PhD candidates and postdoctoral status
Sir, – Sorcha Pollak writes of the difficulties and “darkness” that come with undertaking PhD research (“‘I don’t think there’s anything darker than doing a PhD’”, December 5th).
I would agree but like to emphasise that much of the burden and stress comes from insufficient funding and exploitative working conditions.
PhD students on university scholarships are often forced to teach and grade exams as part of the funding they receive. The hours are rarely defined in advance and become overwhelming very quickly. And still most of the scholarships remain far below the minimum wage, even with the additional teaching hours.
Many of us therefore look for part-time work elsewhere, while trying to complete the doctorate.
Career prospects for PhDs are often highly dependent on their department and faculty heads (as well as their supervisors), making complaining or even disagreeing over workload and working conditions an exceptionally difficult and stressful process.
While some departments are open and willing to sit down with student representatives to discuss their concerns and work hard to find ways to alleviate them (and I am very lucky to be in such a department), they also face constraints by broader college hierarchies and higher-education funding structures.
In order to sustainably improve conditions for PhDs and postdocs, we need to create college, or even sectoral, bargaining agreements which set a minimum standard for doctoral and postdoctoral working conditions.
And to do that we need unions. PhD candidates and teaching assistants are often not on employment contracts but rather on scholarships agreements, making a formal collective workplace dispute near impossible without some creative representation.
If Irish Federation of University Teachers (perhaps in collaboration with the students’ unions) can find a way to represent PhDs, they may find themselves with a wave of new lifelong members. They would have one new member for sure. – Yours, etc,
(PhD candidate and Irish
Government of Ireland
Trinity College Dublin)