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I was wondering whether this was just a local phenomenon or it's the generally accepted status-quo around the globe.

Preface: In my part of the world (German-speaking Europe), we have a terribly underfunded scientific landscape. I have to caveat that by stating that students don't have to pay tuition to attend university, so it's, broadly speaking, free. If we had a system like in the US (where we would have to take out loans for undergraduate), I never would have gone to college.

As a PhD student, I was given a 30 h/week contract but expected to work loads more, since this was a totally unrealistic workweek if one wants to get one's own thesis done while doing all the lab work required to do so. Moreover, since I dealt with microorganism, I spent a considerable amount of my weekends in the lab and my overall time in the lab amounted more to like 60h+ of which only 30 h were actually paid. This put me in a tricky financial situation, since salaries for PhD students are not terribly high especially if you are only "working" a 30h contract.

I saw this happen to lots of my colleagues who were struggling as much as I was, yet they went along with it. One of the issues is that PI's and professors know that there are tons of willing PhD candidates out there who will replace you at a moment's notice, if you are not conforming to the situation. On top of it, you only get a contract for a limited amount of time after which you likely have to relocate to another city or country if you want to stay in academia.

I abhor the fact that this is a situation where someone trying to get a PhD has almost no way of making the situation any better and, on top of that, everybody seems to be accepting of it and going along. Hardly ever has anyone of my colleagues commented on the situation they were in. I cannot be the only one who noticed these issues.

Hence my question: is this common practice around the globe? How can we change it?

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    Related: academia.stackexchange.com/q/8542/1033 – gerrit Jul 9 at 19:48
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    I wonder about your "tricky financial situation". Can you explain that a bit? I did my PhD in Germany's most expensive city (Munich) and back then 20 h/week contracts were common. I was never in a tricky financial situation; I could afford rent for an apartment and even the costs of the car I had previously bought. – Roland Jul 10 at 7:51
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    While it’s not pleasant working a lot more for the same pay, I don’t understand why it put you in a poor financial position? Working more hours would not cause you to need to spend more money (in fact, if anything, you may spend less due to having no time for hobbies). If you can or cannot live on a given salary, the time spent working shouldn’t factor into that affordability. – Tim Jul 10 at 9:05
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    Are you sure you really need to work/are working 60 hours per week? In my experience people waste a lot of time during work hours, and then complain that they need to overwork. – onurcanbkts Jul 10 at 11:51
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13 Answers 13

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The experience of working long hours, for little pay and little power is, unfortunately, an almost universal experience for science PhD students around the world. In the UK and many other countries PhD students are not considered employees at all, and so have no contract of any kind - they are not paid a salary, but a stipend (i.e. a grant to allow them to live).

The situation is difficult because even if you have a good supervisor, there is still a minimum amount that is needed to pass a PhD (which is outside the supervisors control), often a maximum time limit to complete it (also outside the control of the supervisor), and more often than not, a the stipend/salary paid to the student is also outside the control fo the supervisor.

However 60 hours a week is not normal for the simple reason that very few people can be productive for 60 hours a week on a long term basis. So a supervisor that demands this is not only exploiting the student, but also mostly likely not getting good science out of it either. We all have to work 60 hours a week occasionally (and that goes for pretty much any professional job), but as a basic expectation it is in no ones interests.

EDIT: To clarify the above - I both think working 60 hours a week is unhealthy and unproductive AND that is is less common than people think it is. Long hours, yes. But 60 hours is more than people realize it is, and few students I have known work 60 hours a week, week in, week out for years on end. Not no one, but definitely not "typical" as the question asked.

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    With that said, certain types of people, particularly those who really find their research invigorating and satisfying, who can and do put in very long hours. I'd probably venture to say that most high-achieving academic professionals fall into this category, or at least did for a period in their careers. For those people, an 80 hour week doesn't produce burnout because, for those people, they would just sit around thinking about their work if they tried to relax anyway - becoming stressed in the process. In a way, work is relaxation for such people. – J... Jul 9 at 20:21
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    I'd probably also say that the highest achievers in any field or discipline are these types of mutants. If you're competing in academia, you will necessarily compete against these people, so there is a degree of pressure to be highly productive, at least. It's like CEOs, who tend to average about 65h a week - they're fanatically driven people who are consumed by their work. I think to succeed in academia you need at least a degree of that type of drive - not a willingness to work "extra" hours, but a compulsion to. A PhD is something of a litmus test for that passion. – J... Jul 9 at 20:23
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    I disagree. All the very best scientists I've known have never worked stupidly long hours. The best can see the key observation that no one else can see, and the single, elegant experiment to show it. Such people can own a field working 8 hours a day. You are probably right that many of us are thinking about our science when we are not doing it, but i'd venture to suggest that more time thinking about it and less time doing makes for better science. The times I've worked 80 hr weeks i've produced much less than working 50 (research that is, admin/teaching is a different matter). – Ian Sudbery Jul 9 at 21:41
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    I guess it depends on whether or not you consider staying up until midnight reading papers or noodling on an equation to be "work"... which sort of works into my point, I think. Lots of people sit and read before bed, after all. I guess the distinction is that a PhD will at least likely consume 60-80h of your attention a week, whether or not you want to consider all of that time as "work". Compared to most careers, it's a period of intense, singular focus. – J... Jul 9 at 21:47
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    Reading papers till midnight is definitely work. I was referring more to letting a problem sit - turning it over sub-consciously. Letting new approaches come to you because you are not trying too hard to push at the old approaches. Maybe chatting about it over beer. – Ian Sudbery Jul 9 at 21:52
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Regarding your first question, as everyone has asserted, yes it's typical. Also, in the US, if you're a student funded by an NIH grant you're restricted from working any more that 10 additional hours per week, which similarly limits your ability to work a side job, especially if the rate is hourly.

