Life as PhD student

By Elf Eldridge 08/07/2012

As PhD students, we often don’t do a great job communicating a lot of things: our science, what supervision we want, what our dreams for our field and research are, or how we feel about our job prospects. After playing Pounamu at the Transit of Venus forum, another failure of communication came to my attention: the failure to paint ourselves as human. Several of the Pounamu comments, whilst not directly insulting, suggested that scientists can appear as cold, aloof and possibly even unethical at times – which is the absolute antithesis of the characteristics of many of the scientists I interact with on a daily basis. Indeed, if I had to guess, I would say that many choose science as a career out of a desire to help their fellow man, or out of simple curiosity. So here’s my attempt to portray a ‘human’ science PhD student in the current NZ science environment, complete with hopes, dreams, fears and aspirations. It’s my hope that this will make it clearer just how many human factors could be altered to attract myself and my peers to stay in, or return to NZ to pursue our careers.

So who am I (on average), as a NZ science and engineering PhD student?

Well, for starters I’m almost certainly a science student (32.8%), rather than engineering (8.0%), but am equally likely to be either male or female[1] and, of the sciences, I’m most likely to be studying either biological or environmental science. A PhD will take me a minimum of 3 years (most commonly between 3 and 5 years) during which I will be paid between ~NZ$19,000 – 27,000 p.a., this is after typically completing a Bachelors Degree (3 years) and a Honours (1 year) or Masters (2+years), bringing me to a total of at least 7 years at university. That’s if (unlike a certain sciblogger who shall remain nameless) I don’t swap major, fail any papers or take a break from study at any point other than over the summer during undergraduate study.

During my PhD I am be expected to work (if full time) between 35 and 45 hours per week (so ~$13 per hour at the top end of the above wage spectrum) and usually hold down a second job as a laboratory co-ordinator to top up my earnings, and gain experience in teaching. I am also expected to present my research at both national and international conferences, to design and run my own experiments, to teach new students how to use equipment and of course to publish, typically bumping the hours required to be worked up to 50-60 to finish in 3 years. (So now I earning about $10.40 per hour for a 50 hour week if I earn the maximum – to be fair, some scholarships aren’t taxed so this isn’t really that far below minimum wage). And my research MUST be of world class quality, according to speakers at the Transit of Venus forum “if it’s not world class, then it shouldn’t be done” []

But why the urgency to finish in 3 years? Why not work 40 hours per week and just take a little longer? Simple, the scholarship mentioned above lasts for 3 years, and no more. So any time longer than that I take, I will have to fund entirely myself. Previously, post-graduate students were eligible for a student allowance, with recent budget changes however, this means I am only now able to draw on a student loan which, for many students will already be in excess of $30,000.

So why we put ourselves through this? Many would say or the money of course! Graduates with a PhD can expect to earn $50k p.a. after graduation and join the ranks of the <1% of people, aged 15 and over, who have a doctoral degree in New Zealand.[2] And from what I have recently observed this is what the vast majority of people believe motivates a NZ PhD student.

So does it really all come down to money?

But this interpretation is to COMPLETELY miss the point of a PhD. During the course of their PhD studies, my peers and I will experience the full gamete of emotions: the thrill of discovery, the despair of repeated failure, the joy of making friendships and relationships that last for a lifetime, and the opportunity to meet and listen to some of the world’s foremost thinkers and researchers. By the end of it I will likely be one of the world experts in my particular science niche (even more so than my supervisor!) and will have added my own little ‘chunk’ to the global repository of science knowledge. I WILL HAVE MADE A CONTRIBUTION – no matter how small that may seem.

However, whilst doing this research, life for my non-science peers will have gone on. Whilst I have spent evenings in the lab, or pouring over ancient, indecipherable manuscripts, my peers will be travelling, earning, living, having families. Sometimes it will feel like my chosen career path will have somehow excised 3 or more years of my life, and nowhere is this feeling more apparent than the mad scramble to find employment upon the completion of your PhD. This forces my peers and I to confront the fact that, to many New Zealand employers, they appear to have few marketable skills and no industry experience sheltered, as we have been beneath the academic umbrella for much of our working lives.

Try and really immerse yourself in that feeling for a moment – the sinking pit in the bottom of your stomach when you sit down to an interview with a prospective employer and they ask the simple question “So tell me about what experience you have that may be relevant to this job?”. Imagine knowing that when you open your mouth to answer that question, despite 7+ years of trials and tribulations, all that will come out is inevitably: “Well I have published in some academic journals…”.*

Is it any wonder then that many of our graduates head overseas? When their options are the intense competition for the tiny number of academic jobs in NZ or a career in industrial science in a country with lowest amongst R&D spending per capita in the OECD. Of course another option is to abandon science entirely, but if I am to swap to an entirely new field (essentially starting my career from scratch) given that I’m (at least) 4 years of experience and earning behind my peers, why would I start this in New Zealand, when I can recieve a higher salary in a stronger currency overseas? I still have a student loan to address, I may now have a family to support as well, to say nothing of the fact that I’m probably a little sick now of earning a little over minimum wage!

What then is the solution?

