I don't understand why a research institution (that awards PhDs) would employ (expensive) full-time research officers. Why couldn't those jobs be done by a group of government-funded PhD students instead? (The PhD students seem to be free or at least less expensive to the institution.)

No funding? Simple, just hire more PhD students! They can do whatever the institute requires them to do, such as publishing X number of papers. They are smart but cheap.

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    You do understand that not all PhD students actually get a PhD. Not everyone can do research.
    – Alexandros
    Oct 5, 2015 at 7:56
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    A lot of things implied in this question are incorrect or incomplete. You seem to think research is like building a wall somebody ordered and you need people to lay bricks. It's not the case. Research happens when there is a combination of interest, ideas, skills and resources. Nothing bad really happens if it's not done...
    – Cape Code
    Oct 5, 2015 at 9:44
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    "Phd title exchanged for free labor". NO, NO and NO. The fact that you worked or studied hard does not justify a PhD. Only when you research produced multiple publishable results then you deserve a PhD. Free labor<> PhD
    – Alexandros
    Oct 5, 2015 at 11:09
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    Oh, I see. Well would you work 4-5 years for free? I wouldn't.
    – Cape Code
    Oct 5, 2015 at 11:53
  • 3
    Not uncomfortable, just puzzeled. Besides in many European countries, a PhD student receives a salary that is not significantly lower than the one of research staff.
    – Cape Code
    Oct 7, 2015 at 14:10

6 Answers 6


A PhD is where you learn to do research to a doctoral standard.

A research job is where you apply what you've learnt.

These things are different things. They are not the same thing.

It's like why you see a qualified doctor instead of an undergraduate studying medicine.


The main outcome of a PhD program are PhD students themselves — skilled independent researchers, ready to embark on the journey to the world of open problems and research tasks. Other outcomes are assumed, but not guaranteed.

  1. Timeliness of delivery. PhD programs are notoriously known to last months and years beyond the anticipated submission date. Research contracts in industry usually have very strict deadlines, and the delays will ruin the company's profile.
  2. Quality of research output. The level of PhD research vary, and sadly, the quality vary as well. By design, PhD projects should be run single-handedly, and therefore the outcome depends crucially on skills and motivation of a PhD student. There is not safety net or shared responsibilities, which brings a lot of human factor uncertainty when it comes to the quality of output. Note also that the writing styles are diverse, and most PhD students have no expertise in writing according to strict industry standards.
  3. Closeness between research question and research answer. Being a long-time project, PhD study can deteriorate substantially from the original course, especially if something exciting is revealed in the preliminary analysis. Many PhD students end up writing very good theses, but answering a very different question, that was originally set in front of them. This is good for academia, and not necessarily so good for the industry that needs their question answered.
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    I think the first item somehow gets invalidated by the mere fact that in some fields and places, PhD candidates very typically are funded by projects that are done in cooperation with external partners, and whose timelines are in no way synchronized with the personal education schedule of the PhD candidate. This is compensated for by equally invalidating one of the OP's claims, however, as the remark "No funding? Simple, just hire more phd students!" does not make any sense in that situation because the respective PhD candidates get an employee's salary similar to everyone else. Oct 5, 2015 at 8:19

Why do software companies hire senior developers, when they can get smart hard working people fresh from college at a fraction of the price? Because experience matters, and there are things that a senior can do, that a team of ten juniors can't.

The same happens in research. My former group hired a postdoc from a completely different discipline. When he arrived he lacked a lot of basic knowledge from his future field; and yet, he was getting productive results in a week. A PhD student with the right background would have likely taken a month to get to that level.

And finally, there is work that a research assistant does that does not merit a PhD. For example, maintaining in working conditions a critical machine in a lab can require a lot of dedication and familiarity, so it is worth paying someone to make sure it doesn't break. Since it is not novel research, it hardly contributes towards a PhD, and you don't want to train a new person to do the job every four years.