Collective Action Works

As far as your second question, one thing the graduate students at our university did to address this was unionize. This seems to be an increasingly common thing in the US and the arguments generally fall into one of three buckets:

  • The population of people pursuing graduate degrees has shifted in recent decades. At least in the US this appears to be true, though I don't have data to back this common perception. For example, graduate students aren't necessarily pursing a masters or doctorate fresh out of college; often they've had some real world experience and are interested in leveraging it in a new way or pursuing a career change.
  • The policies that graduate students are subject to have changed. For example, healthcare in the US is now technically mandated for everyone (and most people want it). If you're a mother pursuing her doctorate and have dependent coverage through the student healthcare plan at your university, it's possible to lose that dependent coverage via a unilateral decision by university administrators (this happened at our institution). In such a case, you now have to pay a large amount of money each year to have your child insured, which can easily eat up 10-30% of your stipend or more.
  • The nature of the economy and the economics of pursuing a graduate degree have changed. For example, in many major US cities such as Boston, San Francisco, New York, Seattle and even some smaller cities the cost of living has gone up dramatically. I suspect this isn't just a US phenomenon but one that is either global or common in developed countries. The idea is that the funding given by institutions is based on a calculation that doesn't make sufficient adjustments for this and, over time, the value of a stipend becomes similarly insufficient to support the individual.

After we unionized, we recovered health insurance benefits for dependents, got a nice bump to our stipends, will be moving from 1099-MISC tax forms to W2 tax forms (which will lower our taxes), and now have novel ways for reporting abusive PIs whether it be work exploitation, sexual harassment, bullying, etc. along with some additional protections. The upshot is, collective action is perhaps the only path towards forcing institutions to the bargaining table and it does work.

A Few Words on Intellectual Property

If you find yourself going down this path, one thing I personally would advocate is looking at your institutions intellectual property clauses in your funding agreement/contract. For much of our bargaining, our institution asserted that we were not employees and that, as students, we produce nothing of value whether it be in hours worked or research products. Despite this line, they meanwhile laid claim to literally anything that could be construed as our intellectual property.

In such a circumstance, a way to really turn the heat up is to then say, 'Okay, by that logic, you won't mind us claiming ownership over any intellectual property we produce in self-guided projects that aren't explicitly directed by our PI or a supervisor employed directly by the institution.' They really didn't like that idea. Of course, it's good being armed with precedent. If I recall correctly, a set of policies we found to be in line with what we wanted have been adopted by University of Toronto. Here are the relevant passages:

Regarding Copyrights:

Under the Copyright Policy, a graduate student would normally retain copyright in works that he or she creates, with two exceptions. The University holds copyright in works created in the course of the student’s employment by the University or which are otherwise commissioned by the University under a written agreement with the student.

Regarding Inventions:

Under the Inventions Policy, a graduate student would normally own an invention that he or she invents jointly with the University at first instance, with three exceptions. The University owns inventions that are created under the direction of a faculty or staff member specifically with the object of making the invention, that are created in the course of employment by an administrative or support staff member, or that are otherwise commissioned by the University under a written agreement with the inventor.

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    Great answer and advice. I'd upvote more if I could. I'm curious about your last advice. Was it that easy to turn the IP argument in your favor? I mean, I'd expect an answer like "No. The Institute owns of all the IP as clearly stated in the regulations (or wherever). The students already have the benefit of enjoying the Institute's facilities for their professional development". Would it be legally possible, if you called the bluff, for the students to claim ownership? Or is just that the students know that the Institute does not want to engage in legal fights? – cinico Jul 10 at 12:12
  • @cinico I added in some more details. I don't know what would be legally possible as I'm not a lawyer but I personally take the view that, as with a job offer, in collective bargaining everything is negotiable. – Greenstick Jul 10 at 19:10
  • @cinico The issue with us was that the admins viewed us as students, not employees, and claimed we produced nothing of value. We wanted to be viewed as employees for the additional protections and lower tax rate it enabled. I think the IP clause was brought up once, but it's basically a good way of gaining leverage in general. The idea is that you present all arguments that benefit your case and weaken theirs, but how that leverage gets translated into a contract depends on the priorities that your union has set. I suppose it was just one angle that was worked that was fruitful, YMMV. – Greenstick Jul 10 at 19:16
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    Strongly agree with this, but maybe should include a caveat that it has a lot more potential in some university systems than others. In North America grad students do a lot of the work required for teaching undergraduates, in other systems they don't and this limits their ability to force concessions by withholding labour – llama Jul 12 at 0:46
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It is quite common in the US, too. In addition, international students (which are the majority in many fields, especially in STEM) by visa requirements are not legally allowed to be employed over 20 hours/week or off campus, so there is no possibility to get a side job or tutoring or anything to make up for the very scarce salary that one gets with a teaching or research position at 20 hours/week. So, on top of it being materially impossible to work outside the PhD (because most of our awake time is spent in the lab/office) it is also legally impossible.

