Most of positions in academia, I am referring to PhD and postdocs which make up most of the people working in academia, are short term contracts. Why? Isn't this creating inefficiency?

  • Point of view of the employee (the PhD/postdoc person): You change your job every two to three years, you are always learning new things which is cool but you will probably have to move accordingly (maybe even to different countries) which makes it very hard to settle in one place and start a family. You also cannot think in buying a house or anything because you know you will not be there for long time, so you are forced to rent.
  • Point of view of the employer (the university/supervisor with permanent position): There is a research which usually takes longer than just three years, so you will have to hire more than one generation of PhD/postdoc and teach them more than once about the same thing, which ends up in waste of time/resources.

There is probably a reason for this short-term contracts modality...

My context: I am in the middle of my PhD in physics, in Europe. I am working on a project that started some years ago and it will span several years after I finish. A postdoc in this group was working on this before myself. I started very few months before his contract ended, so there was a period in which he was quickly trying to give me all the information about this project so I could continue. This happened when I had just arrived to a new country so I had other priorities such as looking for a place to live. So then he was gone and I took on with the project. Now I am learning almost from scratch a poorly documented work which is taking me a lot of time, and I cannot stop thinking: Wouldn't it have been more profitable to the owner of the money (institute/my supervisor) to continue the contract of this other person instead of replacing him by myself? And this will of course happen again when I finish my PhD, somebody else will come to continue with this project and will have to learn everything again.

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    Related: Why do departments fund PhD students instead of postdocs?
    – cag51
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 9:49
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    Related: Do the fixed term contracts in academia lead to a brain drain?
    – gerrit
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 11:10
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    At my national lab, a post-doc position is de facto time limited, both on the hiring end (must have received their PhD within the past X years), and on the length. It is, by definition, a limited-term position. But, 100% of the post-docs I've hired over the years have gone on to 'permanent' positions including into tenure-track positions in academia.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 19:00
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    "I am referring to PhD and postdocs which make up most of the people working in academia," Don't forget all the undergrad RAs and post-baccs serving as study coordinators (which has never made any sense to me) Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 20:50
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    I strongly disagree with the most recent edit which changed the title to "Does the short-term nature of post-docs and PhD assistantships create research inefficiencies?". This changes the focus of the question considerably and renders many existing answers obsolete. Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 17:23

11 Answers 11


In most European countries, the academic system used to work practically like this a few decades ago: in most domains, a person who had successfully passed their PhD was almost sure to find a permanent university position, if they want to have one.

To simplify a bit, the change is due to two main evolutions which started around the 80s:

  • The progressive domination of the capitalist economic model (primarily imported from the US, adopted by the EU) and its extension to every aspect of the economy of a country. This has deeply modified the culture of academia (and virtually any other domain), in particular by introducing concepts such as competition, return on investment, Key Performance Indicators, etc. Teaching and research started to be seen not only as a public good but also as an investment for which government, students, companies should get value for their money. In research, this lead to the current project-based system: researchers compete to get funding from government-funded institutions. Since projects are funded for a limited number of years, a large part of the research is done by contractual workers. Institutions have no say in this since their recurring funding is limited and mostly pre-allocated. It's worth noting that the position called "postdoc" virtually didn't exist in some countries 30 years ago, and it was still rare 20 years ago.
  • The massive increase in people reaching university level, followed by the massive increase of people reaching PhD level. Giving a permanent academic position to all these people (or even to only 10% of them), would require drastically higher research budgets. Needless to say, most governments/societies don't consider research a priority worth investing so much in it.

These two points work well together: the consensus is that a competitive research system takes care of eliminating the least productive people, thus solving the problem of having too many qualified people in academia.

Of course, this actually works if the system can reliably evaluate research, thanks to various KPIs, rankings and bibliographic measures. It's an open question whether this assumption is true or not, in my opinion. But even if this system doesn't necessarily produce the best results, it's the one we have.

