In most universities, PhD students are literally students similar to master students. Fellowships and scholarships only support them financially, but officially they are students.

Some European university advertise PhD open positions like a contract job (similar to research associates or postdoc). It is understandable that these funded PhD students provide some services for the university, but in the first case too, PhD students regularly provide TA and RA services, but they are still students.

Are these two schemes different in action, or difference is only in words on paper?

Do European PhD students (mentioned in the second case) have more rights or flexibility?

  • What is the question here? You have precisely the rights and obligations that are prescribed in your contract. – Moriarty Sep 19 '14 at 16:41
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    @Moriarty, assuming you have a contract. Many (most?) people in the US work without an explicit contract and are covered by a patchwork of laws, regulations, and rules. – Bill Barth Sep 19 '14 at 17:04
  • @Moriarty that's the point. a student (undergraduate or PhD) normally does not have contract. He is enrolled through the admission system. When an employee (here a PhD student) has contract, he can negotiate over terms, but a student cannot, as he should follow the general academic policy, which is set for all students. – user13854 Sep 19 '14 at 17:25
  • @BillBarth Indeed, not having an employment contract certainly makes the situation less clear. Having (or not having) a contract is the differentiator here. Your situation will be different, but how different will depend on your country (or perhaps even by state, university, department, or scholarship provider). I don't see how this is clearly answerable. – Moriarty Sep 19 '14 at 17:32
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    @user13854 If you assume that PhD students can generally negotiate their contract in europe, you are sadly mistaken. – xLeitix Sep 19 '14 at 18:46

At least in Germany, doctoral candidates are either employed as Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter (research assistants) or given stipends as "doctoral fellows."

However, regardless of how they are paid for their efforts, they must "enroll" as doctoral candidates with one of the faculties if they are to receive a degree. So, to a certain extent, they are treated like students as well, and have many of the same privileges (for instance, they are entitled to the same student benefits when they register).

So, to a certain extent, they are both; however, their employment contract, rather than student regulations, tends to be the "controlling factor" in their treatment.


Yes, the schemes are different in action. All law related to employment (e.g. taxes, eligibility for retirement and unemployment benefits) do depend on the actual status of a PhD student. It depends as well on a country, obviously.

Source: in my program (Spain) first two years are being a student and the second two - an employed researcher. Set of duties do not change (or the effective salary), but the official status (with respect to employment laws) - does.

  • This European scheme seems interesting. Is there any tendency to shift towards this scheme? For example, attracting more students because of its benefits; then universities tend to this scheme! – user13854 Sep 19 '14 at 17:28
  • I don't think it is typical in Europe. I just gave an example that it can vary. – Piotr Migdal Sep 19 '14 at 17:37
  • yes, exactly! I meant do European students prefer this scheme and look for universities offering that? – user13854 Sep 19 '14 at 17:55
  • I guess not. Wrt employment much important are actual duties and salary (the later varies a LOT depending on the country, particular place, funding, etc). – Piotr Migdal Sep 19 '14 at 18:21
  • Europe is different from the US in the sense that there are larger bariers between EU member countries than between the states of the US. Many (potential) PhD students just aren't aware of the conditions in other countries, and even if they are, there are still substantial language and cultural bariers. – Maarten Buis Sep 19 '14 at 19:19

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