Focusing on doing research or worrying about paying expenses?

Focusing on doing research or worrying about paying expenses?

Scientists and inventors like Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Nikola Tesla paved the road for generations of young people to pursue a career in STEM. Their curiosity underpinned their passion for science. Unfortunately, the bright side of something usually hides a dark side too. For example, Nikola Tesla struggled to find financial support for his experiments and inventions, often ending up not having an acceptable quality of life. It seems like many early career students also face a similar situation, nowadays.

According to Woolston 2022, the salary of a PhD student of biology at the University of Florida is lower than what is needed for a single person to live. This means they don’t earn enough money to cover the basic expenses for food, accommodation, medical security, and transportation. In some cases, PhD students have a contract for just 9 months of the year, which leaves them without a steady income. This situation represents a barrier to working in the academic field. On the other side of the Atlantic, the salaries of PhD candidates depend on the country where the research is conducted. Countries like Germany, Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland have an average salary of around 2600 euros after taxes, according to Fastepo ranking. For them, the living costs are close to the average, allowing for students to live decently with the expenses covered like accommodation, food, and transport. But if we move our gaze to the east, in European countries with a weaker economy, salaries are lower than average, causing financial problems for the students that, through time, could lead to lack of concentration and anxiety.

It would be amazing that the only concern about doing research is the optimism of Pinky and the Brain who were always thinking about how to take over the world. However, too often, a PhD student worries about what to eat tonight instead of their latest interesting research. The dark side of a low salary also extends to mental health challenges. According to Levecque et al. (2017), PhD students experience episodes of anxiety, psychiatric illness, and mental health crisis, which are associated to emotional fatigue due to the need to achieve goals during the PhD period. One of the relevant triggers that provoke those conditions is the lack of financial resources (Bazrafkan et al., 2016). It is important for a forming student to attend conference, present results and create a networking team. These issues are conditioned when some institutions demand their student pay in advance. Some PhD students are also expected to undertake international experience, which can raise financial issues if the living costs in the city of the host institution are higher than at home. Sometimes, the difficulties that a PhD student must overcome in the new place are ignored by the institutions which, due to a lack of organization, cannot provide the money that helps the student to cover the new living costs. Is this the best way to treat a student who wants to do the best of themselves in their research?

PhD students are always thinking about the way to take over the thesis. The anxiety, stress, writing, reading several articles, make experiments, overcome depression scenarios, are the diary shadows. It is harder for foreign students who cannot rely on the support of family and must face situations like medical illness alone. It is worse when some PhD students are the financial support of their families. Which is the best solution to solve the financial problems for early career students? Is it necessary to introduce regulations to improve the deficiencies in the academic system? Or should we consider it just ‘good luck’ to find a decent place where basic living expenses can be covered monthly? How many scientists should suffer precarious conditions to pursue a career? It is not a good signal as a society that potential great researchers with brilliant ideas cannot undertak experiments due to the lack of funding. How many decades or centuries should pass to see a really change in the academic system? Nowadays, it is common to see people leaving the academic because of unsustainable costs of life. How to find a balance between the passion to do research without being worried about how to cover the expenses? It seems like most researchers will be always thinking of what to do next like Pinky, not just for one night but also how to continue living in the future.



[1]  Bazrafkan, L., Shokrpour, N., Yousefi, A., Yamani. Management of Stress and Anxiety Among PhD Students During Thesis Writing: A Qualitative Study. The Health Care Manager 35, 231-240 (2016).

[2]   Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., Gisle, L. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy 46, 868-879 (2017).

[3]   Woolston, C. PhD students face cash crisis with wages that don’t cover living costs. Nature 605, 705-777 (2022).
Katherine Villavicencio is a geologist and an astrophysicist who has worked as a geophysicist performing modelling, interpretation and field work. Currently, she is doing a PhD in planetary sciences where she is carrying out a research on the hyperspectral analysis of the surface of Ganymede linked to a geodynamic model of the melt migration within the outer ice shell. Katherine is part of the GD blog team as an editor.

1 Comment

  1. you are right


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