Apart from my PhD peers and I being in the office long evenings and weekends, some faculty (especially early career) also spent their weekends and evenings working.

But, in the US it is increasingly common to work 60+ hours/week in industries other than academia, so I guess the contrast is less pronounced than it is in Europe.

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In my experience this is a common practice in many places around the globe.

You mentioned a key point: "there are tons of willing PhD candidates out there who will replace you at a moments notice, if you are not conforming to the situation".

My opinion is that we should analyze this situation as a "free market paradigm". If we want to change this, you either should push towards regulations from the governments, or we all (and I mean everyone simultaneously) change our mindsets and reject these situations so that we force the "employers" to comply with our demands. The latter case is unrealistic. The former, might worth the fight, but it will also take years of organized protesting and lobbying.

An alternative to this, is accept that this is actually a free market paradigm, and you are not forced to choose that path. You know what you should expect if you choose that path, because there will always be people who are willing to work cheap in order to take that path. If you don't like it, choose a different path or search for a place where things work differently.

I'm sure many will disagree with this view, and it's probably not the answer you were looking for, but I think it's a realistic and practical (maybe cynical) view of this situation.

Edit: For clarification, I am not saying you should not fight for better conditions - as I said it's worth to do that. But you should be prepared for a long, tiring fight. Any significant improvement will probably not come in time to benefit you directly, but it doesn't mean you should not do it for the youngsters (and because it's the right thing to do). If you do want to do something for yourself, then my advise is to accept that the rules will not change, but you can choose to play a different game.

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    TL;DR "give up". – henning -- reinstate Monica Jul 9 at 9:14
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    "The latter case is unrealistic." is wrong; PhD students that have unionized have gotten better working conditions. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 9 at 9:22
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    A union might definitely help. I was trying to adress my concerns with ther workers council, but they didn't feel like anything was amiss. – Questionairee Jul 9 at 9:36
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    Unions for PhD students may help as a lobby group. However, the traditional power of unions comes from their ability to strike. A strike can work if it costs the employer more than the employee (think of a strike of garbage collectors or factory workers). This does not work for PhD students, the work still needs to be done. In many cases they need that work for their thesis. If they don't work now, they will just need to work harder later on. – Maarten Buis Jul 9 at 16:23
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    @MaartenBuis A strike is a deterrent. It works best if you don't have to use it, but the employer believes you are willing to and that it would hurt them. It doesn't really matter how much the strike would hurt the striking employees, as long as the employer believes they are willing to pay the price. And, in case of PhD students, the price might not even be that high. Most of them are young and smart, so they can switch careers relatively easily. – Jouni Sirén Jul 9 at 19:07
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Based on my experience working a CS PhD in a reasonably well known UK university, No, it is not expected to work 60 hours a week. My supervisor refused to let me take less than 4 weeks holiday a year, and would make sure I wasn't working silly hours - I can count the number of times I worked more than 45 hours a week on one hand.

I passed with minor corrections and published 2 journal papers within the project.

I knew people who were expected to work long hours: people studying under the leaders of their fields are generally worked very hard. I also know people who tried to finish in 2/2.5 years, and as a result worked very long weeks (I do not recommend this).

At the end of the day, it boils down to your supervisor: pick an established scientist with a family, and you'll likely work a regular work week. Pick a field leader, you'll get better publications and potentially be present for some awesome breakthroughs, but you'll likely have less of a life outside of academia.

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In my experience (in the USA), the norm was closer to 80 than 60 hours, but here in Mexico it might be slightly less--maybe around 50-60 hours. I am assuming that by "work," you mean both work for your professor and/or department, and work on your thesis and courses. Officially, we were only paid to dedicate 20 hours a week to the first type of week, and a combination of stipend and loans was meant to cover the second half. In reality, though, the distinction is rarely all that clear, and most professors expected us to put in much more time than that. Having now seen the other side, it is also possible that your professor does not have much control over the situation. As a student, I assumed that my professor was using me as a workhorse while he just sat around reaping the benefits. As a professor, I have found that the workload is even larger (think about it: as a student, you take classes, but as a professor, you have to prepare them; as a student, you have to work on funded projects, but as a professor, you have to find the plan the project, find the funding, and then deliver on the promised results). This does not mean that it is fair for the students. In reality, everybody but the high-level administrators with six-figure incomes gets screwed, and the students, being near the bottom of the hierarchy, bear the brunt of it.

My experience as a graduate student also gave me a decent sense of what can be done about this, at least in the short term. Individually, there is not much you can do. You can talk to your professor, and if s/he is a decent person, s/he might should work with you to try to lighten your workload. The better course of action is collective. At the university where I did my Master's, the graduate students had a union, and were able to demand slightly better salaries, better health insurance, and other resources. There was no union where I did my doctorate, and the difference showed. Workloads were larger, salaries were lower, and health care was more restricted. While a union will not solve the bigger problems with universities, including the disparity between academics (both students and professors) and administration, the slashing of budgets in the name of "austerity," etc., and they can create other problems if they become detached from the students they represent, they are an important line of defense for students, who are essentially workers. If enough of your fellow students are willing, I strongly suggest you (quietly) look into organizing options. You can start by looking around on the Internet to see if an existing union or other organization would be willing to help organize the students. Be careful, though, as universities, like businesses, have been known to retaliate, and as a student, your individual position is extremely vulnerable.

