Why I ... believe PhD students should be paid to study

May 14, 2004

The following could be the job description for PhD positions, at least in communication, culture and media studies departments: "Three years of minimal social contact, a 70-hour working week, no guarantees for completion, no definite time of release and normally no compensation offered. Equal opportunities apply, especially to those who do not get pregnant or who are not primary carers."

Well, not a job description, because reading for a PhD in the UK is not considered a job. The pride and status that goes with these three little letters is squashed under the weight of the label "student". A student in Britain is someone who has one or more of the following characteristics: they live in poverty, are schooled to expect to be spoon-fed, are too young to make life decisions, are encouraged to see tutors as the enemy, see themselves as consumers and are obsessed with marks.

We refer to future colleagues as "PhD students" - and often universities treat them like students. And now PhD students are starting to treat lecturers like teachers rather than colleagues. Teachers have become service providers and students consumers.

The culture of our higher education market encourages people to turn against each other in a haze of complaints and managerialism. Students suing their department because they have failed their exams or because their supervisor allegedly approved their work and therefore "misled" them.

Soon, academic inquiry will be submerged in an "us and them" dynamic.

In the research I have conducted on PhD students in communication studies departments, our junior colleagues use the words "disillusioning" and "isolating" to describe their experience, and is it any wonder? A similar situation must exist in social sciences departments. In contrast to the relatively well-funded posts in applied sciences departments, social sciences doctoral candidates are lucky if they get a maintenance bursary of Pounds 6,000. Subject specialisation also means that most of their work is done in solitude. Rarely are PhD projects part of larger departmental research agendas. This deprives junior colleagues of a community of like-minded researchers.

Departments are swamped with red tape and junior colleagues see academics being increasingly diverted from their true professions. Wages are a joke, and as far as "job satisfaction" is concerned, I am not sure how much will be left after we start handing out degrees in exchange for cheques. Is this the future for those who endure the psychological and financial hardships of doing a PhD?

And what about those who despite gloomy predictions continue in higher education? PhD students speak of the unwritten rules of the ivory dungeons of academe: women know only too well that pregnancy and family are a no-no.

It is poverty that drives academic decisions, not academics. Most PhD students are "lucky" enough to have either a grant or the means and academic family background to register for a PhD. Fees deter other worthy candidates.

But the PhD experience does not have to be like this. I have a suggestion: get rid of fees. Let graduates with a masters or professional experience apply for a PhD. Then pay them through a research assistantship. Give them a position in the department. Treat them as adults who need collegial guidance and academic mentoring, not forms to fill in. Bureaucracy is turning Britain into an island-sized registration office. Quality work and the dignity that derives from this are subject to endless scrutiny and this cultivates a culture of consumerism and complaint. Is all this worth it? If higher education's future leaders ask this, we are in trouble.

Katharine Sarkakis
Senior lecturer in international communications and media policy
Coventry University

For more details on Katherine Sarkakis' study, visit  www.brighton.ac.uk/adc-ltsn

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