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    I will point that postdoc positions (in physics at least) go back at least 100 years. As an example Niels Bohr was a postdoc in Rutherford’s lab in the 1910s. The position had different names then but they were basically short term research positions which typically preceded permanent positions. My thesis director had a postdoc position 60 years ago, and in my times as graduate student (more than 20 years ago) there were plenty of postdocs. Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 3:32
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    The reality is that we now overeducate large segments of the population for the job they will have, resulting in a massive increase in the number of PhDs. A research-enabled academic position is a really good gig so one cannot blame students for wanting to remain on the gravy train. Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 3:35
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    @ZeroTheHero I have worked with several physist from the previous generations, and they unanimously said that postdoc positions, especially multiply postdoc was rare. Also many times those were not like nowadays: one had a position somewhere and if got a fellowship or as visiting opportunity, then choose to go there.
    – Greg
    Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 14:51
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    @Greg agreed there is massive oversupply of PhDs for the number of postdoc positions available, although I'm not sure this means such positions are "rare" (even if they are rare compared to the number of possible applicants). Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 15:05
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    @Greg - I believe the post-doc situation is field and country dependent. When I got my PhD in OR in 1978 in the US, a post-doc was nearly unheard of inthe field. Likewise, it was virtually unheard of for CS as well. On the other hand, it was already quite common, bordering on universal for chemistry and physics PhDs to post-doc before being offered a faculty position at a research university.
    – Llaves
    Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 16:34

A PhD position is naturally time-limited because it should end when the candidate obtains their PhD. Your question implies, but does not state explicitly, that you are referring to research rather than teaching or other (admin, technical) positions. Therefore, in the rest of this answer, I will focus on post-docs.

Wouldn't it have been more profitable to the owner of the money (institute/my supervisor) to continue the contract of this other person instead of replacing him by myself?

It would, and it happens. I've met people who had been effectively¹ a post-doc for decades, chaining dozens of temporary research positions, sometimes with gaps involving short periods of unemployment — always within the same research group. I've seen a researcher in the USA retire after working with the same supervisor for 40 years, always on temporary contracts. In some countries, laws put limits on how long people can be on temporary positions. Examples include the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz in Germany or comparable rules in The Netherlands or Sweden. Among the aims of such laws is to prevent "career postdocs", with the idea that after so many years on temporary positions, the employer must offer a permanent position. The effect is rather that the postdocs leave and are replaced by new ones, leading to the situation you describe.

This raises the question: why do the employers offer chained temporary positions (where regulations allow) rather than a permanent position? Most employers will only be willing (or able) to offer a permanent position if they have a permanent source of money. Much research funding is project-based, so the employer usually doesn't have a permanent source of money. Even if the professor would want to hold on the post-doc permanently, they probably can't because they don't have a permanent pot of money.

It would be possible for a university to offer a permanent position to researchers, with the understanding that if money should dry up, they can still be made redundant, just like what would happen in business or industry. This approach is rare, but it exists (I seem to recall it exists at the University of Bristol, for example; and at another British university we organised post-docs trying to convince the university to do the same). In countries with strong labour laws, it would mandate the university to try to find a new suitable position for a postdoc when their contract approaches the end, although they may anyway have to do that (in EU and UK) for researchers chaining temporary positions long enough. If the professor keeps finding new sources of money, or the work in other research groups at the same department is similar enough, it can actually work. This approach is rare, probably because making people redundant is much more work than simply letting their contract expire, but I think that at least for large departments where there are many postdocs staying longer than 5–10 years, it certainly could be explored.

¹I use the term post-doc here loosely to mean any time-limited research position that requires a PhD.

