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Being a PhD student sometimes feels like being in limbo (or, purgatory, if you are Catholic). Technically, we are students, in the sense that we pay tuition fees (unless you are lucky enough to receive a studentship) and we come out with a qualification at the end of it. But there the similarity between PhD students and the rest of the student body ends.
Now, I am going by my own experience at University of Westminster and my conversations with my colleagues, so I apologise if I am assuming too much. Unless you are assisting with teaching, it is unlikely that we will interact with undergraduate or other postgraduate students. Indeed, we will interact mostly with other PhD students or academics or researchers, the latter being paid. We are not required to attend classes or lectures as such, except for perhaps a few methodology seminars in the first year which might help us decide on a theoretical framework.
We don’t get “personal tutors”, we get supervisors – but we are not employees. Of course, it is our responsibility to manage that relationship. We perhaps have one formal deadline a year – registration in the 1st year, transfer in ideally the second year and final submission – but these dates are as fluid as the writing of our thesis. That’s not to say that those deadlines aren’t important, not least because it helps to crystallise the research done so far and to shape your ideas.
The Research Office at Westminster has often emphasised how we are more than just students, we are in fact trainee researchers who may or may not work in academia afterwards. PhDs are regarded as academic qualifications, but perhaps they ought to be seen as professional qualifications because they are effectively the minimum criteria one needs to be an academic researcher or lecturer. In that case, there is an argument that doing a PhD is akin to a training contract that might be done by someone hoping to qualify as a solicitor or barrister or accountant or a company trainee scheme.
Perhaps universities do subconsciously recognise that a PhD student is not quite a student by the provision of studentships in exchange for limited teaching work. This almost sounds like a contract of employment. Unfortunately, there are not available to everyone. But the payment is for teaching work, not for being a researcher.
An alternative, unstudentlike name for a PhD Student would be Doctoral Researcher and this sounds like a good job title. Or one could go for the more professional-sounding Trainee Researcher. Either way, there is a case for making PhD Students into university employees, with a salary (that is comparable to a trainee solicitors).
But there are disadvantages to PhD Students as employees. Employees are agents of their employer, so the university could hold any intellectual property rights to research, unless a clause was written into the contract. Why would they do that?
Furthermore, being an employee would increase the financial and legal obligations of the university. Studentships are already hard to come by and they are offered within a particular research area. Surely offering Trainee Researchships would simply narrow the sort of PhD research done to what the university is interested in. It would most likely lead to the exclusion of people who currently have a greater degree of freedom over their research. After all, why should university pay people to do whatever they want?
Plus, as employees, we would probably come under all the usual targets and the bureaucracy that one could reasonably expect. And this would no doubt undermine the current freedom that PhD students do have.
As much as I would love to be paid trainee researcher, on balance, I realise that being a PhD Student is also completely different to being an employee.