To PhD or not to PhD, that is the Question.

This morning I wrote an email to a Professor at my local University informing him that regrettably I won’t be pursuing a PhD there. It was not an everyday email to write, but in the last 12 years it was the fifth time I turned down a PhD opportunity. Two were in Physics, and three were in Computer Science, and the offers came from three different Universities.

It may seem I don’t want to do a PhD, but I do, kind of. So why all the refusals, you may well ask? The reason has always been financial. And it’s the same reason that in all likelihood I won’t be pursuing a PhD anywhere anytime soon. Maybe the much vaunted Irish “knowledge economy” isn’t targeted at thirty-somethings, but who would find these figures attractive? …

This particular PhD programme was structured over 4 years. The first year has a tax free stipend of €16,500, with the subsequent three years at €19,000. This is reasonably generous as PhD programmes go. If you’re a young free and single undergraduate you may look at those figures and be happy; but if you’re a postgraduate with a family and bills to pay you will probably look at those figures with dismay and derision (your bank manager certainly will, and your spouse may even hit you).

Let’s put those figures in context. The minimum wage in Ireland at the time of writing is €8.65 per hour [1]. At 35 hours per week (9-5 job) for 52 weeks that’s an annual income of €15,743.

An average family (2 parents and 2 children) where both adults are unemployed will get welfare from the state of €372.40 per week [2] (188+124.80+2(29.80)), or €19,364.80 annually.

A Computer Science or ICT graduate can have a starting salary of roughly €30,000, and with 4 years experience can be anywhere north of €60,000.

Taking on a PhD is a long term commitment and it comes at a severe financial strain. There’s also the uncertainty, you’re guaranteed nothing – many a fine prospect floundered on their PhD. You could spend four years or more and come out of it with nothing to show except a gaping hole in your CV.

And there’s the life postponement: You won’t buy a house on a PhD stipend (although with the housing market on its knees that may change, lol kind of). You won’t support a family on a PhD stipend. You won’t be buying a car or going on any holidays. The net result is that you end up postponing the rest of your life for 4 or more years. These are the sacrifices I haven’t been willing to make, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be willing to make.

I think the government should seriously re-evaluate what price they are willing to pay for a PhD graduate. It’s particularly nauseating when you consider the millions wasted in FAS (the corrupt and defunct state training agency); and the billions wasted in NAMA (the borrowing of billions to repay the loans of reckless free-market capitalist companies, and then passing that debt onto the Irish taxpayer).


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