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    It is already the case in the EU or UK that if you are on a series of short-term contracts with a single employer for too long then they have to treat you as a permanent employee: this merely means they have to go through a dismissal procedure when the grants dry up, so doesn't give that much peace of mind. (The UK govt site admits to this but of course doesn't cite the EU directive underpinning this.)
    – Lou Knee
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 12:20
  • @LouKnee Thanks for pointing that out, I had forgotten that. Edited to point this out.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 12:23
  • I would not say that PhD position is naturally limited. If I consider myself, right now I have set up a lab in my group to perform certain specific types of measurements that I know will be required for some time even after I finish my PhD, and right now I am the only person that knows how to operate all this. I know that after I finish and I go to somewhere else, whoever comes in my place (be it a new PhD or a postdoc) will spend at least 1 year learning. Considering a contract of 2-3 years, we have 10-30 % of wasted time.
    – user171780
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 15:00
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    @user171780 The goal of the phD is learning: that 10-30% is the main point of the phD, not wasted time! Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 18:21
  • The British situation you mention is partly due to employment law. An open ended contract with a relevant factor effectively means you're at notice of redundancy fairly far into the future (I've just started a new 3-year position in a new group, continuous service for pension/mortgage etc. purposes). Once someone has been in place for a certain amount of time with new or extended contracts, it's basically inevitable. And looking internally first when filling new positions is also the norm (my PhD was in Bristol and I still live there though I work in Cardiff)
    – Chris H
    Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 8:16

There are various interesting and involved aspects to this question. I'll just pick out one of them that has not yet been addressed by the other answers.

Context. My experience is in Germany where (a) the university system is almost completely tax funded and (b) the vast majority of non-applied research grants are also tax-funnded.

If the university system is tax funded, a major question is how it benefits the society overall. One benefit of PhD positions is that they can be used as a mean to educate highly qualified personnel for both the private sector and also certain non-academic positions in the public sector. The point here is that doing a PhD will often give you a different set of skills than most types of vocational training or training on the job. While this type of qualification will not be needed for the majority of jobs, it can be very useful to still have a significant number of people around who do have this type of qualification.

From this perspective, it makes sense to have considerably more PhD candidates than permanent positions in academia: the majority of PhDs will leave academia when they have completed their PhD, which makes a significant number of highly qualified personnel available for the private sector.

From the same perspective, it also makes sense to replace, for instance, a Phd student with a new PhD student after a certain amount of time. It will, at first glance, "burn" some public money since it lowers the efficiency of the project work - but actually this is an investment in making PhD positions available as a mean of education and traininig.


In some sense, the answer to this question is just "because the system has evolved to be this way". Some factors in this evolution are:

  • In many (most?) countries, research funding is primarily organised around grants to conduct comparatively short-term projects with a defined set of objectives. This makes some sense: research is inherently unpredictable, and something that looks promising today may be a dead end in 5 or 10 years' time. In consequence, institutions cannot guarantee that they will have funding to support any line of research beyond a 2-3 year timescale.

  • Researchers are not fungible. Projects tend to require specialist skills and knowledge, and someone hired for Project A may not be well-suited to (or interested in) Project B. This counts against hiring someone on a permanent contract: what do you do with them if Project A loses funding or reaches a natural end?

  • Research directions are heavily dependent on the whims of individual members of staff, and not set centrally. If Prof. X leaves and is replaced by Prof. Y, there will often be a substantial change in research focus. Again, this counts against the institution making any long-term commitments to specialist staff.

'Long-term positions' do exist: they are the faculty positions. So perhaps the question could be reframed: Why don't professors do more research themselves, instead of hiring contract staff to do it?


Consider the supply and demand factors (in addition to other points)

From an institutional viewpoint, it is attractive for universities to "try before you buy". If they can hire staff on a time-limited contract then it is usually possible to successfully renew them or move them into permanent positions if that is desirable. However, if they want to get rid of a staff member in a permanent position then that is more difficult and costly. Consequently, the time limitation in the employment contract can be seen primarily as a clause that favours the interests of the university.

Other answers have pointed out a range of factors relating to the conduct and funding of university research that make it desirable (from the university's point of view) to use time-limited contracts for postdocs and other junior academic staff. These are all good points, but they don't really get to the root of why universities are able to successfully enforce their desires in the employment market, when this imposes serious costs/problems on employees. My view is that this is largely a result of the supply and demand dynamics of our modern education system, where we churn out PhDs at a high rate.

