus on Scholarship

PhD students are paid because they are expected to work full-time on their research.

The universities and advisors want PhD students to focus on their study and research work, therefore, they try to take care of food and shelter for them.

The reason is if you as a PhD student give time to or are worried about making your ends meet you may not have time to pursue your research. However, I also wonder whether the assistantship work and other responsibilities are also distracting for the PhD students or not?

Many European countries consider PhD students as employees and offer

  • a full-time temporary position to a PhD student
  • offer a handsome salary
  • offer other benefits such as health insurance and commute support

These unconditional stipends benefit PhD students because

  • they are working full-time on their research project (part-time PhD students are usually not supported financially)
  • they do not require student to work in assistantships roles
  • the PhD students are supported by fellowships
  • the society value science and public institutions support research students

A PhD takes 4- 7 years on average. The stipend (although meager) helps PhD students pursue their research interests and survive during their PhD years.

Read more: A Simple Introduction to PhD Funding