Comment & Analysis
Oct 17, 2021

Trinity’s Dean of Research Says PhD Students Should Be Workers. Can He Make It Happen?

Wolfgang Schmitt told this newspaper that he sees PhD students 'as co-workers within a research environment'.

By The Editorial Board

Postgraduate students will have been pleased to read this week that Trinity’s new Dean of Research Wolfgang Schmitt believes that PhD candidates should be treated as workers, not students. PhD students themselves have been calling for this change for some time, but the fact that the man who essentially dictates Trinity’s research policies supports their cause is hugely significant.

Schmitt said that “whether you pay them in a stipend or in a salary, it probably doesn’t directly make so much difference” – but if doctoral candidates are treated as workers, they are entitled to basic workers’ rights such as sick pay. PhD students’ entitlements are significantly less clear in many cases. So this is more than a shift in semantics.

But will Schmitt get behind substantial lobbying to change PhD conditions in Trinity? Until recently, College was notoriously blasé on improving postgraduate conditions, going as far as voting to cut the already meagre pay for casual staff, many of whom are PhD students trying to make ends meet. College ultimately rowed back on this decision, but only after students protested.


This year, postgraduates got a small win when College Board approved a policy under which it must provide occasional staff with the terms and conditions of their employment within five days of their work beginning.

But addressing the conditions of casual staff doesn’t directly tackle the issue of where PhD students stand in the research pecking order. Dean of Postgraduate Studies Martine Smith told this newspaper that removing the “student” tag could mean that the role of education in a PhD is lost – but the fact is that doctoral candidates contribute to research, teach classes and labs and do many other jobs that are much closer to staff than student.

Student or worker, it’s no longer a secret that undertaking a PhD is a long, lonely road with a financial burden that puts it out of reach for many. PhDs now have a senior College officer on their side, but Schmitt’s comments won’t mean much if he doesn’t use his position to put doctoral candidates firmly on Trinity’s research agenda.