I'm I PhD student in X engineering in the university X (top ranked program in the US, big university) and I'm finishing my first year with a first author paper in an important journal, 3 conferences (1 of them as invited speaker) and accepted to two more international conferences in October (my field is in physics actually but my group is inside the X engineering department). I've also completed all the credits required for candidacy and I'm going to take the exam in January of 2023.

As far as I know, PhD students (in particular international students like me) in the US are not allowed to legally work as research assistants for more than 20 hours per week during semesters (which makes sense if you are not a candidate yet) but are allowed to work full time during the summer (like I did during this summer in my first year). But my stipend remained the same during the summer... while I worked twice as hard...

Did I miss something? Why am I getting paid the same amount of money than during the semester if I'm working more hours... and I'm supposed to work 40 per week in the summer. Apologies if this is a silly question but I really don't understand this situation at all.

  • 10
    Were you "working" or were you "researching" which may help advance you to your degree. In the US a "stipend" is usually treated differently from a "salary". In particular, it isn't figured as $/hour.
    – Buffy
    Aug 18, 2022 at 22:13
  • 8
    This might be a good question to ask HR at your university. The 20 hour limit is there so that students have time to advance their degree. If that can't happen, then there is a problem, whether it is common or not.
    – Buffy
    Aug 18, 2022 at 22:21
  • 6
    Is "supposed to work 40 h per week in the summer" just an expectation from others in the group, or is it official guidance you received from the department employing you, as in you were given a 40 h appointment for the summer?
    – Anyon
    Aug 18, 2022 at 23:18
  • 17
    What is the relevance of the first paragraph? Aug 19, 2022 at 0:10
  • 3
    It is very unclear what it is that you call "working". Was it related to your PhD's topic? PhD students often do extra things, like teaching classes, which are not directly related to their thesis, and are paid by the hour. But for this extra work I'd expect fewer hours during summer, not more. The research work that is directly related to the PhD is probably not paid by the hour, but it is also expected to be MUCH higher than 20h/week, unless maybe you have a special arrangement such as for disability reasons.
    – Stef
    Aug 19, 2022 at 15:15

4 Answers 4


It is normal, though not universal. Some schools do exactly as you suggest, paying double over the summer. But this is a bit inconvenient for the students, who may resort to banking the summer surplus and slowly parsing it out over the rest of the year. So, many schools instead pay the same amount but in twelve equal installments. This may or may not reflect the "behind the scenes" view -- i.e., your advisor may indeed be paying more for your time in the summer than during the year, but that is not necessarily visible to you.


The idea of the 20-hour rule is that the "work" you do for 40 hours per week is half for your own education, and half for the project that funds the work. That has presumably not changed during the summer break.

  • 3
    While this answer is correct in that it is a wide-spread idea, the idea is a lie. Perhaps some people believe it. Many PhD students work exclusively on a funded project, and the training they receive is incidental. Aug 20, 2022 at 14:46
  • 1
    @AnonymousPhysicist it is incorrect to suggest it is a lie. It may be a stretch in some cases but one should not transform exceptions into rules. Aug 20, 2022 at 19:28
  • @AnonymousPhysicist Working on a project under close supervision is a sort of training. Aug 22, 2022 at 16:33
  • @WolfgangBangerth Supervision is making sure the job gets done. Training is helping a person learn. Training might be a part of supervision, but close supervision is not a kind of training. PhD programs are deluding themselves on this point. Aug 22, 2022 at 23:22
  • If you asked a PhD student: "How were you educated for 20 hours a week?" And they said "I was closely supervised!" You would know something was wrong. Aug 22, 2022 at 23:24

As an international student, you might be confusing the federal 20-hour limit for F-1 visa students and your school's policies.

Most school policies consider you to have a full time workload all year. During the school year you are expected to take a full class load and do research, and taking classes is part of your full-time load. During the summer the time you would have spent on classes is spent on research instead. Your school doesn't think you're doing more work during the summer- just different work.