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  • Already your first sentence "...80 h weeks" made me almost cry out in. A colleague of mine was in an exchange programm during his PhD to the US and his workload was insane. Worst of all was though, that his colleagues regarded him as a lesser colleague and constantly berated him for "taking away hours at the instruments" and his "work being useless". If that's what you get for putting in the hours I don't know why one would want to be in academia in the first place – Questionairee Jul 10 at 7:47
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Let's try to figure out how to discover such a situation from outside.

Ask around

Duh.

Sure, you can ask around in your future department, try to contact current PhD students of your supervisor-to-be, or at least get a statement from someone in the same field and the same country.

The workload varies strongly by field, I would also argue that the personality of the supervisor plays a role.

It might be a legitimate question during the employment talks: "What workload do you expect from me?"

Look at the funding

Now, for the shy folks: there is a way to somewhat induce the workload from other sources. Look at the rates of your local funding agency. In Germany, this is DFG. They often mandate the part-time positions (50%, 65%) for more popular and in-demand fields. They also allow full-time positions (100%) for the fields where it is hard to get good candidates. (For example, computer science is barely floating, because even with full-time funding you'd be paying a PhD candidate roughly a third less they would get in the industry.) Looking at typical position offers might help, too.

So, fields with lower rates have higher supply and by a previous argument, more is demanded from PhD students.

The next thing to look at, are the requirements of the industry. For example, I've heard that a chemist without a PhD is basically worthless, so everyone and his cat try to get a PhD, leading to a higher supply. The rates seems to support this, but if you are aware of such a situation "extrinsically", it might help your judgement.

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  • @henning--reinstateMonica: Thanks, fixed! – Oleg Lobachev Jul 10 at 13:35
  • @das-g: Yep, thanks, fixed! – Oleg Lobachev Jul 12 at 13:00
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To answer the headline question of "Is it typical"

As a PhD student, I was given a 30 h/week contract but expected to work loads more, since this was a totally unrealistic workweek if one wants to get ones thesis done while doing all the lab work required to do so. Moreover, since I dealt with microorganism, I spent a considerable amount of my weekends in the lab and my overall time in the lab amounted more to like 60h+ of which only 30 h were actually paid.

Yes, in my experience, people working with organisms, whether rats or micro-, end up getting conscripted into many more hours than their counterparts in other fields. I am in psychology, and most of us do a decent job of keeping to around 40 hours a week.

You actually have a bit more of a solution than others, because you can refuse to work longer hours, which would be bad for the organisms under your care, forcing your PI to hire more people to take care of them. I don't know how this would work in practice. But, presumably, your PI doesn't want them to die either. Of course, it would be immoral to ask an undergraduate to volunteer to do so; but you could hire one (or two, or however many).

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  • This does not really apply to microorganisms, as we usually store them in a freezer, thaw only as much as needed for an experiment which in most cases would fit within a workweek, and can dispose them (or freeze again) after the experiment without the ethical concerns that apply to animals. – silvado Jul 9 at 19:30
  • I was cultivating microoganisms which grew for days on end to achive the necessary biomass (this included weekends ofc.) Freezing and thawing them was only an option once they were harvested. But most of my investigations were growth experiments. – Questionairee Jul 10 at 7:41
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It's the norm in the US. It's been that way for a very, very long time, too. In fact, in 2010, when I was still a Master's student in engineering, it was the sole reason I decided against a PhD.

There was a very popular blog back then by an especially vocal PhD student who perfectly phrased many of the things wrong with our current system---Andrei something, studied under Reza Ghadiri.

Sadly the blog is gone, though you can find it in the web archives. There is nothing I can say that he didn't say better, so I'll let you search for the web archives from that time if you're interested. Just google "Andrei Reza Ghadiri" and you'll find it.

Yes, we deserve a new system, and I'd support it as an outsider despite not having gotten a PhD myself. You guys deserve fair compensation, fair treatment, and a humane schedule. You're not serfs, and no one should want bright talented well-meaning ambitious people to live like serfs.

But... Things have been this way for very long. The system has inertia. You'll have to organize and make noise is my guess. I mean protest. Let people know how things are in academia. You're not machines but people with priorities in life beside just lab work.

Maybe focus on incremental change. Things won't happen overnight. You'll face a lot of resistance from people who just don't get it. They'll say you're spoiled, entitled, that you don't have what it takes to be in academia if you feel that way. All bullshit, but they'll say it. They'll take offense to you taking issue with the system that... well... made them?

Truth is a punishing system that persists so long does so for a reason... though it could be something as basic as a fear to speak out... and one thing is for sure, no change will come if you don't speak out... So that seems a good place to start ;-)

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    "Things have been this way for very long. The system has inertia." It also doesn't help that PIs who went through the same thing back in the day see it as a rite of passage and expect the same of their students. If you become a PI, remember how horrible it was working ~80 hour weeks for peanuts and try to break the cycle instead of perpetuating the same norms! – Pranav Hosangadi Jul 10 at 17:37
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Several points come to my mind. I'm speaking from .

To sum up, I think:

  • With the current system of PhD students being employees we do have an inherent conflict of interest since the PhD has (also) exam nature. The question about fair wages is only one aspect here, and maybe not even the most severe one. Unfortunately, the whole situation is quite susceptible to abuse of power.

  • Unaided estimates of personal workload are very unrealiable. I suspect that boasting and/or complaining of 60 h work weeks is far more widespread than actual 60 h work weeks.

  • Recommendation: start a personal work time diary.
    60h/week rumours don't help because they are questionable. Reliably recorded 48 h/week are far more useful, both as personal feedback and for negotiating conditions.

  • There are known groups of students who can and will put in many hours of work. In that respect, long working hours are not unusual in academia.

  • My personal experience suggests that your negotiating power may be much better than you think. But you'll never know if you don't stand up for your rights.

  • PhD studies in Germany have evolved from being the PhD student's "private fun" (i.e. fully qualified professionaly not being paid for the research work) towards PhD students being employed for their research. However, this improvement in money has been bought also by some drawbacks for the PhD students which IMHO need to be discussed, and at the very least the PhD students need to be aware of these consequences. Personally I think that even full-time employment is not a good solution here.


TL - DR:

Conflict between Exam and Employment and Abuse of Power

  • Like a Master thesis, a PhD thesis is graded over here, and it has a decided exam-like nature.
    IMHO, like for other exams the strategy of tackling the exam is a personal decision. You can decide put in your best effort, to aim at a sweet spot between workload and resulting grade, or to go for pass with low effort.
    But as long as the PhD is an exam, you'll have to compete with students who choose to put in as much effort as they possibly can - and since they are adults it is their right to honestly put in substantially more work than an employer may ask of an employee.

  • If the PhD student is employed for their research, legally the employer has to make sure they don't work more than allowed, and also that the salary does not fall below the legal minimum hourly wage. Here we do have a first point of conflict.

  • But even worse, the exam nature of the PhD makes the whole thing far more prone to abuse of power than a normal work contract: a PhD student cancelling their work contract looses far more than just their employment. They are likely to loose the goodwill of their supervisor and most of the work put into their thesis so far.

    Up to the Master thesis, the situation in Germany is very clear that there cannot be any money (work contract or otherwise) involved between the group where the student does their Master thesis and the student (a student can be employed there before and after their thesis, but not during), and also that intellectual property produced during the thesis is the student's (contracts to assign IP to the university are safest made only after the thesis is finished, incl. graded and defended). (Also, to avoid abuse of power of the type that the supervisor asks more and more additions to the work, the duration of Bachelor and Master theses is limited.)
    For some reason that I've not yet understood, all these rules (which are there for very good reasons) are considered irrelevant for PhD theses.

  • There is also the conflict of interest that on the one hand the student is supposed to show their own good judgment in deciding and organizing their research work, but they are legally subordinate to their employer, i.e. their PI can legally tell them what to do and what not to do.
    This is also relevant here, because high workload may result from the PI excercising their rights as employer in a way that prevents the student from getting along with their PhD thesis - resulting in a high workload when the student tries to catch up with the thesis work.

  • The "old" PhD "system" in Germany had the PhD students not paid for their PhD thesis research - thus treating the PhD thesis more like a Master thesis. However, those PhDs did not have a time limit. It was not unheard of that an external candidate did their PhD research in their free time while working a full job in industry - such a thesis could take many years (so the total work was comparable to, say, 3 years of full time research). A typical alternative was to work part time as TA - the employment being explicitly only for TAing, not for the research.

    The critique here was obviously that fully qualified professionals would do research work for free. The potential to abuse of power of requiring more and more work to be done until the supervisor agreed to accept the thesis was (and still is) somewhat limited by the PhD student being free to hand in their thesis at whatever university they find a professor who agrees to handing in, without any requirement that the thesis needs to be done there. So at least in theory, a student can take their existing work with them to a new university if the conditions are too bad at their old institute.

    Another side effect of the employment contracts for PhD students is that this is not possible any more since the resulting IP is owned by the employer.

  • So what to do? I'm not entirely sure.

    • Stipends/scholarships (or extending Bafög) breaking this bad mix of being at the same time legally subordinate and by exam rules required to work independently may be an ingredient to the solution - but right now, I'm also not aware of any scholarships in Germany that pay out a fair amount compared to the PhD salaries, so could be PhD committees that are actually independent of the group where the PhD student works.

    • A truly independent external committees judging whether the ongoing PhD work is on track may be another ingredient.

    • Also: making changing the PhD supervisor an actual, practical option would help.

  • Joining a union as PhD student may be one step (since I'm personally not convinced pushing for "more" employment contract is a good solution that is not the way to go for me. Your opinion may differ.)

  • For a (part time) employed PhD student in Germany: there is a staff council (Betriebsrat), you are a member of the akademischer Mittelbau (and as such can elect and be elected into the respective faculty/university councils) and there even may be a Doktorandenvertretung (if not, you can start one). And if you are also enrolled as student, you may already be unionized via the Asta.


Factors contributing to PhD Students working very hard

  • (Already mentioned above: candidates who treat the PhD as exam and decide to put their very best effort.)

  • The PhD and postdoc may be seen as the academic version of journeyman's years: it is rather common to also use PhD/postdoc positions to get experience in foreign countries and/or to get an entry into foreign countries.

    Someone new in a different environment may have

    • less time and energy to pursue their studies/work since the change in culture and environment tends to be strenuous in the sense that the life there cannot be managed with the same ease one does in familiar surroundings (burocratic requirements, learning language & culture, ...)
    • OTOH, such students do not have as many ties and friends in the new place. They may need to organize meeting their friends back home online or offline due to time shift. In the end, they may also decide to use (part of) the time they don't spend with the local friends they don't have for work - resulting in lots of work.
      I can certainly say that particularly during not too long research stays where it was clear that I won't stay forever at that group I worked far more than "back home".
      To some extent this may also be true for native students that "only" moved to a new city.
  • A related effect may be that some will choose to work hard in order to then take off some time for longer trips "back home". This may look like working more than it actually is.


Difficulty in Estimating Workload

  • I agree with @IanSudbury and others that 60 h / week far less common than people think. Both for boasting CEOs and students. IMHO it is very difficult to estimate working times unless one keeps a dedicated diary, works on the clock or uses some other method of time tracking.

    Two studies from Germany that are relevant in this context although they are with Bachelor/Master students rather than PhD students are the ongoing Studierendensurveys and the ZeitLast study using online diaries (report, there were also a number of articles in the general of news, often with quite snarky headlines). The survey found students to estimate spending an average of 30 h/week for their studies, while the online diaries showed only 23 h/week (with a range across students of 8 - 53 h weekly study time and btw, the time spent on studying did not correlate with achievements/grades). Also relevant: the ZeitLast report does point out that being higly stressed by workload can happen with short study hours.
    We may say that retrospective estimates such as recorded in the survey could overestiate study time by 30 %. 60 h/week are workloads that some students reach in the few weeks during and immediately before the exams. This may be a useful "anchor" or plausibility check for OP's work load: is the PhD work on average as intense as during their studies, say, 2 weeks before the first exams until the exams each semester were over?
    There are some factors here that may apply less to PhD students than to undergrad students (such as loosing a lot of time between lectures). Personally, when making prospective time estimates, I find that the rule of thumb "reserve 2.5 - 3 x as long as you think it will take" works for me, and I hear the same from others - another indicator that estimating work load is extremely uncertain, at least until you're experienced in estimating that type of task (which a PhD student almost by definition won't be).

  • Still, there are those who do work hard and do work a lot in academia. I do suspect that not recording excessive work load is one of the reasons why very few academic institutions use punch clocks. (Besides some effective and efficient academic work practices not lending themselves well to such recording approaches)
    There is a reason people in academia do get congratulations when they manage to get a technical job that allows them to work on a punch clock (but here the same factors that lead to high stress regardless of short study hours may play a role).

  • Meanwhile, I'd recommend that OP may start by keeping a personal work-time diary. Such a diary may help in two ways: it will provide you with hard numbers to discuss/negotiate with the PI, and it may show potential for more efficient time management for OP.


Personal Experience and some Comments

  • Hardly ever has anyone of my colleagues commented on the situation they were in.

    I've been talking with many colleagues about the working conditions in academia. In my experience this is a topic that comes up every so often. Just maybe not when the PI or the institute director is around.

  • BTW, I've also worked night shifts when my experiments finally worked fine (chemist) - with a student doing the day shift as their research practicum.
    I also know the thoroughly exhausting and unsatisfying times where one does measurements or preparation with waiting times that do not allow to do anything sensbile in between. And I also know that the resulting feeling of "having done nothing besides those measurements" may result in actually long work hours doing stuff that is still undone.

    The upside here is that I find I can actually work longer in an efficient manner if the type of work changes between practical work, office/brain work and administrative (no brain) stuff that also needs to be done. Though there are limits for the practical + office brain work combination when the lab work needs a lot of concentration rather than elbow grease.

  • I've met my share of abuse of power, e.g. by being required to do far more TAing than my scholarship contract allowed, and at some other point when I had an industry offer to work 2 d/wk to have 3 d/wk for my PhD thesis by being told by my professor that if I stay there as PhD student, I still need to TA 4 d/wk during lecture time, regardless of whether I take the industry job or not. I may add that the professor was himself with the back to the wall with teaching because the budget the university assigned for teaching compared to the number of students and the course requirements was completely impossible (he said when he started, they had twice the number of teaching staff for less than half the number of students) - which makes the action understandable, but no less abuse of power.

    Looking backward, I'd say now that I should probably have taken the industry position, shifted my thesis towards more theoretic topics so to not require lab access any more. My guess now is that had I asked the professor - do you want this thesis to be submitted under your supervision or not, they would probably have accepted. As it was, I did not do anything the like and also my "industry boss" advised to rather do the PhD (they themselves had experienced trouble with their PhD)

  • I did notice, though that it was a new experience for my supervisor when I told them after the probationary period of my TA contract ended that I was very much aware of the fact that this means I cannot just cancel the contract anymore. And I can confirm from some postdoc positions later on that the PIs are not at all used to subordinates bringing up the possibility of quitting.

    Reminding them that noone can force me to sign a follow up contract turned out to be decidedly helpful in making supervisors stop misbehaving.

