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Low-paid PhD students: ‘I work three part-time jobs to make ends meet living in Dublin’

Despite their vital role in higher education, many survive on less than €10,000 a year

The third-level sector, and the wider economy, depends on PhD researchers. They provide vital support to academics. They produce important research for the public and private sectors, allowing for breakthroughs in science and technology, innovations in law and business, and deeper understandings of society and culture. Their fees are a vital source of income for higher education institutions, and the number of PhD students in each institution impacts on their all-important ranking.

Yet most PhD researchers live below the poverty line and with no assurance that their work and doctorate will lead them out of precarious employment. Less than a third will receive a form of funding, but many survive on less than €10,000 or less per year. Humanities scholars, in particular, struggle to find the same level of support as those working in science, technology or engineering.

PhD researchers have a simple and consistent demand. Over the past 15 years they have lobbied and fought to be treated as workers, with access to the same rights – including pensions and maternity leave – of all workers.

But successive governments and university administrators, knowing that this group of campaigners will wash through the system, have usually been able to wait them out. In recent years, however, the Postgraduate Workers’ Organisation (PWO) has steadily been putting in place a structure that may ensure it lasts as a lobbying organisation.


Meanwhile, almost all Opposition parties have supported their demands, ratcheting up the political pressure on the Government.

Earlier this year the PWO published research into the conditions of PhD researchers in Ireland. The report – Workers in all but name, pay and conditions – suggests moving away from treating PhD researchers merely as students in receipt of an education and towards a model that recognises them as workers that higher education cannot function without.

On foot of a call-out on X (formerly Twitter), The Irish Times received dozens of stories from PhD researchers. The majority asked not to be identified. Several themes emerged: subsistence wages; lack of sick leave or maternity leave; a sense of precarity and delayed adulthood with researchers staying at home and putting off having their own family.

“My funding is €9,000 per year, including teaching work and grading of hundreds of assignments,” said one. “I am a full-time PhD researcher with three part-time jobs in order to make ends meet living in Dublin. I find myself with little time for writing in this, my final year, so I am not going to make my deadline.”

Many PhD researchers say that there is more than just financial pressure, and that they are at the mercy of their supervisors.

“The workload demanded of me and a fellow PhD student was extreme, and at times we were working over 50 hours a week, including evenings and weekends,” says one researcher who recently completed their PhD. “We tried to speak up for ourselves, but nothing improved.”

“Precarity only increases after the PhD,” says one who lived at home to receive her doctorate. “I am putting off trying to get pregnant because my PhD fellowship – and every postdoctoral contract I’ve had – has little to no provision for adequate maternity leave.”

For disabled students, meanwhile, there are further barriers.

“I scramble to afford living and the cost of doing my PhD,” says one disabled student. “Disabled people spend so much time looking after and maintaining our health, proving our disability, filling out forms, that we often need to do part-time PhDs, but these have no flexible funding options. We have extra living expenses, too. I need to do a PhD to update my skills, and to gain the knowledge that could allow me flexible, part-time work. I want to get out there, contribute to society and pay tax, but we are not properly supported to go back into the workplace.”

Conor Reddy, president of the PWO, says the increased cost of living has put huge pressure on postgraduates and PhD researchers.

“I started a research assistant job in human immunology in 2019,” he says. “The pay, though not great, was slightly better than my PhD stipend. I found it difficult to survive during the PhD, living in five places in five years and being exposed to precarity, insecurity and rent pressure. Many of us are faced with having to move home in our 20s or 30s.

“Over the last 10 years, research has become dependent on the labour of PhD researchers, with most working on several projects at once, while carrying out that day-to-day research,” Reddy says.

His PhD looked at how the stress and trauma of homelessness could affect the human immune system and potentially diminish vaccine protection.

“PhD researchers are essential to research output and our work has huge economic and social benefits, but we are undervalued.

“Many are employed in term time only, finding themselves out of work and signing on for the summer; in at least one case, this has gone on for 17 years. This flexibility has become important to the universities on an ideological level, and the Government is reluctant to scrap the austerity-era employment control framework [which restricts hiring at third-level].”

Why stick around to be treated like this, though? Many bright minds choose not to pursue a PhD, and many drop out, says Reddy.

“About halfway through, I was ready to throw in the towel. But we care so much about our work and research questions, and it is easy to take advantage of us. It is disingenuous to say that we are just students: we are workers.”

Senator Alice Mary Higgins has put forward legislation on the issue.

“This precarity drives people out of academia, reduces diversity and leads to less of the creative thinking we need to tackle challenges,” she says.

“When people are on insecure and short-term contracts, it also mitigates against the deep and long-term research we need, and against independence of thought, too. It is ludicrous that the employment control framework remains in place, especially at a time of such massive change in higher education.”

Responding to the increased pressure from researchers, Budget 2023 saw an increase in funding for students in receipt of funding from the Irish Research Council or Science Foundation Ireland by €500. The Government also increased the funding level for postgraduate grants on a one-off basis.

Simon Harris, Minister for Further and Higher Education, has said that there will be further increases, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the stipend reaches €25,000, the level recommended by a national review last year.

Separately, Harris has said the Government is “committed to ensuring that researchers have the right skills development and career opportunities to allow them make their maximum contribution”.

PhD researchers in Europe: how Ireland compares

“Many European countries offer employment rights for PhD researchers,” says Rory O’Sullivan, a PhD candidate in Ancient Greek and one of the authors of the Postgraduate Workers Organisation report on the status of PhD researchers across Europe.

“The expected stereotype might be that it’s only the Scandinavian countries that offer rights, but this is not the case at all: Latvia, Estonia and the Netherlands are among the countries with much better conditions.”

And the worst, according to his research? “Ireland, Italy and Greece,” says O’Sullivan.

Austria: Some researchers have contracts, some have grants, with an average of €2,300 a month, with health and social insurance.

Denmark: All PhD researchers have employee status and contracts, with a salary equivalent to civil servants with a master’s degree.

Italy: No employee status for PhD researchers, but part of the scholarship goes to the national pension fund. Status relatively similar to Irish PhD researchers.

Latvia: Recently overhauled its PhD structures to draw in more researchers, with state salaries replacing the scholarship model.