I’m not talking about the general expense of science here; although I could since my own department thinks it’s acceptable to charge £20 for a timer and £800 for a run-of-the-mill laptop. I’m also not talking about the financial benefits of a PhD that are dangled like a proverbial carrot to keen undergrads and masters students; the tax-free wage, the student discount and the no-council-tax-benefit. What I want to talk about today is the emotional cost of a PhD, and this is possibly the biggest cost of all. I’m not saying this applies to everyone as I see people every day coping with their research in a matter-of-fact, mature and sorted manner. But academia also harbours a huge number of issues.
The problem, I think, is the Jekyll and Hyde duality of research. Working hours are flexible, and work can often be done whenever you want. But if you can work any time you can end up working all the time. Careers are based upon results, but in the nature of science results are not always guaranteed. Doing a PhD you work for yourself – you can set your own targets but everyone else becomes a competitor or someone to compare yourself too. PhD students are cheap labour academically but expensive physically (desk space, lab space, consumables…) so there’s pressure to finish and write up from one side and to ‘just fit in one more experiment’ from others. Remember having essay deadlines or exams just after the holidays? There was always something in the back of your mind hanging over you. With ongoing research it’s just the same – it’s hard to switch off.
When I finished my degree all I wanted was a 9-5 and some structure in my life. I’m the sort of person who likes to get things finished – dotted ‘i’s and crossed ‘t’s. So for a long time I thought I was the only one struggling with the PhD lifestyle. But everywhere I look there’s more examples of how doing a PhD screws you over, even as I write this the boys in my office are discussing how PhD stands for ‘permenant head damage’. There’s insomnia, illness, sedatives, workaholics, breakdowns, antidepressants and plenty more science blogs saying the same thing. When I joined a new doctor’s practice at the start of my PhD the nurse registering me told me to be careful; “we see lots of people with depression which only clears up when they finish their degree and get a proper job”.
In reality, it’s clear not everyone that feels this way. Everyone may moan about it, but moaning is the great British pastime, and the number of people who end up doing a postdoc after their PhD tells me that many people enjoy what they do. But for me? Maybe I’m just naïve about work, but I want a job that makes a difference, and my science is so dislocated from the real world. I want a job with a work-life-balance, not one where people work every weekend and I never feel I’ve done enough. I want a job that respects the work and effort I put in. I consider a PhD to be about equivalent to a graduate scheme – they both involve training and individual work and are both open to motivated and intelligent graduates. Yet on a graduate scheme you work hard for 12-18 months then are rewarded with a permanent job and a pay rise. PhD students work beyond hard for three years with no pay rise (sometimes more with no pay) and are rewarded with no job security. Even if you carry on to a postdoc, you’re offered a 5 year contract at the absolute maximum, who can plan a future on that?
“A PhD don’t come for free” I was told by a senior academic a few weeks ago as he explained the work ethic he expected from his students. I think the phrase works both ways, PhD students also “don’t come for free”. Yes, I get paid, but I’m financially no better off now, working my ass off doing a job that uses all of my brain and a degree I spent three years (and £9000 on fees) training for, than I was when I was a waitress and could switch off at the end of the day. A PhD student don’t come for free…and maybe it’s about time science, senior scientist, funding bodies, the government, or even the general public, realised that.
edit 8th Jan 2011: for an American take on graduate stipends visit this blog post.