In my “who am I” post, I describe being a grad student as like being an apprentice. I’d like to elaborate on that.
Ph.D. programs in the sciences are different at every school, but they have a few basic features. Generally you enter them with a bachelor’s degree from another university. The program lasts for somewhere between four and six years, longer for particularly unfortunate cases. Sometimes you get a Master’s degree after the first two years, sometimes you don’t, but you don’t usually have to get it from another school. Generally the first two years mostly involve taking courses while the later years are mostly research, but this can vary as well. And in general, once you’re in the program, you get paid: either as a Teaching Assistant, in which case you help grade papers, lead lab sections, and sometimes give lectures, or as a Research Assistant, in which you are paid to do research.
This last is occasionally confusing to people. If a Ph.D. student learns by doing research, then why are they also paid to do research? That sounds like not just getting your education for free, but being paid for it, which sounds at the very least like a very good deal.
There are two ways to think about the situation. One, as I mentioned in my “who am I” post, is as an apprenticeship. An apprentice is expected to learn on the job, and provided they learn enough they are eventually certified to work on their own. Despite this, an apprenticeship is still very much a job. An apprentice is subservient to their master, and can generally be counted upon to work on the master’s projects and help the master in their job. In much the same way, a Ph.D. student is not certified to work on their own until they graduate from the program and obtain their Ph.D. In the meantime they are subservient to their advisor, and they have to take their advisor’s desires into account when choosing research projects. In general, most of a grad student’s research projects will be part of their advisor’s research in one way or another, furthering their advisor’s goals. Beyond the research itself, grad students will often have other duties, depending on the nature of their advisor’s work, especially if their advisor has a lab with complicated equipment that needs to be maintained.
The other thing to realize is that grad students are, ostensibly, part-time workers. The university pays me for 20 hours a week of work. The thing is, though, I don’t just work part-time. I work full-time. I also work at home, on the weekends…whenever I can make progress on my research (and I’m not doing some side project like this blog or taking a needed sanity break), I work. So if I work 40 hours a week and am paid for 20, that means I am effectively spending half my income on education.
Not so free, is it?
It’s not as if any of us could just work less and take on another part-time job, either. Apart from the fact that many grad students are international students on visas that don’t allow them to get other jobs, it is research itself: keeping up, making progress, working towards graduating, that takes up so much of our time. To get any education out of the process at all, we have to be involved as much as possible. So we are, inevitably, paying for our education. And hopefully, we’re getting something out of it.