Being a PhD student is crap. The pay is low, the hours are long and the culture is stiflingly competitive. But there’s an additional catch – you aren’t even considered an employee. The University and Colleges Union (UCU) has recently started to campaign to recognise PhD candidates as staff members, but we need to appreciate why this is necessary.

Junior researchers perform a significant portion of research and teaching of the university. In return, they recieve no employment protection under UK law – no furlough, no right to paid maternity or sick leave and no right to join a trade union. Unlike any other job, universities charge a tuition fee (typically £4,327 pa.), paid either by your supporting funding body, or (if unfunded) from your own pocket. Both facts emphasise the lack of respect junior researchers are shown.

This lack of respect is further demonstrated by junior researcher pay. The PhD stipend is an untaxed income typically between £15,000-17000 pa., which can be higher depending on your funding body. On average PhD candidates work 47 hours a week, with no remuneration for any extra time spent doing research work. Depending on the council tax band you fall within, this salary falls well below the annual take home pay working the equivalent hours on minimum wage (£18,500).  Luckily, this is not precarious minimum wage work, as the stipend provides guaranteed income, regardless of the hours worked. Nevertheless, this income is insufficient for those in existing financial difficulty or those who support others as carers or parents.

The mental health figures for junior researchers are dire. A survey among Flemish PGRs found researchers were nearly 3 times more likely to suffer from one or more common symptoms of psychiatric disorders compared to other highly educated individuals. The UK picture is not much better – 37% of UK survey respondents had sought treatment for anxiety and depression linked to their research. Many cite a lack of proper work-life balance, high demands to produce work, and the competitive culture of academia as contributing factors. Solutions from the university usually come in the form of resilience or mindfulness training. I reserve a deep cynicism towards this approach – such solutions place the onus onto the individual while ignoring the real material problems the universities are empowered to mitigate.

Properly contextualising these results by comparing survey responses with other European countries emphasises how stark these problems have become. Double the number of PhD candidates in the UK take a second job to financially support themselves (10% vs. 4 % to make ends meet). Only 34% are satisfied by the workplace benefits they receive compared to 67% for their European counterparts. Although some problems are systemic to academia, the UK is uniquely failing their most junior researchers.

So what protections do PhD candidates get with their student status? Consider maternity leave and sick pay – in the UK, employees are entitled to 26 weeks of maternity leave and can claim long term statutory payment should they fall ill over an extended period. However, for PhD students, there is no statutory right to either of these provisions. Leading research councils in the UK often provide paid maternity leave in line with UK employment law, but this is not universal. Entitlement to sick pay is again heavily dependent on the funding body. And any extension to funding does not necessarily imply an extension of candidature. Although the UK Research and Innovation funding body (UKRI) requires universities to provide candidature extension in line with the period of absence, for other funding providers, these decisions can be left to internal review by the universities themselves.

The pandemic has highlighted the diminished rights of students. Lockdown restrictions made field or lab research impossible. Those who could work remotely often forced to do so from a single room of their shared accommodation, expected to produce the same quantity and quality of research as before. Yet the UKRI only allocated £63 mn of the required £81 mn to fulfil the requested extensions, mainly for final year students. To non-final year candidates, funding is often a last resort. You are told to adapt – your final deadlines are the same, you’re not getting extra money. This short term thinking can only reduce research quality, increase time pressure, and mean more and more people fail to finish their PhDs. In contrast, employees throughout the UK were – by and large – covered by the furlough scheme, allowing them to take a leave of absence and remain on the payroll of their employer.

There is a common theme here. As students, many basic employment rights are subject to the mercy of the institution and funding bodies – no university is compelled by law to provide these basic necessities. Student status has allowed PhD researchers to fall through the cracks of government programs intended for employees over the pandemic, despite severe disruptions to their work.

The UCU’s campaign to categorize postgraduate researchers as staff, if successful, will mean PhD students would receive legal protection as employees, including the right to withdraw labour through a trade union. For research to be viewed as labour would represent a massive cultural shift within the university sector. Allowing union participation gives researchers more influence in university decision making, while supporting the campaigns of other employees.

None of this is unfeasible. Germany and Sweden recognise the majority of PhD researchers as employees, enjoying the associated legal protection and have a strong presence within university unions. Research can be wonderful – I, and many others, enjoy the creative freedom to tackle a problem at the frontier of their field. But this is being taken advantage of, and while the current system works to the advantage of universities, little will change. Academic research is work. Universities must recognise this by setting the rights of PhD researchers in stone.