NatureRegular PhD and postgraduate surveys are our regular check-in with the next generation of scientific talent. This year’s survey should set off alarm bells for everyone involved in recruiting and training the next generation of researchers. It requires swift, decisive action by governments and funding agencies to secure the future of science and the broader economic and social benefits it will bring.
About 85% of the 3,253 self-selected respondents from around the world are concerned about rising inflation. Three quarters of them are PhD students. 45% of all respondents say that inflation will “negatively affect” their decision to complete their projects or courses. “It’s hard to feel valued as a researcher when I’m worried about paying for car repairs or getting groceries off the food bank,” one graduate student told us in the free text portion of the survey. This is by no means an isolated comment in our survey.
Stress and uncertainty reduce the satisfaction of doctoral students
Financial hardship is not a rite of passage or a temporary inconvenience. It could be an existential threat to today’s PhD and Masters students. If so, then it will also pose an existential threat to research itself. If students do not have the resources to support themselves, they cannot fully focus on their education and development. And if their grants don’t keep up with rising rents and the cost of food and fuel, the gaps will only widen over time — with devastating consequences for research’s ability to attract the best talent.
Not that these results come as a surprise. Organizations that represent students and young academics are already trying to draw attention to their plight. On October 11, a group of graduate students at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, staged a strike as part of an ongoing protest demanding a guaranteed livelihood and the kind of rights and benefits that come with academic employment contracts. The group is also trying to form a union that Dartmouth should recognize.
In September, Ireland’s PhD students organized a protest in Dublin as part of a campaign with the country’s university association for a significant increase in PhD grants. They also demand paid sick leave and parental leave.
In July, British doctoral students similarly organized protests and launched a campaign demanding more financial support from the country’s largest public funder, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
At the time, a UKRI representative said Nature: “We are aware that the rising cost of living is affecting postgraduate researchers. As such, we are actively engaging with other bodies in the industry to see if we could provide further support.” To their credit, on 1 October the agency increased the minimum 2022-23 PhD scholarship to £17,668 (US$20,400), an increase of more than £2,000 per year. However, even the increased amount is still under £20,000, which is the amount a full-time worker paying the UK a “real living wage” of £10.90 an hour would make over a year.
Graduates are facing a liquidity crisis with wages that do not cover the cost of living
Scholarships for graduate students are also well below the cost of living in the United States, a gap that has widened as inflation has risen, according to a survey conducted in May by two graduate students: Michelle Gaynor, a fourth-year graduate student in evolutionary biology at the University of Florida in Gainsville and Rhett Rautsaw, a fifth-year graduate student in evolutionary biology at Clemson University in South Carolina. In fact, there are few examples worldwide of PhD programs that pay a living wage.
The resulting financial pressure weighs on some more than others. It hits particularly hard those from low-income households, those who may be the first in their families to attend university, and those from underrepresented or historically marginalized groups—the very people that universities work diligently to recruit and retain.
If these students are unable to complete their research programs, the research’s mission to increase inclusion and diversity is also jeopardized. “If the programs don’t cover basic living expenses, then who are we voting for? People who have financial support or outside grants?” Gaynor said Nature in May.
Institutions need to rethink their approach to PhD funding. For example, you might consider graduate students to be employees subject to local living wage regulations. However, this may not be possible everywhere. Those universities unable to provide a living wage should consider waiving any bans on graduate students from working during their PhD.
Advocating for change is physically and emotionally demanding for students and researchers on top of their day-to-day work. It shouldn’t be like that. It shouldn’t take organized protests and letter-writing campaigns to spur action. Scholarships must pay a living wage and it must be recognized that inflation is eroding the value of salaries.
More funding is not always the answer to research problems. But it’s not just about dollars, euros, pounds or yuan. It’s a matter of priorities. Universities, funding agencies and governments know that today’s PhD and masters students will be tomorrow’s research leaders and team leaders. You will work in academia, industry, the public sector and non-governmental organizations. Research needs researchers who complete their studies – and they have to be able to make a living to do so.