Setting aside very recent events, there is an abundance of PhD graduates relative to the number of available postdoc and academic positions, so universities can impose employment conditions that are not especially desirable for postdocs and still get plenty of good applications. (There have been some recent reports that "the great resignation" has limited this, but we'll see.) This is just one manifestation of the general economic principle that if you increase the labour supply in an industry then (ceteris paribus) the wage/conditions for employees in that industry will fall.


(In a since-archived comment to another answer I did post a link to an ASCB blog infographic that tries to illustrate the situation quantitatively, but doesn't explain the "why" behind it.)

The claimed positive: the short-term postdocs provide a framework that lets you pick up new skills and techniques, and build your network of contacts, by working at other places before "settling down". In practice, "settling down" to a long-term career at a single institution has generally meant something like a (UK) lectureship which has a significant teaching load.

It has been a long-standing issue that there is no long-term research-only career path in UK academia, hence the chaining together of short-term (1-5 yrs, in my case) contracts and even the effective permanent status stemming from the EU Fixed-Term Work Directive doesn't prevent redundancy at the end of a grant (though at least it adds some extra hurdles for the employer). Recently, the notion of research software engineers as a profession and initiatives such as the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers have finally started to appear. But this just points up the continued persistence of, and dependence on, short-term contracts. So why has the situation gone on so long?

The reality: it keeps entry-level wages down (both within and then outside academia) and then on top of that provides a mechanism that allows junior staff to be abused and exploited(*): object to illegally working overlong hours? We won't continue sponsoring your visa. Considering complaining about harassment by PI? No time to write letters of recommendation for your next post.

The Wellcome Trust report What researchers think about the culture they work in covers this at some length, but there's nothing in there that doesn't go back decades. It's notable that in response the UK Government's R&D people and culture strategy has four executive bullet point actions on pulling in new people, four bullet points on getting people in from abroad(**), but not a single one on retaining existing skilled/experienced staff in the sector. (It's like they're afraid we might recognize bullying and call it out...)

* Reported rates of bullying and harassment in the research sector (i.e. not just universities) are about double those in UK general employment (R&D people and culture strategy, p.26)(***)

** hence the HPI visa scheme announced recently

*** Note I don't mean that there is any specific intent to enable bullying and exploitation, but I do believe it's an inevitable side-effect of how vested interests have shaped, and continue to push, the sector

N.B. I drafted & wrote this answer in relation to the original headline wording of this question: "Why are there so few long-term [research] positions in academia (before professorship)?"

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    How do post-docs keep entry-level wages down outside academia?
    – gerrit
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 15:53
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    If pay and conditions in academia are poor, then how hard does e.g. industry have to try, to be better?
    – Lou Knee
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 21:41
  • Your reference to bullying valuably brings out something that is sometimes kept under wraps as if it's just 'not done' to speak of it.
    – terry-s
    Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 10:54
  • It's a neat infographic, suggest you copy it into this answer. Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 14:06
  • @daniel I don't think embedding the graphic would be useful, as it doesn't really get into explaining the causes. But it is neat. I do worry that a lot of people drift into STEM/research/academia without looking closely at the issues "hiding in plain sight" in the ASCB graphic or that Wellcome Trust report, instead getting swept along by over-enthusiastic outreach events and misleading features in New Scientist and the like.
    – Lou Knee
    Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 17:32

If you don't make short term contracts, you will keep the next round of students from getting PhD positions. As universities don't have unlimited ressources, every person that stays in a position takes a PhD position away from somebody. And with the contract law being as it is in most of Europe, once somebody holds a position that is not limited term, you cannot fire them easily, which could result in people staying in their position for years and years, keeping another person from getting a PhD position every 3 years of it (or even faster, as long-term employees tend to get more expensive due to raises).

This is already the situation with most professor positions - unless people chose to vacate their professorial post, they stay in office until retirement. This is one of the / the main reason(s) why so few PhD holders become professors.

