'It’s a disgrace': PhD students struggling on less than minimum wage

CHRIS SKELTON
Chrystal O'Connor and Caitlin Hyde have started a petition to urge New Zealand's universities to increase the PhD stipend to at least minimum wage.

They are the next generation of scientists and professors – often carrying out cutting-edge research – but many PhD students are struggling to get by on less than the minimum wage.

Most people doing a doctoral degree receive a tax-free stipend to support themselves during their studies, which usually takes three years full-time.

The amount varies at each of New Zealand’s eight universities, but is typically between $25,000 and $28,800 a year.

Now a petition is calling for the stipend to be raised to at least the same as the minimum wage, or even the living wage.

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Chrystal O’Connor and Caitlin Hyde, who are full-time PhD candidates at Lincoln University, have written an open letter saying PhD stipends have “plateaued considerably over the past 15 years”, meaning they no longer reflect increased living costs.

“In 2003, the PhD stipend, in today's dollars, was $40,000,” said O’Connor.

“It hasn't changed to keep up with inflation.”

This limits who can study a PhD and impacts the physical and mental health of those doing PhD research, they say.

Chrystal O’Connor and Caitlin Hyde are PhD Candidates at Lincoln University. They have started a petition calling for the PhD stipend to be raised.
CHRIS SKELTON/Stuff
Chrystal O’Connor and Caitlin Hyde are PhD Candidates at Lincoln University. They have started a petition calling for the PhD stipend to be raised.

University of Auckland associate professor Dr Siouxsie Wiles has signed the petition and took to Twitter to encourage others to sign it too.

“It should be a living wage, not just minimum wage”, she told her 50,000 followers.

“It’s so important to raise awareness about this issue. It’s a disgrace that a large part of the workforce delivering New Zealand’s research is paid so poorly,” she said.

O’Connor and Hyde both receive $28,000 a year.

“It’s well below the $35,000 that minimum wage is, after tax,” said O'Connor.

They launched the petition because the system “needs to be fixed”.

University of Auckland associate professor Dr Siouxsie Wiles says the situation is a “disgrace”. (File photo)
RICKY WILSON/Stuff
University of Auckland associate professor Dr Siouxsie Wiles says the situation is a “disgrace”. (File photo)

Hyde, who is from Ashburton, receives financial support from her partner but said it is “definitely a challenge” to get by.

O'Connor, who is from Cambridge, relies on her savings and family support to pay her bills but said “there are definitely weeks when the stipend isn’t enough”.

“The PhD stipend is the gateway to getting into academia. That gate is shutting people out,” she said.

“It is creating inequity and the lack of diversity, that is well known in science and academia.”

Stipends can also be paid by Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) and industry, but “they are all low”, said Hyde.

“It is really different for every student, which is part of what makes it quite confusing. It is complex, but what isn't complex is the fact that students should be getting minimum wage.

“If you don't have a support network or financial security, you can't really do a PhD.”

Professor Ekant Veer, associate dean of Postgraduate Research at University of Canterbury, supports the petition.
Alden Williams/Stuff
Professor Ekant Veer, associate dean of Postgraduate Research at University of Canterbury, supports the petition.

O’Connor is a biophysical scientist and is looking a how insects can be a good source of sustainable protein.

Hyde is a social scientist who is exploring perceptions towards eating insects.

“You can't really be a scientist or an academic without a PhD. It's written into most job descriptions,” said Hyde.

“It's really important that it's something that is open to everyone, not just a select group.”

The minimum wage will increase to $20 an hour from next April, meaning a person working a 40 hour week will earn $41,600 before tax.

The living wage – which is calculated to reflect the true cost of living in New Zealand – will rise to $22.75 in September.

Professor Ekant Veer, associate dean of postgraduate research at University of Canterbury, supports the petition and said his PhD study 20 years ago was only possible due to the financial support he received from his wife.

“You don't take on a research career unless you are bright and also passionate about your topic,” he said.

“If we are not supporting them well enough then we are only taking the very privileged few who can support themselves.”

Government allowances for postgraduate students were removed in 2013 and Chris Whelan, chief executive of Universities New Zealand, said they have “regularly advocated for them to be reinstated”.

“We expressed strong concern when allowances were removed in 2013 and, if anything, our concern has grown since that time,” he said.

“A student’s ability to support themselves financially should not determine who can and cannot study at these levels and that is why government allowances are needed.”

Stipends and scholarships perform a different function to allowances and are calculated according to the particular circumstances, including financial, of each individual university, he said.

Stipends at New Zealand’s universities

Auckland University of Technology: $25,000 + the ability to request funds of up to $9,000 to support research costs.

University of Auckland: $28,800 + $7454.40 for tuition and $979.20 for a Student Services Fee.

University of Canterbury: $28,000 + tuition fee, ranging between $7,220 - $8,697.

Lincoln University: $28,000 + tuition fee.

Massey University: Information requested but not provided.

University of Otago: $28,600 (from 2022) + tuition fees, ranging from $6,795 per annum in Commerce to around $10,500 in non-clinical Medicine or Dentistry.

University of Waikato: $25,000 + tuition fee.

Victoria University of Wellington: $27,500 + tuition fee, usually around $9,000.