Lack of funding for PhD degrees is plaguing aspiring academics. Unfortunately, many who hope to one day teach or research at third-level institutions in Ireland are forced to reckon with grim practicality — a financial hellscape that will persist during the course of their extended studies. Even the lucky few who receive funding still typically earn less than the national minimum wage. Truly, the Irish government knows how to show its appreciation for the future of the nation’s academia. The term brain drain comes to mind, as we don’t have to look very far to see the grass being greener elsewhere. Germany for example provides state funding to all Ph.D. students, a form of safeguarding their educational future. Contrast this with the system that exists here, where many Ph.D. students have to fund their studies themselves. Even the ones who do receive funding are earning less than someone fresh out of their Leaving Cert doing a full-time minimum wage job. Is it worthwhile to pursue a Ph.D. in Ireland?
Largely, the answer is no. Ridiculously high rates of mental health issues plague Ph.D. students as a result of financial stress, the lack of appreciation for their work, and the general conditions they experience, among other reasons. Typical starting salaries for graduates in fields such as engineering would easily be over twice what a funded Ph.D. researcher makes, and in the current cost of living crisis, it is impossible to ignore the necessity of financial stability. The brutal reality of a Ph.D. is frequently a four-year commitment with nothing to show for it until the conclusion — anyone who is forced to abandon their Ph.D., be it a result of personal struggles or crippling financial necessity, will have nothing to show for their hard work. No qualifications, no savings, and no meaningful advantage in their career field.
I admit there has been some promising talk made about higher education becoming more accessible, but the reality facing Ph.D. students is that they are at the bottom of the government’s priorities in the sector.
So why do people even bother? And why would anyone bother to do a Ph.D. here, considering the poor conditions? The Irish government has such a strong track record of neglecting its youthful population that there are generational cycles of emigration, and it looks like we’re hitting a new cycle now. It is absurd that the Irish government refuses to learn from the mistakes of the past and still insists on abandoning its future. Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris spoke of wanting to ensure that “Cost cannot and should not be a barrier to accessing education” in May of this year. I admit there has been some promising talk made about higher education becoming more accessible, but the reality facing Ph.D. students is that they are at the bottom of the government’s priorities in the sector. The brain drain that will inevitably deplete Ireland’s centres of higher learning will be a problem for a future government surely, giving rise to an apathetic attitude towards investing in our future today.
While talking of significant investment into third-level education in his statement back in May, Harris said that “Education, in all forms, is the greatest leveller in society. It opens new doors and ensures nobody is left behind.” It is difficult to believe in the Minister when we consider the disregard the Irish government shows to aspiring academics. Why spend so much ensuring that higher education is accessible to all while actively refusing to facilitate higher education’s growth? PhDs are the primary way to enter a career in academia, and the process is gruelling. New universities are being set up and more places in colleges are being allocated, but god forbid we allow our universities to effectively train a new generation of academics to lead this push in higher education — sure, we can just recruit internationally instead. We drag our heels, we allow Ph.D. researchers to continue to suffer, we allow them to struggle financially, so they can have the privilege of contributing to Ireland’s third-level education system which is already struggling to meet the growing demand.
What frequently averages four years of intensive research at little over the national minimum wage is frankly not good enough for many graduates.
The calls for an annual stipend of €28,000 by campaigners would be a significant step in the right direction, but with the high cost of rents and soaring inflation, even this significant improvement may not be enough to make Ph.D.’s fiscally viable. What frequently averages four years of intensive research at little over the national minimum wage is frankly not good enough for many graduates. Logically, with the cost of living so high and rising continuously, graduates have little incentive to pursue Ph.D. degrees, with many who aspire to careers in academia forced to sell their souls for corporate jobs to avoid a plunge into poverty. This brutal reality dissuades many students from even considering a career in academia, with those who attempt to persevere in the field forced to walk a bloody gauntlet first.
Some current Ph.D. students hope to make the world of Irish academia a better place, despite the difficulties they have endured. These are the few who hopefully will form a new core of Irish academics, and who will be able to oversee reforms in the process. As it stands, the government is electing to turn a blind eye to this weak spot in the higher education system. There are straightforward solutions, not least of which, but perhaps most simple of all, is the agreement to provide an annual stipend to Ph.D. researchers. Aspiring academics should not be forced into poverty or debt in pursuit of their career — a living wage should be provided to those carrying out important research. Ireland is not a country that is abundant with natural resources — wind power might one day be a major export, but for now, it seems that our greatest resource is an educated workforce. We will lose that resource unless we work to safeguard the next generation of academics at Irish institutions.