By making academic positions permanent, you would make it next to impossible to get a PhD or postdoc position.

  • Plenty of postdocs stay for years and years. I know someone who has had 25-ish contracts in 40 years, all at the same place. Although his case is extreme, it is by no means exceptional.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 11:38
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 14:04
  • @gerrit Has he even been given a title of Research Professor for his 25+ contracts ?
    – Trunk
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 18:23
  • @Trunk I don't remember his title, but it did not include "professor", nor "postdoc".
    – gerrit
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 20:40
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    I finished my PhD in 2002. I'm still employed at a UK university in a postdoc position 20 years later. Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 20:59

A common type of position in academia is "tenured professor", which I'd say is pretty long term. But besides that, there are many specialties like lab manager, lab technicians, statisticians, pathologists, data scientists, software developers and so on that tend to be employed indefinitely, and sometimes even accrue advancement to seniority like other government workers do. Also, the industry, and certain research institutes (moreso in the past I'd say) also have the practice of employing researchers for multiple decades, so it is certainly a workable model.

What stands out to me about many of these exceptions (except professors) is that they tend to not be in a leading role. PhD students and postdocs are usually expected to have some independent research goals, even if these happen to tie in closely with the rest of the team. When you are expected to choose your own path in life with respect to projects, it is inevitable that people's interests would change between their 20s, 30s and 40s. An older professor may also change their research interests, but at that point in their career they are not as dependent on their immediate colleagues and institutions to succeed. Whereas for a PhD student, it is very difficult to break into a field if you have no mentors who are at least tangentially familiar with it. Because of this, even if academia did offer permanent positions to younger researchers, many of them would quit and go elsewhere anyway, because as they learn more about the scientific community they'd change their minds about where and how they should fit in. Except unlike the current system where there is some expected "end" of your employment that everybody is anticipating, there would be a risk of projects being interrupted mid-way due to the researcher suddenly leaving, and resulting in a lot of disruption. This is exactly what happens in the industry with various knowledge workers who are employed "permanently" (which means they can quit or be let go any time with only 1-2 weeks warning, so it's very difficult to plan a year or more ahead).

On the other hand, the historic origins of academia are more of a special society, with its own internal rituals and traditions. At the time that academia originated, it was common for people to advance through specialized ranks within the society (for example guild members progressing through apprentice, journeyman, master craftsman). Little survives of the guilds after the technological, economic and political changes of the last couple of centuries, but academia holds on to a lot of the traditions, so I suspect that is also part of why there is a ladder of "graduations" people are expected to go through.

By the way, if you really want to stay in the same place through your PhD, postdoc and beyond, it's certainly possible. The PhD and postdoc are usually so transformative that people tend to end up with very different outlooks than when they began, and also many eminent academics feel that it's good for young people to go out, see the world and be exposed to different ideas. However, this isn't such a hard and fast rule, and you occasionally someone staying in the same city, same institution or even the same lab for a long time. If that is your goal I'm sure you could discuss it with your mentors and get some useful suggestions.

However your question is motivated by your frustration at a rushed project hand-off. I think this has very little to do with durations of employment. The same problem could occur from unexpected catastrophes (the so-called "bus factor") or people being assigned to new projects and having to abandon old ones. I think that it's important to have a culture of transparency, accountability and documentation. When you work on any project, especially a long term one, you should thoroughly document the work in a way that would be accessible to others. That way you will never be "caught with your pants down" if suddenly someone else needs to work on it (either with you or instead of you). You should also take initiative to speak with your colleagues and evangelize your work, so that they have a good idea of what you're getting up to and why, even without reading your notebooks. These things are generally part of good research hygiene anyway: Meticulous documentation and advocacy for your ideas have often been the cornerstone of major developments in science. Sounds like the person from whom you inherited the work has been a little lax in this regard. Unfortunately it's not uncommon in the field - but hey, maybe when you're finished, you can try to do better.


