PhD Students Deserve to be Paid for their Labour.

A spectre is haunting the academy. That spectre is me.


A spectre is haunting the academy. That spectre is me. In recent weeks, I have received an abundance of haunted looks from academics, wide-eyed and terrified at my presence. And what is behind my ghoulishness? The answer is simple: Asking to be paid.

Academia is a strange game. Our wages are not concurrent with our labour. We are often not paid for journal articles, office hours, impact work, marking, and more. We know this. Yet we continue. To call unpaid labour the academy’s dirty secret would be unfair: it isn’t a secret at all. Rather, unpaid labour is filthy laundry pegged to the washing line and aired for all to see. We know this. Yet we continue. For many, the merits of an academic job outweigh the emotional labour, the long hours and the unusual tasks thrust upon us. As a PhD student, I am fully aware of the unpaid labour expected of me: I write journal articles, I undertake impact work, I offer my students much more of my time than I am paid for. I am happy to do so, as well as rewarded tenfold by currencies that stretch beyond economic recompense.

It is time, however, to draw a line in the sand. As doctoral candidates, we find ourselves stranded in the no-man’s land between student and employee. Our worker’s rights are nebulous, our sick pay non-existent, our holiday monitored as an indulgence. Drifting through this educational quagmire, many find themselves undertaking jobs that our tenured colleagues do not have the time for, or simply cannot be bothered with. It is easily done. A little administrative work here, a blog post there. It all builds up. We undertake these jobs (and it is important we start referring to them as jobs) in the hope that they will thicken our academic portfolios or that a professor will remember us somewhere along the line. More often than not, these hopes melt away into nothingness. Students are burdened with so many tasks that their thesis takes a hit, leading to poor mental health and burnout. I cannot count the number of times I have had a friend break down in front of me in recent months. In particular, this is happening to self-funded students who are working jobs alongside their PhDs to pay for fees, travel, accommodation and life. The stress of precarity, combined with low wages and little free time, is simply too much. We can all sympathise.

The term ‘vocation’ has a lot to answer for here. The very notion of a vocation dangerously blends our personal and professional lives by insinuating that our jobs are our lives. We are not permitted a barrier between the two. At doctoral level, this is made vociferously clear. We are a chosen few, we should feel special and, more importantly, grateful for the opportunity of undertaking a doctorate, no matter how skilled or successful we may be in other areas of our lives. We quickly find that ‘PhD’ does not just refer to our line of work. It is who we are, our very state of being. Of course, a PhD is a privilege, but it is also a job, and we cannot dismiss that. Turned against us, the term vocation asks us to forget that we are a labour force employed by the university to undertake research. It asks us to meekly trudge along, thankful for whatever tasks we are asked to perform, whether or not we are paid and whether or not we benefit.

This is why we must resist unpaid labour.

Luckily, it is a simple enough process – though it can produce some embarrassing results. In recent weeks, if an academic has asked me to perform a task that I feel I should be paid for, or would be paid for outside of academia, then I ask what the wage is. This is a fair enough question, but often results in hand-wringing, the sound of mouths struggling for words before they are filled with apologies, and, of course, swift exists. Brazen academics are easier to deal with. They put their offer on the table: There is no wage. These barefaced situations are preferable as they allow one to decide there and then whether they should commit to the project at hand, as well as discuss how they will be compensated.

Academics that keep their cards close to their chest are much more dangerous. Recently, a senior lecturer asked me to produce a podcast as part of a funded research project he is leading on. When I asked to be paid, he was incredulous. In his eyes, he was doing me a favour. I asked about my wider involvement within the project and he assured me that I ‘would be credited’. No promise of a partnership, a by-line, a reference. A simple word-of-mouth assurance that credit would appear. I politely declined and spent the time writing a journal article instead. On another occasion, an academic asked me to run poster making workshops. In previous roles outside of the academy I undertook professional courses to learn how to use Photoshop and InDesign as my manager believed these skills would add to the companies’ profitability. Again, I asked about wages. The reply was polite: ‘Unfortunately, there is no budget’. There is budget elsewhere, however. I have a colleague that freelances as a designer alongside their PhD. I know another who works as a journalist for a host of popular magazines on the side. Both are paid for their labour. And rightly so. As researchers, we should not expect any different. Our labour is important; it deserves to be valued.

Of course, there are times when you may wish to undertake unpaid labour. I do too, if it benefits me. Having been a PhD for a little over a year, I have developed a series of questions that helps me decide whether I should take up an academic on their offer:

  1. Would I be paid for this outside of the academy?
  2. Will this benefit me?
  3. Will I be credited for my work?
  4. Do I have the time to undertake this project?

Asking these simple questions allows me to ascertain the relationship between my labour and my status in the academy. Do academics think I am worth enough to be paid? If not, will my labour increase my standing? If the answer if no to both, then this project really is a waste of time and energy that could better be spent elsewhere on teaching, writing, reading, drafting and editing. Put simply: Utilising my labour to better support myself and my career elsewhere.

If you are an academic with a tenured position, then you can join the resistance by paying PhD students for their work. There are many routes to achieving this: Include their wages in your funding bid, encourage your institution to offer research assistant roles, open a part time position through the university. If all else fails, then pay them out of your own wages. This is not a radical idea, £7.85 an hour is not a lot to ask for. Of course, there are many projects that are purely voluntary, where everyone’s involvement is unpaid labour. In these cases, ensure that PhD students involved in the project are not simply thanked, but properly credited for their labour. If a project requires PhDs to undertake tasks to be successful and viable, then those PhDs are the very lifeblood of the project and should be treated as so. A simple word of mouth thanks is not enough, and PhDs should be included on websites, in print publications and so on.

At a time when the academy is becoming ever more neoliberal, and when academic jobs are ever more scarce, doctoral candidates must remember their worth. In this cultural moment, it is imperative that we demand recompense for our services. Appreciation is not enough. To succeed, we cannot become foisted with unpaid and uncredited work. The message is clear: PhDs deserve to be paid for their labour. In time, I hope to see more spectres haunting the academy.