If you’re thinking about starting a PhD, or if you’re a current PhD candidate, there’s a good chance that somewhere along the line you’ve wondered if taking the PhD route is a good decision financially. I am a first-generation university student, and came to tertiary education later in life, having spent my twenties working (sometimes two jobs) and travelling. When I finally decided to start my Bachelor’s degree at age 30 I was earning a decent wage as an IT professional but was willing to sacrifice salary to pursue a formal education. I worked part-time during my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees (again, sometimes two jobs) and have now devoted myself full-time to my PhD. I’m not motivated by money, and following a passion rather than money has its benefits, but life costs money. So, I find myself asking questions like ‘would I be better off financially if I had gotten a graduate position, or another full-time role, rather than pursuing a PhD?’ and ‘would I feel more confident in myself, my skills and my place in society, if I were earning more than minimum wage?’. Right now, for me, the answer to both those questions is yes.
Australian PhD candidates generally have at least 4-5 years tertiary education prior to entering a PhD program, making us highly educated, skilled individuals. Graduate positions require similar qualifications, but are more rewarding in terms of salary than PhD positions. For example, the 2020 Research Training Program (RTP) base stipend is $28,092, while graduate employees working for organisations like the Department of Health or the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources receive starting salaries of $62,592 and $67,094 respectively, an increase in salary after completing the one-year graduate program and 15.4% superannuation. Admittedly, one of the benefits of the RTP stipend is that it is tax free, however no superannuation is paid on these earnings. After one year, a Department of Health graduate will have received almost $10,000 in super contributions, while a PhD candidate, without another form of superannuation-paying income, will have received $0.
When possible, contributing a portion of your RTP stipend to a super account could be a good idea, even $10-20 per week adds up over time. If you are eligible, the Australian government will match personal contributions of up to $1,000 at 50 cents in the dollar. So, $520 contributed personally over the course of a year adds up to $780 if the government kicks in. Even if you have another source of income that pays super, the contribution from your stipend can still be valuable.
There are also departments, research groups, and external funders who provide top-up scholarships to PhD candidates without requiring extra hours of work to be done. This is valued, you are seen, and appreciated by PhD students. But this is not always enough.
For people who aren’t familiar with the academic system, working in academia can be equated with earning the big bucks. After all, I have multiple university degrees and am now going out in the field, doing research, writing papers and presenting my work at conferences, which all seems like very important work. The way I explain my PhD candidature to my friends and family is that it is like an apprenticeship. I no longer attend classes, do exams, or get three-month summer vacations, rather I am an active researcher learning from and being guided by my more experienced colleagues. Unfortunately, the similarities between the PhD program and other apprenticeships do not extend to the payment system. For example, Australian apprentices generally receive pay increases annually, or when they reach a certain skill level. This acknowledges that over time their value to their industry has increased. For example, joinery and hairdresser apprentices receive an increase in pay after each year of the apprenticeship. They also receive higher hourly rates for working outside regular business hours e.g. weekends, and public holidays. PhD candidates aren’t paid overtime, at any pay rate and, perhaps more significantly, don’t have a similar method of recognition via an increase in pay in line with knowledge and skills acquired, or greater responsibility taken on in our research groups, as our PhD program progresses.
It must be satisfying to be recognised as a skilled, educated individual and be given a salary that reflects that. Acknowledgment that your value as an employee has increased, by receiving incremental pay increases, must be something of a confidence booster. It is possible that the imposter syndrome felt by some PhD candidates is partially linked to how we are rewarded financially. Do PhD candidates undervalue their knowledge and their abilities because, when the PhD stipend is broken down into an hourly rate, we are earning less than minimum wage? Entry into a PhD program indicates we are educated and skilled individuals, but our base pay doesn’t reflect that. Even as we progress through our PhD program, feelings of inadequacy can persist, despite becoming more experienced with each year that passes. While the PhD stipend has been increasing by a small amount each calendar year in line with inflation, it doesn’t increase in recognition of an individual’s progression through the program, i.e. candidates in the first month of the PhD program get paid the same amount as candidates in their last month.
I am not trying to rally PhD candidates to go on strike or demand a raise in PhD stipends. The university sector is changing and holding on to a job at a university as an established employee is hard enough. But for undergraduate and postgraduate students, considering alternative paths to a fulfilling career that are more stable, and financially rewarding, could be an idea. And, if a PhD is still your chosen path, think about how you can really benefit from your program. Take advantage of what your university offers PhD candidates for free or at a reduced rate e.g. counselling services, career advice, library access, software licences, seminars and networking opportunities. Even though your income may be less than in other jobs, try to get real value out of your PhD so that you can honestly say the extras have made up for that. And, if you find it hard to take guilt-free time off, remember that Australian PhD candidates receive 20 days annual leave per year, as well as sick leave, as part of the legislation. PhD candidates are often passionate about their research, and some work extra hours happily, but we don’t get paid nearly enough to feel bad for taking time off when we need it.
Kelly-Anne Lawler is a PhD Candidate at the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences.