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Can a PhD student be paid simply for doing research?

If yes, is it applicable right from the beginning?

I am talking about UK and the US specifically.

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    Going to be very dependent on the country, school, and subject. Also on full vs. part time (which will only be possible in some subjects in some schools). – puppetsock Apr 16 at 18:02
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    An RA is a Research Assistant, which is how most grad students will be doing research, supervised by a professor. Are you thinking of unsupervised research? – Owen Reynolds Apr 16 at 22:36
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Can a PhD student be paid simply for doing research?

Yes, in the US, this is often called "being on fellowship," when the research is your own, and an "RAship" if you are paid to work on another project at a professor's discretion. Fellowships are often prominent national opportunities, but can be funded locally by the university, college, or department.

If yes, is it applicable right from the beginning?

This is entirely dependent on what the program offers you. It may be, it might not be. Some departments offer first-year fellowships so that you can get settled in your program.

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    I think fellowships are now very rare in US. They were once (third quarter of previous century) pretty common in math and the sciences. – Buffy Apr 16 at 14:34
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    @Buffy Perhaps, although the OP didn't ask how common they are. – Azor Ahai -him- Apr 16 at 14:35
  • @Buffy but probably more common in europe or european-style? – BCLC Apr 17 at 5:42
  • This answer says it's theoretically possible. If the OP wants the info for a book they're writing, this is fine. If they're asking whether they can go to grad school and expect to get paid w/o an RA or TA... . – Owen Reynolds Apr 17 at 14:16
  • @OwenReynolds Fair enough and that could be asked as a new question 🤷 But probably not as broad as "How likely is it to get a fellowship in a UK/US PhD?" – Azor Ahai -him- Apr 17 at 14:58
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To elaborate a bit on Charles Bronson's answer, a typical funded PhD position in the UK includes:

  • tuition fee coverage x3 years (around £4500* for UK students and over £10k* for international students).
  • stipend or bursary (the money the student gets) just above £15k* a year (as this is not a salary, and PhD students in the UK are not employed, you get the whole amount in monthly instalments)
  • typically, a travel and expenses budget of £2-3k a year
  • sometimes a small "training" budget (£1k/year)

This is typically what is on offer when you see a PhD position in the UK advertised. (Some newer positions are integrated MSc (1 year) + PhD (3 years), in which case all four years are covered). In some cases, the PhD funding will cover only the tuition fees for home (UK) students (which will be specified in the advert), so an international student wishing to apply to such a position would be required to pay (a fairly steep) difference in tuition fees. As you may imagine, this does not happen often.

Additional teaching, which may or may not be required, and may or may not be an option (e.g. international students on certain types of visas might not be allowed to work in the UK), would actually make you an employee of the University, and would be paid as a salary.

I know you did not ask, but for completeness, a PhD position in some European countries (such as France) are regular work contracts for a specific time period (e.g. 3 years) -- you get a salary, and pay your taxes and pension contributions. A funded position would, again, include a travel budget, but not cover the tuition fees (however, in France the tuition is less than 500€, not over £4k).

* Valid in 2021. These numbers get adjusted on a regular basis; the bursary amount at least yearly

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    It may sound like semantics, but for tax and employment law reasons, every UK university I've been involved with has been very clear that students acting as teaching assistants aren't paid a salary, but an hourly wage for their time as non-contract "casual work". Usually literally for the hours they mark, or are in front of students. Having said that, I have seen a couple of cases combining postgraduate study with working as a salaried research assistant. – origimbo Apr 17 at 4:09
  • Also worth adding: the stipend being tax free makes it worth a bit more than it seems to be. And the stipend (unlike a salary) is paid in advance (not in arrears), which can sometimes cause confusion at the end of the funding. Top up teaching wage would be paid in arrears. – Pam Apr 17 at 18:37
  • "has been very clear" = "has been very clearly misrepresenting reality"... Although TBH I don't know any UK labor law, and it may be slanted against employees more than in other countries. – einpoklum Apr 18 at 19:25
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Yes, depending on the scholarship. When I was getting my PhD in the UK (finished a couple of years ago), everyone had a three-year scholarship (minimum wage), and all the teaching was paid separately. Of course, no one had to teach, but, at least in my own case, it was a sure way to get some additional money.

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    It's perhaps worth emphasising, to avoid disappointment: the amount of money a typical PhD student in the UK can earn from teaching will be relatively small: anything from £0 up to maybe a few thousand if you're very lucky. A significant and welcome top-up to a scholarship, certainly - but nowhere near enough to be your main source of income. Also note that such teaching is often arranged on an ad hoc basis: it is not a steady or reliable income stream. – avid Apr 16 at 19:16
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    @avid good point! on a good month I was able to pull additional 500 quid for teaching. So yeah, definitely not the main source of income. – Charles Bronson Apr 16 at 20:22
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The ways PhD students in the US are funded can almost certainly fall under one of these categories, though occasionally you'll find them under a different name:

TA - Teaching assistant. Paid for teaching/helping with a course.

PA - Program/project assistant. Like an RA or TA but for something that's not really research or a course, yet there is funding available to pay a graduate student. Staff in a university writing center might be considered PAs, or administrative roles.

RA - Research assistant. Paid to do research on a faculty member's grant. In some fields, work done as an RA is pretty independent from a student's "own research". In my own field, neuroscience, basically everyone on an RA is effectively being paid "just to do research", provided they choose a research question within the general domain of a faculty member's research program. There is no functional distinction between their "job as an RA" and their progress towards a thesis/degree. How independently a student chooses their own path really depends on their advisor, but the funding itself is fairly open-ended. PIs write grants for specific projects but funding agencies and everyone else know that biology is messy and that directions change.

Fellowship - Individualized funding for a student. This is the category most fitting as "simply paid to do research". Fellowships are granted primarily on an individual student's "potential", however that is assessed, though they are also typically based on some individual research proposal. The difference with an RA is that the money is allocated for a specific student rather than a broader research program. Fellowships are prestigious and more difficult to obtain than other sources of funding, though not unheard of. Opportunities for fellowships originating in the US may be more severely limited for international students, though some countries offer scholarships for their own citizens to study in the US that act a bit like fellowships, though they often come with other strings attached (like a promise to return to the home country and work in a particular role for X years).

Traineeship - Some US funding agencies (I am most familiar with NIH) give grants to graduate programs to distribute to students. In a way they're a bit like a "block of fellowships". Often used to fund students for their first year/semester so that they can find a faculty member to work under, or obtain individual fellowship funding, but some students may be funded as a trainee for multiple years.

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    Are you including scholarships under fellowships? – nick012000 Apr 17 at 3:46
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    @nick012000 I'd fit them under "occasionally you'll find them under a different name", yeah. I would expect something called a scholarship at the PhD level to either be a small slice of funding not really comparable to these, or otherwise it would effectively be fellowship, yes. – Bryan Krause Apr 17 at 3:52
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Asking about "the US and the UK" is probably not a great idea because the two countries have very different systems.

PhD student funding varies strongly between universities and areas of funding. A lot of departments have their own funds that they pay students from. These come from things like grants and donations so you can have one wealthy department and one destitute in the same university. Also expectations of prospective students differ across fields, for some it's seen as mandatory and others it may be extremely exceptional. It can even depend on the individual professors, as some may have special grants or other arrangements.

A lot of the time the "RA job" is just a "fake" job that represents the research you are already doing for your PhD (this includes classes and rotations in the beginning, so you do get paid from day one). It's not necessarily an additional job, rather a way for the paperwork (payroll, benefits, policies...) to fit a system. There may be programs where being an RA means actually doing some assistant work not directly-related to your PhD studies, but it is not the rule.

TA-ships are also not purely a way to make money. Teaching is a big part of a PhD's career ("doctor" means teacher) so many programs rightfully require you to complete some TA work in order to graduate even if you are funded. Sometimes the TA-based funding starts to phase in eg. after year 5, so it may be something that impacts you less (or not at all) depending on how fast you finish.

Lastly RA and TA are not the only option. At some universities you may have the option of doing other work like exam proctoring instead.

The short of it is that every individual university can have its own system, so you should ask each one individually.

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In addition to the other answers, it should also be mentioned that, in case you go to the US or UK (or somewhere else) for your PhD, you might also be able to get a fellowship from your home country/country of origin in order to pursue your PhD.

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This question is mis-phrased. You're really asking:

Can a junior researcher, who is not yet recognized as a doctor, be paid simply for doing his/her research?

Well the answer is:

A researcher must be paid for doing their research - but we have to struggle to enforce that.

The problem is, that in some world stats, including the US and the UK, junior researchers are not universally recognized as employees making a significant contribution, and instead of being paid by default, regularly, through transparent and negotiated collective arrangements - are paid partially, sometimes, on an individual basis, through transitory and unstable employment schemes, or through stipends/scholarships/gift mechanisms etc.

It is in the (narrow) interest of universities as employers to have a flexible and cheap workforce of PhD-candidate researchers, so the situation described above is actively maintained (and in some cases even established) through actions of the universities and their lobby powers. There are also government pressures downward in this respect, as part of their attempts to cut budgets, be they justified or not (IMNSHO mostly not).

The way to improve this situation is:

  • self-organization into junior researcher / graduate researcher unions (or alternatively induction into general academic staff unions, if those are willing to fight for junior researchers' interests as well and allow for reasonable autonomy.
  • Extensive educational activity to inculcate with PhD candidates about their actual place in the academic system, their being invaluable, their contribution, their similarities with senior staff members more than with students.

See also this answer of mine, which focuses more on the legal status and a relatively recent precednts.

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