Academia remains an inaccessible career choice for many

High fees and the expectation of unpaid labour renders PhDs difficult, if not impossible for large swathes of applicants

We are often told by those older and wiser than us that if we do what we love we will never work a day in our lives.  While we may strive for a career that we will love, reality can be quite different to our ideals.  This is particularly pertinent for those who wish to pursue a career in academia. Practical barriers, the persisting conditions, and academic bureaucracy means many are faced with insurmountable deterrents. 

“Under the guise of ‘experience’ many PhD students are expected to undertake unpaid work such as tutoring or lecturing.”

There is undoubtedly a tendency by some to view the pursuit of a PhD and a career in academia as a luxury or a hobby.  However, pursuing a PhD is hardly something that is undertaken lightly.  It requires three to four years of full-time research. We frequently hear anecdotally of the gruelling hours and loneliness that PhD candidates experience.  Under the guise of “experience” many PhD students are expected to undertake unpaid work such as tutoring or lecturing.  TCD’s Postgraduate Workers Alliance was established last year with the aim of protecting working rights for PhD researchers.  They recently presented a Charter for Postgraduate Workers Rights to Trinity’s three Provost candidates. The Charter proposes a number of measures to ensure that adequate supports are provided to PhD researchers and to tackle the persisting exploitative working conditions that exist which includes precarious and unpaid work. Whilst progress and improvements will undoubtedly take time, the rise of such advocacy groups will help to raise public awareness of these important issues and will spur change.

Furthermore, for PhD students a PhD is not just something to fill four years of one’s life but is also a life-long career choice.  For those who love to research, to write, to engage in debate and to impart knowledge there can hardly be a more rewarding or fulfilling career choice.  Academia also offers unquantifiable benefits to society as a whole;  we need research. We need curiosity. We need to search for answers to all kinds of questions. Without research and without a diversity of candidates pursuing PhDs and subsequently careers in academia, society will stagnate.  

Pursuing a PhD is unfortunately a prohibitive undertaking. It is not uncommon to hear students say: “If I don’t get a scholarship, then that rules me out.” A PhD is an expensive path to pursue.  Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris recently announced that scholarships under the Irish Research Council scheme would be increased to €18,500 per annum (increased from a meagre €16,000 per annum). However, obviously nobody can bank on being awarded a scholarship. While scholarships are few and far between at the best of times, the Covid-19 pandemic may also impact the availability of funding for doctoral studies. It is to be hoped that governments and private industry alike will support those who wish to pursue further studies during these uncertain times, and the increasingly uncertain post-pandemic economic conditions which await us when lockdowns lift.

“Financial supports to pursue PhDs are frequently referred to as ‘scholarships’ or ‘stipends’. Why are they not called a ‘wage’ in return for work done?”

It is clear that candidates are deterred from pursuing the academic career simply because they cannot afford it. Despite Minister Harris’ increase in funding, it is simply too little.  Terminology is also an issue. Financial supports to pursue PhDs are frequently referred to as “scholarships” or “stipends”’ Why are they not called a “wage” in return for work done (in this case research and teaching)? Many somewhat cynically suggest that by clothing these payments in the language of awards, sponsors avoid establishing true employment relationships and thereby dodge employment rights. Indeed, this is problematic from a gender equality perspective due to the inevitable inability of female PhD scholarship recipients to obtain maternity leave.

After three to four years of undergraduate study, plus the increasing societal expectation to complete a Masters, ageing students have little extra cash to sustain further studies.  Even if one is lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship, the likelihood will be that the vast majority of that payment will be spent on ever-increasing rent.  Faced with the choice of less than minimum wage for four years, versus the €30,000 average graduate starting salary available in other career paths, it is understandable that many allow their heads to rule their hearts, and will favour careers which enable them to pay rent to the detriment of their own self-fulfilment.

The problem extends beyond the financial aspects.  A very practical matter is that applications for PhD scholarships often appear ad-hoc on university websites and often in the months of February to April.  These are months when current students often simply do not have the time to dedicate to lengthy and detailed application processes as exams and assignments for their current studies are usually impending. 

It is also not uncommon for students to know that they want to undertake a PhD but to also be uncertain as to what particular topic they wish to research. This poses a problem when one seeks to apply for funding, as scholarship application forms frequently require students to submit a research question, research proposal and to have found an academic supervisor. None of this is easy.  Arguably the rigours of these application processes ought to be relaxed.  Interviews and applications are no match to experiencing how candidates perform their work. This fact is well-known amongst the leading law and business firms who organise summer internships annually and offer graduate positions based on the candidate’s performance during their time at the firm. Universities ought to facilitate getting interested applicants ‘in’. This would ensure that universities ultimately get the best candidates, but would also ensure that potential PhD candidates have some experience and insight, ensuring that their decision is an informed one.

It is also imperative that those who have been through the process provide effective guidance and information to interested students. A good mentor has the power to change the course of one’s life for the better. More supports are urgently needed. For individuals who are deterred from pursuing careers in academia, the situation is heart-breaking. For society, the situation is intolerable.