There was a time when the majority of people holding a Master's degree or higher aspired to a "teaching position"---that is to say a job where teaching would be the primary source of their income while (possibly) leaving them enough time to pursue their research.

People with such qualifications do not any longer aspire to such positions unless they are at "Research Universities" (which is to say at organisations where people are evaluated and promoted based primarily on their research contributions).

  • One reason is that salaries for simple teaching positions (at colleges and lower) are typically quite low and in many countries there does not seem to be a policy to prioritise education via better paid teachers.

  • Another reason is that as a matter of policy it was decided that funding research leads to economic growth. Hence such people should be encouraged to continue their research and prove themselves as researchers capable of being "principal investigators".

  • Perhaps another reason is that research in many areas has come to be dominated by projects that require extensive funding and so a teacher cannot realistically continue to carry out research without being attached to a large research organisation or university.

As a combination of these (and perhaps other) factors, there is grant money that supports post-graduate research positions. It seems natural to put a cap on the amount of time in such positions so that (in principle) only the best people get funded.

In many departments, there is not much grant money and post-graduate positions are funded through teaching. However, the principle of time limitation is applied there as well, perhaps to "give a chance" to more individuals, or perhaps to have a "uniform system across the university".

In any case, this does lead to a "brain-drain" as people with adequate subject knowledge drop out of academia and no longer contribute to the dissemination and development of human knowledge. It may be pointed out that many of these "research-only" positions are extremely focussed and thus probably do not produce graduates who have adequate subject knowledge to be good teachers.

In summary, it would appear that there is an inefficiency of this system. However, it is not at the location where the OP asks the question, which is research. Instead, it is in education where the loss is the greatest.

  • This varies by country of origin and field. For example in nordic countries there exists the concept of a reserach engineer that nowdays technically is a Masters degree but ist not the same education nor the continuation of a bachelor's degree. These are meant for industrial positions for things that require more long term reserach work. Nordics had similar ideas about other areas too as many university students were destined for masters degree without a bachelor on the way.
    – joojaa
    Commented Jun 17, 2022 at 8:57

TLDR: PhD studentships and post docs aren't best thought of as short-term jobs, though getting the dissertation done is the job of the PhD candidate and publishing articles is the job of the Post Doc. And the university and the supervisor aren't best thought of as employers. The university is a school and the supervisor is a teacher, and the PhD program is a specialized professional training program with a single aim - making new researchers.

I earned my PhD in the US, so our experiences might be a bit different, but I'm pretty sure the aim and structure of the academy is pretty similar across the globe. If you were my student, I'd say that this question demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the role of PhD's and Post Docs in the academy and the relation in which they stand to the university and their advisors.

PhD programs are professional schools in which fledgling scholars undertake a course of study, which includes coursework, practicums, traineeships, direct supervision, formal and informal mentorship, participation in the peer-review process, academic enculturation, and individual research. PhD candidates are first and foremost students who are at the university in order to learn how to be academic researchers that understand the norms of the academy and their discipline, who have developed the skills needed to conduct research in their field, and who have the capacity to make novel contributions to the sum of human knowledge. At the end of this process, a new, matured researcher who no longer requires supervision and who can now, in turn, supervise new graduate students will have been produced. This new researcher serves to replace (and to build on the work of) existing researchers, as full-time academics at new institutions, as existing researchers resign, retire, or pass away. The PhD is a professional certification, like an M.D. or J.D., that signifies that the individual has met the basic criteria for performing the job of an academic.

Although PhD's typically receive payment for their participation in such programs, research assistantships and teaching assistantships are typically framed as traineeships for the PhD candidate to learn how to teach and conduct research - the basic jobs of the university-based researcher. The relationship in which the PhD stands to the university and the advisor is not best conceived of as an employee-employers relationship. Naturally, there are serious concerns about the treatment of graduate student labor in the academy - as previous commenters have noted.

