The PhD student-employment limbo

I’m 27; I work full time; I have a mortgage - however I don’t pay tax. The reason being that I am not “working”40+ hours a week, I am “studying” 40+ hours a week as I am a PhD student. I live in the limbo between student and employee.


I knew I wanted to get into scientific research after my first lab based project. I was very lucky to get a 4 year scholarship at the University of Glasgow starting at the end of 2009. It also seemed a great deal. Going from an impoverished student to earning £1,132.49 a month tax free sounded brilliant! Three and a half years in the novelty has well and truly worn off and I am most definitely earning less that I would have been had a left university behind- but that is not my complaint.


Last night I received an email telling me that due to new government legislation being rolled out the University of Glasgow would be entitled to offer workplace pensions I however would not be eligible as I earned less than £787 a month as my net income is officially zero.  This is where the downsides start to creep in.


When I first tried to rent a flat from a large letting company I was told “no students”. I showed them my signed 4 year contract with my income details on it. They backed down and said ok but we want 6 months’ rent in advance. I was left looking at flat adverts in a shop window…


When it came to a mortgage I was told that almost all lenders would see me as having no income. This despite my 4 year contract being more stable and long term than almost anyone is likely to be offered when venturing into post-docing for the first time where 1-2 year contracts are the norm.


If I happened to be a woman and become pregnant during my PhD then the water becomes very murky indeed. Not being an employee I would not be legally entitled to any form of maternity leave. The research councils advise that PhD students are treated the same way as employees in this situation and state that they provide sufficient funding is provided to allow for this. The very best advice is no legal grantee.


I was at a Royal Academy of Engineering forum when David Willetts (Minister for universities and science) was asked what he thought of the maternity (let’s not even stray into paternity here) leave provided during PhDs. He reminded the woman that her income was tax free and that we can’t have it all ways. He also implied that there was further research being carried out on this matter. Well no one ever asked me if I would like to forgo paying tax in exchange for a disassociation with employment law.


So what is someone signing when they accept their contract?

Well your workplace pension will be vetoed.

Maternity and paternity leave will be left to the whim of institutions or supervisors.

Banks and letting companies may or may not be interested in you.

No official entitlement to holidays (that I am aware of)


You buy this with the £130 you save in not paying tax. I would like to see PhD studentships recognised for what they are – jobs. I have a full time job but little in the way of rights. Of course to most this is fine but to the few that could be affected it could be devastating.

Tax us. Use that tax to increase our income. Increase it to £1,325 that way after tax we will still be earning the same low wage but we’ll have more legal rights. Legislate that funding bodies must provide maternity and paternity leave, sickness pay and all other binds that keep us safe at work.



Of course it is not all bad; until then you still get a discount at the cinema.

Since I wrote this I've already had someone mention a particular failure to the system. While writting up and unpaid this person suffered an injury and wasn't fit for work- of course being a student and funding being finished (happens to almost all PhD students) he wasn't entitled to any benifits. This shows a double failure of the system- the lack of sufficent funding to cope with thesis writing and the lack of support in unusual circumstances and the lack of appropriate funding for the length of a PhD. All PhD students who have had less that four years funding in my lab have had to work unpaid until they finished adding financial stress to that of writting up and finding a new job.


Many have also told me they know their holiday entitlement so it may just be me that was never told. However you would be hard pushed to find aPhD student who takes their allotted max. Indeed you would find it hard to find a PhD student who is capabe of switching off at the weekends without a crippling guilt.