  • Junior developers are cheaper but not free. Phd candidates are free, therefore they post no risk to your group.
    – SmallChess
    Oct 6, 2015 at 0:35
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    @StudentT PhDs are generally not free, because only a minority gets a full grant, and this only happens if their proposal is good, which in turn means the lab where they want to study should be reliable. Labs without senior researchers tend to not produce stellar research for obvious reasons. Oct 6, 2015 at 0:54
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    @StudentT even if you don't pay them, you have to provide them with office and lab space, supervision (professor time), and other training expenses, like conferences and workshops off site. Not to say they sometimes make mistakes and break stuff more often than experienced people.
    – Davidmh
    Oct 6, 2015 at 7:46
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    @StudentT If it helps, you can replace the first sentence with "Why do software companies hire developers instead of getting unpaid interns to do all the work?"
    – ff524
    Oct 7, 2015 at 12:06

To add to the answers above, there is a term institutes are starting to refer to as "PhD syndrome". This has to do with continuity of PhD projects, especially once the students have graduated. Yes, PhD students are "free" labour to work on certain projects, but what happens more often than not, is that once the 3-4 year period is done, these students move on and do not leave behind maintenance and contingency plans. Project handovers are highly complex and require extra "downtime" for research and training; companies will have to account for this.

I took over a biogas project run by an institute and driven by MSc. students in a community. Within months the system had collapsed, with comments from the community such as " we can not take this project seriously as the project faces keep changing and we feel like we are being treated like a lab". But maybe within research institutes with limited external stakeholders, the use of PhD students may be more sustainable.


Aside from the "right person for the right job" answers that are perfectly appropriate, it is not responsible behavior for a department to continuously bring in students to carry out such work.

If you take every faculty member doing research, you might think of their students as being replicants of the faculty. The job market for academic researchers at faculty levels simply can't grow to support a model where Ph.D. trainees can do all the work. Universities are slowly shifting the model to help students into (what we academicians call) the "alternative" job market, but this is a process we're all learning about, and we're not there yet.

A current area of focus is on the next level of training -- post docs. NIH, a huge funding mechanism for life science research, is strongly encouraging mechanisms to limit the eternal post-doc. In response, my uni has CAPPED post doc tenures (I can't remember if its five or six years). This applies to the TOTAL post-doc experience, so you can't post-doc somewhere else for five years, and then come here and do another five. So, if a PI wants to keep a post-doc around after they're ineligible, they have to come up with a staff scientist position, with higher pay and more in the way of a benefits package.


From the way the question is stated you seem not to understand how important is the role of supervisor for a Ph'D.

With very few exceptions, it is the supervisor who chooses the project/problem for the student with the following goals in mind (among other things):

  • try to make sure that the problem/project can be completed by a student.
  • try to make sure that the timeline for the project can be completed within a reasonable period.
  • make sure that the student learns the needed results/techniques/tools needed for the project
  • provide guidance whenever when the project hits an impasse.

A Ph'D student most often cannot chose his project for himself/herself/itself. If he cannot do that, how can he chose one for another student?

Also, how can a student evaluate how hard and how long will take for a project, a project which often needs tools from areas he is unfamiliar with? This often is a skill gained after years and years of research, and even then we are wrong from time to time.

Besides working on a project, Ph'D is also a venue for gaining knowledge. This is usually of two types: basic knowledge in the mainstream of that (sub)field, and specialized knowledge for that project. Ph'D students usually know where/how to find the first type, but they most likely need help with the second. How can a Ph'D student recommend another where to gain knowledge he is unfamiliar with? Most likely, the "guiding student" will have no idea what "his student" needs to learn.

Last but not least, when a project hits a problem, it is often a subtle problem: either something most PhD students cannot solve or often one where the PhD student has to learn something he is not familiar with yet... How can then he help another student in this situation?

If supervising a Ph'D would be a punching card job, where you just go to work for 8 hours, and do repetitive tasks than your suggestion would be fine. But it is not.

Ask yourself the following question: how confident would you be in your surgeon, if he is a resident which is learning on the job from another resident?

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    Although in some departments, it is indeed the case that "With very few exceptions, it is the supervisor who chooses the project/problem for the student", it's also the case that in some other departments, the norm is for the students to find the research question, with the rare exception being that it is imposed by supervisors. And in some other departments, both routes are common, and neither is the exception.
    – 410 gone
    Oct 7, 2015 at 13:12
  • @EnergyNumbers: I agree, and let's not forget that it also happens that the project is indeed determined externally (possibly by the supervisor, or maybe more frequently by external grants and project descriptions written by the supervisor and previous doctoral candidates), while the doctoral candidate has to find suitable research questions that are somehow connected with the project (i.e. a mixture of both routes, which are thus by no means mutually exclusive). Oct 7, 2015 at 13:16

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