The price of a PhD

Washington on dollar note

(image from

It’s a somewhat common assumption that you have to pay a certain toll to be successful: For a PhD this can mean heaps of frustration in the lab, but also limited contracts, extra hours and a lousy pay. This last point was subject to a recent, US-centric feature in Nature. There, the author had one suggestion for those who cannot afford their PhD: Take on a side-job! While this may seem pragmatic at first glance and “can [even] yield opportunities for skill development and professional advancement” it overlooks the underlying reason – meager funding and undergrad debt, especially in the US – and consequences – exclusion of those facing socioeconomic challenges. So the indignant responses don’t come as a surprise.

Strikingly, Roda, who penned the second piece the tweet sarcastically refers to, studied and obtained her PhD in Europe. While the pay for PhD students here is not competitive on average either (with “fat tails” on both ends of the distribution), at least university education is much cheaper, free for everyone or even paid (e.g. in Denmark) giving prospective PhD students more financial freedom.
Nevertheless, leaving political and societal differences aside, being compelled to work multiple jobs for a basic standard of living is different to me from spending your leisure time for volunteering. Given that their research is kind of a hobby to many scientists it may appear as a fine line whether you work side-jobs so that you can continue your “science hobby” or whether you volunteer besides your scientific work. The difference perceived on the inside is a huge one.


author Christoph Heuser

Christoph Heuser