  • (Somewhat related, my experience is also that bringing up topics (professionally!) that may be considered lèse-majesté by fellow PhD students/postdocs or the supervisor in the end tended to gain me a better professional reputation/position with said majesty. Of course, this is not a conflict-free course of action, and at least in my own estimate of the situation I never was foolhardy, only blunt [German fashion] and honest.)

  • After my first glimpses into academic work and contract conditions, I decided that I need to attain a level of financial independence that allows me to negotiate at eye level, and I've let my academic employers know that I got there whenever I thought it would help my negotiation position.

    There were a number of factors that helped me a lot with this: e.g.

    • having moved to Eastern Germany rather than, say, Munich for studies (particularly for readers from the US: Germany basically doesn't have elite universities - if the university offers the field and specialization you're after, a university in a cheap region will give as good an education as a university in one of the expensive cities)
      (And I still hold that living downtown Munich is not a human right. Particularly not if living in a village outside Cottbus or Gießen gets you the same quality of education for a fraction of the cost of living)

    • cheap hobbies, e.g. hiking, biking and stealth camping rather than a craving for alcoholic all-inclusive holidays, cross country skiing in Czech/German hills rather than downhill in the Alps, meeting with friends to cook/bbq ourselves rather than pub tours, DIY: renting a shared flat where we renovated the wooden floor in exchange for a substantial reduction in rent.

    • As chemist I went for highly paid student jobs rather than the McDonalds/waiter jobs: programming, after I finished my Diplom also working as chemometrician (chemistry version of data analyst, i.e. my specialization).

    • I may say that even though those jobs added a non-negligible income, in the end the factors reducing the money spent did more to my savings.

    • I also got myself a plan B (freelancing) ready to be put into action whenever there may not be a follow-up contract. I started a tiny side-business as freelancer. Self-employment however is not for everyone - but if you think this could be an option, I'd like to encourage you to use your time in academia to also gather the relevant knowledge for this (my university had e.g. evening lectures for people considering to start their own business)

  • OTOH, I've encountered lots of colleagues complaining about the working conditions and not even considering it remotely possible for them to attain any level of independence to actually negotiate rather than gratefully accept whatever follow-up contract they are offered. And of course, academic employers are used to this, and there will be those who take advantage of students/postdocs. But to a certain extent, I think that also a fully qualified academic needs to take care of themselves. And giving up a negotiation that hasn't even started is IMHO not taking care of yourself.

    As a PhD student, you are not a doormat. Unfortunately, sometimes it is necessary to remind people of this - but if this is necessary you need to do this.
    Also, when I see a colleague or PhD student treated like a doormat, I do my best to encourage them to stop the abuse themselves, but I'm reluctant to directly interfere between student and supervisor: a 3rd party interfering means a high risk that the student will end up in an even worse position whereas the student showing their supervisor their limits has much better chances of attaining a lasting improvement.

  • BTW: I left the university where I did most of my PhD work without handing in my thesis when I got an offer for a full position somewhere else. In the end, I obtained my PhD (with that work plus some more) at another university many years later (always being paid full time for doing research). None of the work from the first university was lost. I did not leave the fist university in bad blood, though, and my first professor was part of my PhD commission.

  • In [...] (German-speaking Europe), we have a terribly underfunded scientific landscape.

    I won't say anything like this. And especially not after having worked in academia in Italy for some years.

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Yes, it's very typical, and there are quite a few factors that resulted in the system evolving to end up being the way it is.

The first factor is that many PhD students are little use in research. They are highly inexperienced and low-efficient, often have difficulties organizing themselves to do complex tasks, have no idea how to write research articles, and absorb a lot of time and effort of their mentors. On top of that, if we are talking about non-English-speaking countries, almost all local students don't have the skills to express their research findings in English in a way the editors of top journals would be happy with. Some PhD students become real pain for their mentors, and you never know in advance whether a particular student will be a problem or not. And you generally can't trust research results obtained by a PhD student, because an error may be everywhere, so you have to verify in one or another way. I remember a professor saying, "I'd rather spend my grant funds to hire an experienced postdoc than three PhD students." In view of their low value, it well may be that PhD students are actually overpaid rather than underpaid! Now that PhD stipends are fixed and can't be negotiated between professors and students, what's left to compensate for the low efficiency is working hours.

The second factor is that accepting a PhD student position is the easy way for graduates. You know, you graduate from a university, and you have done some research for your Master diploma and have some connections with some professors. One of them is offering you a PhD position, and all you have to do to secure a white-collar job for yourself for the next few years is to simply say yes to his offer. You don't need to acquire new skills to get that job, and you don't need to send out your CV to hundreds of companies. And you don't need to pass numerous interviews and adapt to a new kind of working environment. You aren't afraid to get fired quickly and be left without any money to pay your bills and rent an accommodation. But everything in this world has a price - and you have to pay for the easiness of this way by earning less money and/or working longer hours.

And I guess there is a third factor, albeit it's debatable. There are many university graduates in relatively poor countries who want to migrate to the West. They consider a PhD student position at a Western university as a stepping stone and are happy to work in this stage just for food and a shared room. A Western professor gets a highly motivated hard-working student graduated from, let's say, one of the top universities in China or India and pays him very little money from a grant, and the student gets an excellent opportunity to get a Western degree and build a career in the West. It's a win-win situation, so why would scientists be motivated to change that? And here comes the expectation of long working hours: Otherwise why would a professor hire you, a local, if he can instead hire someone from abroad who will happily work hard 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, for the same stipend?

