Amelie, PhD student in the UK

Amelie is a British PhD student in Neuroscience. We asked her to provide some insight into the life of a PhD student, the difficulties she has faced, and how the lines between student and work blur when you are a PhD student. This asks: should PhD students be entitled to the same rights as an employee of the university?

‘I love research and investigating my own scientific question. There is no typical workday; I work 9-5, but also on weekends and evenings depending on what needs to be done. Researchers often take their work home with them, to keep on top of the ever-growing relevant literature; as well as analysing results, planning experiments and meetings. You have to love what you do to survive a PhD and a career in research’

‘The academic environment comes with a lot of pressure. You are expected to work extra hours and 7-day weeks to succeed in a PhD. This is enforced by our supervisors; who endured this themselves. We are reminded that taking holidays may mean making up for it after the funding period for the PhD has ended. My peers will often talk about how long they worked last night/over the weekend/how many days in a row they have worked. So it isn’t a surprise that people in academia are at serious risk of mental health problems. It is a gift and a joy to have a job that you love, but it shouldn’t spill over into personal time’

‘The opportunities and funding available in academia become more competitive as you progress. Around <1% of PhD candidates become a professor, and not many will achieve a permanent position at an institute (i.e. a lecturer). Looking around, you realise that most people in these senior positions are men. Maternity leave can negatively impact a woman’s career in research, and even the language of a reference letter can differ depending on your gender. There’s stigma around leaving academia, but a PhD gives so many transferable skills: public engagement, communicating research at conferences, organising events, planning projects. Research skill development is important, but other skills and employment prospects need to be promoted and celebrated’

‘Although PhD students, we work as employees. We work on research projects to produce papers that will have the university institute stamped on them. Some of us take on extra work with undergraduate students, in which case we are staff. If you can stand up for your rights and beliefs with confidence then you will be noticed. Nonetheless, this takes some perseverance, which young people at the start of their career may still be learning’

‘I have experienced problems regarding the wellbeing services in the university which are designed for undergraduate students. Since PhD candidacy is a blurred line between student and staff; when seeking support for mental health and returning to work from sick leave, I have been left in limbo as the services at the University are unsure where to send me. This experience really opened my eyes to the bureaucracy problems and the position of PhD students within the University’

‘To have better support from politicians and the government – they could start by allowing PhD students of other nationalities to enter the country for conferences! There have been horrible situations of students denied entry to the UK to attend conferences, because ‘they may try to stay in the country illegally’, despite already studying at a top European institution. Free movement is a vital right for all academics, not just students. It enables collaboration, and the exchange of knowledge and techniques to build on scientific knowledge. Governments should also commit to more funding for PhD students to progress through their careers in research. On a local level, there needs to be protection from landlords asking students to pay council tax, as PhD students are still exempt from paying tax. Finally, there should be protection for all academics within the University from the environmental pressure of working all hours/days/weekends. I am still an ‘academic-in-training’, but I plan to make a stand myself by making a point of taking lunch breaks; leaving work on time; not working weekends and not allowing myself to feel bad for it!’

*In this article a fictional name is used in order to safeguard privacy

The text was collected by Eleanor from the Social Europe Working Group of FYEG. 

Europeans at work is a weekly blog initiated by the Social Europe Working Group about work circumstances in Europe. We research structural problems through personal stories.

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