Comment & Analysis
Mar 27, 2023

PhD Researchers Should Be Recognised as Staff

Given the contributions they make to the Irish research economy and the higher education sector, postgraduate researchers should be recognised as staff for their work, writes the PWO.

Postgraduate Workers' OrganisationContributing Writer
Giulia Grillo for The University Times

For almost a year, people in Ireland have been told they are in a cost-of-living crisis. You could say that PhD researchers have faced a cost-of-living crisis since the 2010s. In some cases their stipends are paid at the same rate as they were eighteen years ago, and in virtually every case PhD researchers earn less than the minimum wage.

Most funding awards do not cover all fees or university administrative charges. About a third of our members have stipends that do not last the full length of their PhD. Every funding award comes with the need to sign a declaration to the Revenue Commission that one’s stipend is not received in exchange for any service (e.g., teaching). For more than two-thirds of our members, this declaration is false. Teaching may be mandatory in exchange for a stipend, or it may be necessary for extra income. Usually the rate of pay is around €30 per hour excluding preparation time, despite the fact that, depending on the class, it may take considerable time to prepare.

As PhD researchers are considered students and not employees, many submit their theses having made no PRSI contributions, meaning they are ineligible for ordinary public healthcare benefits such as free dentist visits or eye tests. For the same reason, non-EU researchers cannot count their years living in Ireland doing a PhD towards naturalisation for citizenship. Each year they must renew their Irish student visa at a cost of €300 per year. Often the terms of the visa prevent them from being able to attend conferences abroad. At a minimum of approximately €500 per year, non-EU researchers have to buy their own health insurance. Between the two, this adds up to an extra charge of almost €1,000 per year.


It is not easy to work or study in Ireland for many reasons: the lack of affordable places to rent; the price of eating, drinking and socialising; and lately the cost of electricity and gas. But PhD researchers have had to deal with these while earning little to no pay and working long hours (considerably more than a 9-5 job) teaching and research and assisting labs. This often features conditions of heightened insecurity or simply abandonment by their institutions if they fall sick or end up bullied by their supervisor or become pregnant or suddenly face eviction as PhDs rarely if ever sign contracts with their institutions. In many cases, if a parent or disabled PhD researcher must suddenly take a leave of absence for six or 12 months, they lose their funding entirely.

For PhD researchers, this has been their way of life for years, with each year getting worse – the situation is much starker than a crisis. A crisis refers to a sort of external shock, an eruption outside the usual course of things that provokes a change. But the meagre living conditions of most PhD researchers are not the result of any external shock. The present system of higher education requires PhDs to fill teaching and lab positions, without paying or treating them fairly, because doing so would be more expensive. Instead, the living conditions of PhD researchers in Ireland have been university and government policy.

The Postgraduate Workers’ Organisation (PWO) seeks to end this situation in which universities and the government depend on the work of PhD researchers yet do not treat them as staff. We officially launched the organisation in March and have thousands of members across every university nationwide. We have held forums, drafted proposals, met with academic management and various politicians, gathered in protests and we will continue these activities as we must.

Recently, a combination of political pressure and the cost-of-living crisis has brought some important changes – that is to say, people have started to listen to PhD voices. By September, some people’s stipends will have gone up. This March, the government initiated a once-in-a-generation review of the conditions of PhD research by the Department of Higher Education and Research. The review’s remit includes the question of whether PhD researchers are students or workers. It also includes other issues such as stipends, conditions and visa requirements for non-EU researchers.

Obviously, we welcome these: they are signs of an acknowledgement by universities and the government that things cannot go on as they were, and a willingness to do something about it. If the review makes the right suggestions, and the government accepts and legislates them, it will dramatically improve the situation of PhD researchers in Ireland. But the reforms must be significant and not merely a plaster on an increasingly festering wound – and they must be administered as soon as possible. That is what we are now advocating.

We seek the following:
1. Swift implementation of any reforms proposed, especially stipend reform (by September). PhDs should not have to wait longer for a living wage. They should not need to decide between buying groceries or paying their electricity bill next winter. The present crisis means they will have to make such decisions until reforms are implemented – or else they will have to drop out of their PhDs.

2. A proposal for recognising PhD researchers as staff. There are all kinds of costs and difficulties resulting from the fact that PhD researchers are treated as students. Until they are recognised by universities and government bodies as staff, these problems are likely to be ignored or worsened, and PhD researchers may have no mechanism to resolve them. But also, PhD researchers are staff: just as trainee solicitors are staff, junior doctors are staff, and graduate-entry workers in every business and government department are staff. In a university, research output and students are the product. But to do this, universities depend on the work of PhD researchers – they make the product.

3. Equal funding of PhD researchers. A problem which has come into stark relief with Trinity’s recent announcement to raise internal stipends is how much people with different funding streams are on completely different amounts of money. It should not be allowed that one researcher is earning double the person at the desk beside them simply because they have funding from different sources. All stipends should be living wages raised annually in line with inflation.

4. Equal treatment of PhD researchers. Disabled PhD researchers have far less support in universities than staff and undergraduate students. In some cases, taking a leave of absence (for example, because of illness) may lead to funding being withdrawn. The considerable added difficulties faced by non-EU researchers simply because they are not from a country in the European Union are also unfair and discriminatory. Non-EU researchers should be able to live with dignity in Ireland and contribute to Irish society. A PhD should be available to any person who applies for one and is accepted. It should not be something only afforded to certain kinds of people.

That is what we will fight for in the coming months. We welcome every kind of support. PhD researchers should get involved, above all, by filling out the membership form, and we send emails every week with news and events. Soon there will be elections, and further actions.

Anyone else can receive similar information by signing up as a friend of the PWO using the form available via our social media channels. They can follow us and engage with us on social media – we particularly appreciate public expressions of support from academic staff and departments.

Excellent PhD research and teaching must be paid for. It is time universities and the government paid for it instead of passing the cost down to researchers themselves in the form of low pay and insecurity. It is time for us all to raise our voices – if we speak together, they will listen.

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