Many positions in academia are precarious, when it comes to employment common behavior in academia would never be acceptable in industry. This applies equally to PhD students as well as to junior academics:

  1. PhD students are not guaranteed employment at university after working there for 5 years.

  2. PhD students are paid little considering their degree: In Germany e.g. it is common practice for professors to only pay half-time posts.

  3. It's common practice for young academics to work well beyond 40 hours even for PhD students that are only paid half-time posts. Work regulations regarding maximum worked hours and weekends are often ignored.
  4. Junior academics are unlikely to land an unlimited full-time job at a university. Directly after graduation this is impossible and even after years of more precarious work as a postdoc only a fraction get unlimited employment.
  5. With exception of CS and engineering very little universities care about providing an exit strategy for junior academics and PhD students after academia. (While change in industry is possible in quite a few fields, proper (additional!) training would be much needed.)

These issues are well known. Fundamentally academia is producing too many PhD students and too little full-time positions (not just professorships) for their respective fields which causes much of the mentioned problems.

I feel like the passion almost all young academics and PhD students have for their subject brings a lot of naivety when it comes to employment conditions, which is exploited.

Why is there no movement inside academia trying to change these working conditions or a push to establish labor unions?

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    Actually there is. But this is country specific – SSimon May 24 '20 at 9:06
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    @TheoreticalMinimum: I'm a bit puzzled by the way in which the question was framed to be honest - I was expecting a related but different question about the precarious employment status of junior academics (e.g. postdocs, stipendiary/non-stipendiary lecturers, etc.) The answer to this question seems more straightforward - PhD students are students, not employees, and the PhD is a degree course for them. No-one would normally guarantee a student a job at the end of their course. Also, people often don't want their PhD students to stay afterwards - they want them to spread their wings. – Stuart Golodetz May 24 '20 at 11:00
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    @StuartGolodetz In many countries, the majority of PhD students are employees (for example, all of North Europe). – lighthouse keeper May 24 '20 at 12:03
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    You might not like it much if you were just considered an employee as a PhD student. For example, you might be able to be told what you can study, even the field. You might be told that for this term, no studies for you and you have to teach full time. Union strikes would occur, perhaps, and then you would have no studies and no pay. Think about all of the consequences before you rant. – Buffy May 24 '20 at 13:06
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    Since you mention Germany, both Verdi and GEW are labor unions that specifically also cater to PhD students an young academics. It's just that almost none of those people seem to care or want to join those unions. – mlk May 24 '20 at 15:46

Why is there no labor union in academia?

Some universities have unions, others do not. The scope of the unions varies.

Why is there no movement inside academia trying to change this?

Many people support changing academia, so the premise of this question is wrong. The reality is that change is hard, especially when the old system obtains lots of cheap labor.

how successful have they been in the past?

Unionization usually results in an increase in pay and job security, but the change is small.

For problems 1-5, the solution is simple: Don't get a PhD. As long as many people try to get PhDs, economic forces will encourage these problems to persist.


The first question is whether PhD students are union members, or can be. Very often they can but are not. In the UK, a work contract that is separate from the student component is not required to join a union, and membership can be free. In the Netherlands, I think that a PhD student is considered a full-time university employee, with everything that entails for union participation, labour rights etc. Local union braches have participated in dispute resolution at a department level, although PhD students do not receive too much attention.

Beyond that, the situation is too country specific. As a blanket statement, and inaccurate in many cases, PhD students see themselves as students and are not informed or interested in becoming unionised, universities find the flexible dual employee/ student status convenient (again, this does not apply if a PhD student is contractually considered an employee) and unions do not have much to gain, in their opinion, and focus on more important disputes.

I also disagree with the way many points are framed because it is either wrong or a misrepresentation, particularly (1) and (5). I recognise important problems in the position and compensation of PhD students in academia, summarised by "cheap fresh meat" or "scientific proletariat", but this is one of the poorest descriptions I have encountered. A PhD holder is not automatically a good academic or a good colleague.

EDIT - An exemplary discussion from 2018 on the same broad issue.

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    I recently joined the UCU, a UK academic staff union. I'm a PhD student and there was no requirement to be a paid TA to join. Plus, membership is free if you're a student. – astronat May 24 '20 at 12:31
  • @astronat thank you, I will correct my post – user117109 May 24 '20 at 12:43
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    I was under the impression that a PhD student needs some sort of work contract other than being a student. – user117109 May 24 '20 at 12:49

These issues are well known. Fundamentally academia is producing too many PhD students and too little full-time positions

More precisely, academia is not making money. We're not even trying to make a profit, where would the money come from?

Why is there no movement inside academia trying to change these working conditions or a push to establish labor unions?

Union of what? Union would only make senese if there is money to pay salary, but it isn't the case in academia.

  • Academia is state funded in many countries with billions of euros. – user117200 May 24 '20 at 20:18