If the university, the PI on a grant, or the director of a lab were seeking an employee, in the form of a lab assistant or project manager, it doesn't make sense to bring in a PhD candidate (although it happens), since the cost of educating a PhD is significant and the skills of a PhD are not needed for basic lab research. The B.A. or B.S. is a certification that the individual understands the basic research process or has a breadth of knowledge in a discipline that would allow them perform basic, repetitive research tasks. They are typically not researchers - they merely participate in the research process (a lit review is not "doing research"). The M.A. or M.S. certifies that the individual has specialized knowledge or skills that would allow the individual to perform highly specialized tasks in a particular research domain. Neither are research degrees and are not generally expected to conduct novel research on their own (though the UK has the M.S. by research which is a degree that might be thought of as a "PhD prep" program).

It makes even less sense to bring in a post doc for this purpose. Post doc positions are typically opportunities for the recent PhD to build a network of colleagues and references and to make progress on their original research, lending credibility to their candidacy as an academic, prior to scoring a full-time, tenure track academic position.

I will acknowledge that the norms are different in different disciplines. I'm a philosopher, and we are primarily a single-author discipline. So, my PhD involved no lab work under the direction of a supervisor. I didn't work on my supervisor's project. I set my agenda and picked my projects. PhDs in the sciences often work in grant-funded labs. Their research assistantships (i.e., research traineeships) often involves labor in the service of the PI and grant topic, in return for the use of a lab and supervision by the director of the lab. Work in the lab and on the grant generally contributes to the supervisor's research agenda, but the novel findings belong to the PhD candidate.

  • The distinction you draw between "work done as an RA" and "one's own original research" holds up in a some fields (esp. in the humanities), but it's non-existent in much of the sciences: your entire PhD/postdoc may be one subpart of a larger project or grant.
    – Matt
    Commented Jun 17, 2022 at 22:08
  • Point being - you typically don't just work on the advisor's project in order to progress solely the advisor's research agenda. Once a lab is established and the advisor had matured, they're primarily overseeing and supporting the success of original research by PhD students. Ideally, your project would be included in the current or next grant. The proposed work is the research program you plan to pursue for the dissertation. While often collaborative, PhD work speaks to the individual's ability to come up with new projects or questions, and make progress on them (one's own original research) Commented Jun 18, 2022 at 23:22

Wouldn't it have been more profitable to ... continue the contract of this other person instead of replacing him by myself?

At profitable corporations in free markets, it is very common to replace employees and retrain them. The observational evidence suggests retaining employees costs more than replacing them. I see no reason why academia would be different.

Contracts are finite because money is finite.

Keep in mind that in many places the norm is that employment can end at any time for any reason. A one year contract is a luxury by comparison.

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    "The observational evidence suggests retaining employees costs more than replacing them" - citation needed?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 13:43
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    journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0149206311424943 seems to indicate the opposite, and that the effect size from turnover varies depending on, e.g., the type of industry and employees. Certainly one would expect significant training costs in knowledge-intensive jobs.
    – Anyon
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 14:23
  • 2
    @user171780 Setting aside PhD students for a second, which I think it makes no sense to think about in this context because they are students, in my experience in the US (which may differ from Europe) it is not possible to continually renew a post doc position, as these are also training positions. Funders will not fund post doc positions past some time limit. There are other semi-permanent research positions, though, like the one I have, where my contract is renewed annually, but there is no need for me to leave every 2-3 years.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 16:18
  • 2
    @AnonymousPhysicist: Those sources do not paint employee turnover as a positive thing, in particular to the companies. Sure, it happens, but that doesn’t mean it’s desired or economic.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 8:45
  • 1
    @AnonymousPhysicist: I am not implying that. Preventing employee turnover comes with a cost, which might outweigh the benefits. But that doesn’t mean that employee turnover (at least above a certain rate) is desired per se. The top find on your link is titled Employee Turnover: Early Warning Signs and contains sentences like: “employee turnover negatively affects almost every aspect of a building services contractor (BSC)”.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 12:10

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