The eternal student

Doing a PhD inevitably means staying in university longer and not being able to rinse off the student-status after having already earned the one or other degree. This can at times feel a bit awkward when friends and people around us seem to be in completely different life stages. They might be getting a dog and a mortgage, while you’re trying to convince a prospective landlord that you are technically a professional even if you’re officially a student.  You’re neither fish nor fowl, navigating the grey area of work, bureaucracy, and life.

The other day I was rewatching one of my comfort series, Fresh Meat. It follows a group of undergraduate students who live together in a shared house in Manchester and try to navigate university life. In the second season a new house mate moves in: Sabine, the PhD candidate from Rotterdam. She is older than everyone in the house and has seen and done it all before. She has her life more in order than the others and little patience for her housemates’ mistakes of late adolescence/very early adulthood. This causes a fair amount of tension between her and the rest of the group, who are chaotic at best – or in Sabine’s words “not good people”.

Sabine’s video complaint to the Accommodation Office regarding her housing situation

I couldn’t help but think how odd it is that Sabine is expected to live with a group of undergraduate students, since she also falls under the same (broader) category, student. It made me wonder, if it actually makes sense to view people who are doing a PhD as students rather than early career researchers.

PhDs: Work or study?

Let’s explore the reasoning behind why PhD students might want to be considered regular employees. Most of the time they are working full-time hours, often paired with the expectation to come into the lab or office. Therefore, on a day-to-day basis it is hard to pinpoint where the difference between PhD students and university staff lies. This sentiment is once more enhanced when the PhD student puts on different hats such as teaching assistant, tutor, or research assistant on larger projects. In many cases, this means that a PhD student ends up being treated by the university administration as two separate people – the student and the staff member, who are consequently issued separate university accounts, cards, and emails. Of course, this can become confusing at times and the simple, intuitive fix would be to treat PhDs as staff to begin with since they are likely (and strongly encouraged) to take on staff-positions during their studies.

It’s also worth mentioning that upon starting a PhD, you are entering a multiple-year contract, which suggests a level of consistency and stability for the short-term future – for full-time studies we’re usually are speaking of 3-4 years. However, if something unexpected happens, for instance in case of sickness or maternity/paternity leave, there is no automatic safety-net, as policies on these matters are subject to the funding bodies. This is partially due to funded PhD students not receiving a salary but a tax-free stipend, which in turn means they don’t automatically benefit from employment rights that come with paying taxes.

Now, nobody is suggesting that PhD students want to have their cake and eat it too. But it is worthwhile to consider how in other countries, for instance the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria, PhDs receive taxed salaries and consequently the benefits that come with being employed. Of course, if implemented here in the UK, this may either mean a pay cut due to taxation, which nobody wants, especially not during the cost-of-living crisis, or a compensatory increase of funding to make up for the pending taxation. The argument against the latter is that this could lead to funders not being able to support as many students moving forward, as their budget may become too stretched. And of course, the grass might not always be much greener on the other side: It’s not a secret that university staff have their own fish to fry, with the ongoing industrial action organised by the University College Union (UCU) over pay, working conditions and pension cuts.

Photo by Martin Lopez on

What’s your take on this? Do you think PhDs should be classified as work or study?

Read more about the two sides of the argument here.

Anna Rezk is a 2nd year PhD researcher in Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh in partnership with the BBC R&D. Her research revolves around the implication of personalised and highly customisable public service media content and how it can be leveraged to promote inclusive and democratic civic participation. Due to her background in journalism and computer science, she is particularly interested in news, and how content can be algorithmically enhanced and curated without thwarting editorial intent. Find her on Twitter as @anna_rezk.

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