By Naomi Hamilton O’Donnell
Choosing to go into a PhD programme is a huge undertaking. Most PhD research programmes in Ireland last four years and require a large amount of individual work, research and study. However, there is an extra set of challenges for PhD students in Irish universities that are often overlooked.
Last month on 5 October, the Postgraduate Workers Organisation (PWO) held protests nationwide to bring attention to the difficulties faced by postgraduate students in universities across Ireland. One such protest was held in the University of Galway.
Figures from a recent survey conducted by the University of Galway Students’ Union in collaboration with the PWO shed some light on the situation for PhD students attending the university. The survey was answered by 160 PhD students in the college.
Among the results, the survey found that 98.1% of respondents live off-campus, with over a quarter living more than 10 kilometres from campus. It also shows that 90.6% of respondents receive under €20,000 a year for potential full-time work, research and contributing to university studies and workforce.
These figures among other findings reveal the difficult conditions faced by PhD students. Chris Stewart, Student’s Union Postgraduate Research Officer, explains some of the realities for PhD students in Ireland.
As part of austerity measures after the 2008 financial crash, postgraduate workers’ wages were cut. Since then those wages have never fully recovered to 2008 levels. Given the current housing situation and cost of living crisis, many PhD students are struggling to make ends meet.
“In general, we’re fighting for better PhD working conditions,” explains Chris. “On average, we’re paid below minimum wage. We don’t get worker’s rights so that means no sick leave, no parental leave, nothing of that nature. We can’t contribute to PRSI so we can’t work towards our retirement for the period where we are in our PhDs.”
Another issue which affects international students is that their time spent studying a PhD in Ireland doesn’t help towards citizenship or long-term residency.
“It really kind of prevents us from being able to become a part of the community and contribute to the places that we live and learn, which we are doing at the university as a whole but we can’t ever feel safe in that long-term endeavour,” says Chris.
It is important to note the difference between Postgraduate Taught students (i.e. Masters) and Postgraduate Research students (PhDs). PhD programmes are longer and less structured than Masters programmes.
“For the vast majority of PhDs, their time spent in modules is very minimal compared to the rest of their time,” explains Chris. “They’re spending time doing their research, they’re spending time providing services to the university, whether that’s teaching or other academic related duties.”
The situation in Galway
Something unique to University of Galway PhD students is the Graduate Teaching Assistant policy, also known as the GTA. This policy is only in its second year. Chris explains that while the GTA has improved certain conditions for some postgraduates, it has reduced the rate of pay for many others.
“As you can imagine, as we don’t get paid very much in the beginning, we do take up a lot of part-time roles around the university,” says Chris. “All kinds of things: lecturing, demonstrating, tutoring, marking, fieldwork, all of the above, because we have to make ends meet.”
As postgraduate workers engaged in PhD programmes are classified as students, they are not allowed to get a salary or wages, but receive what is called a stipend for their work:
“Stipend is basically the tax-free money that is provided to a PhD researcher, typically under the form of a grant or scholarship,” explains Chris. “That is how we live, that is basically what we are paid to be doing what we’re doing – our research. I’m in one of the highest tiers at the moment and I get 19,000 per year. That is not easy to live on on its own and there are many who are much worse off than I am.”
Chris is from the United States and knows that for international students, the conditions for PhD students in Ireland can come as a shock:
“International students come from far away which is already a disadvantage in many ways, trying to find housing, things like that and then they’re at another disadvantage monetarily right off the bat.”
“But even domestic Irish students face challenges with housing, many live at home. Many do their degrees remotely or in a hybrid fashion,” he says. “For instance, in our survey, we have PhD students who live all over Ireland and some who live in their home countries who are doing their degree here, because they could financially make it work. We also have accounts of PhD researchers who are being forced to leave the university, even this semester, because they cannot make ends meet.”
Despite the challenges, there is a strong sense of community among postgraduate students and there are many ways to connect with others in the same position, as Chris highlights:
“In my opinion, it’s kind of the traditional idea of like a three-legged stool where the Student’s Union is one of those legs.”
He also added, “There is also the Postgraduate Society, and that is a wonderful social outlet as well as they do charitable work and things like that too.”
“So that’s two dimensions and the third one would be the PWO because what they are seeking to do is represent the working interests of all of the PGRs who are engaged or really all of the PGs who are engaged in any type of work at a university or an institution of higher education,” he explains. “So between those three, that is where a lot of the community building and I guess solidarity really resides.”
Chris advises anyone considering studying a PhD to gather information from as many sources as possible. He also highlights the widespread support for PhDs from many members of universities:
“And the thing is, in general, most people who learn about the situations that we face, they’re very supportive and sympathetic. That includes undergraduates and faculty and staff. Most people want things to be better. It’s just at the higher levels of universities as well as the government, that message isn’t being heard and our challenges are not being reflected or respected.”