Also, only a small part of PhD students can get a tenure position later in their lives, for there are too few tenure positions available. It's a kind of bottleneck, and this is pretty unhealthy for science and results in a fierce competition and the publish-or-perish attitude. Many early-career researchers get obsessed with publishing as many articles as possible, no matter the quality and actual significance. Some young scientists even conspire to mutually include each other as co-authors to their papers. The old good spirit of science is getting lost, and nowadays it's about the number of publications and the h-factor, to a considerable degree. So what can be done about that, if increasing the number of tenure positions is out of question? Demotivate prospective PhD students by low pay and long working hours in order to ensure that only those who truly love science enter the game. And those students will be happy to do research 60 hours a week, because that's what they are passionate about.

I'm afraid it's hard to change the system without addressing the factors listed above.

I humbly hope that my answer helps look at the issue from a somewhat different perspective as compared to what is offered in other answers.

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  • "Otherwise, why would a professor hire you?" ..because it is a professor's job to teach. Indeed, most tenured professors I know see their phd student as someone they can teach their research in depth, not someone who is a great help (although this might be). Similarly, one could ask why profs spend time teaching and preparing for teaching when they rather could use it for research. Answer: Because it's their passion/their job! – user111388 Jul 11 at 20:16
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    @user111388 : Sure, many professors teach because it's their passion or because they are required to teach. But, given a choice between a hard-working Asian student (who is prepared to work 60 h/week) and a local student willing to spend no more than 30-40 h/week (learning included) and capable of finding another local job at any moment, many professors will be tempted to choose the former. Besides, at least in Germany, local PhD students cost more because the employer (i.e., professor) pays taxes for them, whilst international students get a tax-free stipend. – Mitsuko Jul 12 at 9:14
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    At any rate, my point is that the abundance of hard-working Asian students (from China, India, etc.) on the PhD "job market" drives the expectations of long working hours and also prevents PhD stipends from growing, because such students are prepared to work 60 h/week for food and a shared room. In many Western countries, international students are a considerable part, if not a majority, of all PhD students. – Mitsuko Jul 12 at 9:26
2

Widen your horizon to adjust your expectations. There are several doubtful statements in your question.

"In German-speaking Europe, we have a terribly underfunded scientific landscape" - This is absurd, and an offense to the taxpayer. Look into other countries, less than 1000 km away, or even bordering Austria, to understand what "underfunded" really means.

"As a PhD student, I was given a 30 h/week contract but expected to work loads more" - You are not paid for writing a thesis, which few people will read, and to gain a title. You are paid for doing specific work, and along with that you are given the opportunity to write a thesis. Therefore it is entirely normal, and morally right, that you are expected to work a lot more than written in your work contract.

"This put me in a tricky financial situation, since salaries for PhD students are not terribly high especially" - Your salary is 3/4 of a full position, in public service tariff, taking into account your previous degree (master's?), right? Ask the secretaries and lab assistants what salary they are paid, and how they are making their living.

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  • Let me add: (1) "not paid for writing a thesis" -- this is not neccearlily clear (especially for phd researcher positions it is expected that the person does a phd and writes a thesis". Here comes the weird expectation"both credits and payment must never be" into place. (2) When I did my phd, my friends who did work after their master's in the same field got higher payment. This is probably what the OP means, not how much secretaries are paid (plus at least in my uni, they are paid better then phd students since they have a full position). – user111388 Jul 13 at 14:07
-1
  1. You can get invaluable scientific mentorship from professors, learning writing, and oral presentation skills. However, if you like being introverted, then this might not appeal to you much.

  2. You can get a good quality of life during and after the PhD. Working at McDonald's sucks, for example.

  3. You get exciting intellectual challenges that can be fulfilling. You won't get that at Goldman Sachs.

  4. Later after your PhD more doors could be open to you that you would otherwise not have access to. But if you don't want these doors to open for you then don't do a PhD.

Yes, it's exploitation in some sense, but it also comes with some good benefits.

An alternative: People who work in tech get laid off all the time due to age discrimination, which starts when one is 30–40 years old. It's pretty bad in industry too is what I'm saying.

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  • 4
    It's called a salary, because it is a salaried position in Germany, Austria (both mentioned in the original question) and many other european countries. – henning -- reinstate Monica Jul 9 at 13:25
  • What @henning--reinstateMonica said. It's not a stipend but a paid positon. I do agree with some of your points but it's more about how to improve the situation and not to avoid it. I am personally no longer affected by it but wouldn't want to see others suffer the same fate. – Questionairee Jul 9 at 13:37
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    That work at McDonald's sucks has nothing to do with phds. – user111388 Jul 9 at 18:06
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    Technically, some PhD positions in Germany are half-time and unpaid, with a (paid) half-time teaching contract on top. (One of my current colleagues did their PhD in Germany and signed up for 20h of research per week; of course they worked much more than that.) – UJM Jul 9 at 19:48
  • Yes, perhaps in principle, but it should not be the survival of the fittest. In the current situation @Questionairee does not quite seem to sense any flavour of the benefits 1 through 4. And such long-term benefits are not quite guaranteed within academia either. – XavierStuvw Jul 10 at 6:34

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