The federal government sets a limit of 20 hours of work per week for students on an F-1 visa during the school year. Time spent studying is specifically not included in those 20 hours. The limit is 40 hours per week during school holidays and summers. These limits exist to ensure that F-1 students have enough time to make adequate progress toward their degrees and to prevent abuses of the F-1 visa system.

On top of that, most PhD students are supported by a stipend- not an hourly wage. This is almost always an agreement to pay a monthly amount, and this is good for you. Many international students go home once or twice during their PhD, and they continue to receive their stipend during that time.

  • Yes... Although, apparently, recently, some administrators have interpreted federal and state law to make TA's (teaching assistants) "hourly employees", supposedly to protect them from abuse. In one regard, yes, that's good, but it does create other not-so-good complications. Aug 19, 2022 at 22:20

Hey congratulations on all of those accomplishments! Though with regards to the question, I don't think they are relevant. The following focuses mostly on STEM experiences, but I think applies broadly.

The 20hr work restriction has nothing to do with being an international student. It applies equally to domestic students. The reason, is that 20hrs / week is the minimum requirement to be labeled as a "student", i.e. in order to maintain student status in the eyes of the university and/or government. From what I understand though, this practice differs between private and public institutions. Graduate students live in a strange state between students and faculty. Student status is important for several reasons, like: (1) the university paying for your tuition (2) student benefits like class enrollment and healthcare (3) tax reasons, for both yourself and your institution. You may notice that you pay a suspiciously low tax rate on your earnings.

Over the summer, it's a different story. There is no required time to be in school, meaning that legally, students are free to work >20hrs / week while still maintaining student status. In terms of hours, you can be paid for 40 hrs / week, and indeed like other posters mentioned, often times students plan for this over the course of a year, and will save those earnings to help out during tougher times in the academic year.

So legally, you are free to earn a ton of money over the summer. In practice though, this usually doesn't quite happen for several reasons.

First, your department needs to have funding, which is often a major blocker. Second, assuming the money is there, your advisor or source of funding needs to agree to pay you for your time. This has both an agreed upon hourly component, as well as agreed upon start and end dates. With regards to advancement to candidacy, most universities have tiered pays, meaning that before advancement you will have an upper bound on your researcher salary. But again, that has nothing to do with hours worked, it's only w.r.t hourly pay. After candidacy, some departments will set standards for payment, while others leave this up to negotiation between students and advisors/department.

Third and finally, there is one additional problem with earning too quickly over the summer, that doesn't apply to everyone. If you were the recipient of a prestigious fellowship, or some other means of earnings, you can go over the annual cap if paid out too quickly (I think the cap starts/ends over the summer). This is not a fun situation to be in, and you basically just lose your money, it doesn't roll over. In this case you may opt for half pay over a longer period of time, even if the working hours were only during a fraction of that time period.

All in all, if you don't feel you're getting the pay you deserve, it's likely a conversation to have with your advisor.

Added note: You can also work two jobs over the summer. You can pick up 20hrs / week teaching and 20hrs / week researching. I was only focusing on the initial post, but this is further evidence that there is no working restriction.

  • The 20 h limit is part of the rules related to F1 student visas.
    – Anyon
    Aug 21, 2022 at 17:19
  • Full time sounds to me like 40hrs, as is convention, especially when contrasted with the 20hrs stated earlier. But to be fair, this is ICE we're talking about: ice.gov/sevis/…
    – JKJK
    Aug 21, 2022 at 17:39
  • The rules about on-campus employment are presumably more relevant to OP's case than the off-campus ones. Either way, doesn't that link show the limit has something "to do with being an international student"? Especially since plenty of domestic undergraduate students work more than 20h/week, which makes me wonder what 20h/week restriction there is that you claim applies to them. One imposed by the universities? On all their students, or just their student employees?
    – Anyon
    Aug 21, 2022 at 17:59
  • yeah totally agree with you, but there was a link to the official guidelines for more information, and it seems to support working 40hr/wk during summers. nafsa.org/_/file/_/amresource/….
    – JKJK
    Aug 21, 2022 at 21:11

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