If we’re to believe our current political and scientific leaders, the answer is a simple one: simply that students need to engage more with industry during their studies and to focus their skills on the commercialization of science. PhD students are told repeatedly now that we are intended to become the science communicators, inventors and entrepreneurs of tomorrow, as well as the scientists. The only small factors missing are WHEN and HOW this amazing transformation is meant to occur. Student organisations like Chiasma and Kaiarahi are doing their best to address these concerns, but 3 years is simply not enough time to publish cutting edge science AND become “New Zealand next top Entrepreneur”. We don’t expect our politicians to be literate in science, nor our business-people, so why are the expectations of our scientists so much higher?

We also hear a lot about New Zealand retaining graduates by paying comparable wages to other countries. If this is the case, then why is there ANY world class science done in New Zealand at all? Many of our top scientists could find employment at their pick of overseas institutions and universities – so why do THEY stay?

The answer, I believe, is simpler than we have been lead to believe: most of them didn’t stay. They RETURNED.

Science has become a global community. There is a culture in NZ science, that if you haven’t spent at least some of your career at a foreign institution, then you lack connection to that global community. The relationships built on these visitation to foreign institution are what allow us to continue to produce world-class research from a country with such limited science resources. And as a PhD students, these opportunities comprise a large part of the incentives to continue on in science. Science students will ALWAYS travel, many upon completion of their PhDs, the catch is bringing them back to our shores once their travels are over.

What do PhD students really want? What motivates us?

So, finally to the crux of the argument. New Zealand bemoans its ‘brain drain’, without understanding its roots. Whilst it’s true that some graduates move overseas to gain larger salaries, many of us travel at the end of our studies for the experience, just like any other Kiwi.* Many of us pursue careers overseas, not because we see anything wrong with the NZ opportunities, but because we’re simply unaware of them. For people to attempt to entice us to stay in or return to NZ, they must understand that we are NOT people primarily driven by money.

We are curious. We are inquisitive. We like to feel that we can make a difference or a contribution. We are innovators. We yearn to be part of the global science community.

And for all of these, I believe that NZ has few equals worldwide. NZ is a country where someone motivated CAN start a business, find and chat to a CEO or politician on the street, or research something that has never been attempted before.

Yet we don’t seem to value these qualities. We seem curiously unaware of how rare they are, and how precious they are once lost. I believe it would not take much to entice scientists and other high skilled people back to New Zealand (or to move here for the first time), but you must understand their motivations first. It is ALL of our responsibilities to ‘sell’ NZ on it’s strengths, rather than perpetually focusing in what we lack. And perhaps the easiest way to start is to create a ‘haven’ for geek culture here in Aotearoa. There are already the stirring of this out in the community, but to nourish this it will need support from both scientists and politicians – but that’s a subject for another post!


*this is the perception, not the reality of the situation. The skills learned during a PhD find applications in a huge array of fields, both scientific and not.

** N.B. Many PhD student are also international student who intend to return home at the end of the PhDs, skewing PhD graduate stats quite markedly. The same argument applies to these however, that if we want them to stay in NZ, we must do a better job of selling it to them whilst they are here.



[1] OECD 2006 data

[2] These data are taken from 2006 census data on higher education.



0 Responses to “Life as PhD student”

  • Good post.

    I’d like to add that an important source of foreign expertise comes from NZ expatriate postdocs marrying top quality scientists while overseas and bringing them back here. It sure accounts for quite a few people at Vic!

  • “we are intended to become the science communicators, inventors and entrepreneurs of tomorrow, as well as the scientists”

    ah yes, but those scientist people are clever. They can handle 4 careers all at the same time 🙂

    • Yes Ben, flattery will get you everywhere – yet it doesn’t pay the bills or make your PhD research go away (although perhaps that’s just my supervisor!)

  • I’m going to make a comment here on the ‘Brain Drain’ and what I call the ‘Myth of the Returning Kiwi’. One of the things I find *deeply* frustrating as a scientist working in NZ, is kiwis complaining about the brain drain in science and the need to attract back all the expat kiwi’s that have left. While I can understand the lament of a single PhD student wanting a way to come home before having left (wait until you go, you might not want to come back!), on a larger scale, this is an incredibly insular and one-sided view of what’s good for science.

    As you’ve said, science thrives on connections, the best science anywhere in the world is internationally connected. To build those connections you have to think globally, you want to build connections to the big international teams, you want ideas to come in from outside not stagnate in a small pond. The idea that training students here and sending them off into the wider world is bad, is kind of missing the point of what’s good for a nation’s ability to build international connections. There’s only a drain if there’s no net flow back. As far as I can tell this is not the case. NZ is full of people trained elsewhere and this is a *good* thing for NZ science.

    So yes, it’s good if people with overseas experience move to NZ, but it doesn’t matter if they are kiwi’s or not. In fact if they were all kiwi’s that would not be ideal. On a national level, why should you care where your best scientists were born? Should that influence their ability to do science in NZ? In a outward looking country it shouldn’t. NZ should strive to attract the best scientists in the world, not the best kiwi scientists but the best scientists. That’s how you do good science.

    For some reason though, NZ doesn’t seem to want to do that. Again and again I see this idea that NZ needs to bring back the expats. In fact the country has gone to great lengths with policy decisions which prevent great scientists from coming to NZ. For example the Rutherford fellowships which state you have to either be a kiwi or already have a job in NZ to apply – why? Doesn’t NZ want the best people? Don’t the Royal Society think the Rutherford recipients could compete if the field was internationally open? It reminds me of people trying to set up special positions for women physicists. I would *never* take such a position. I don’t want a job because I was the best woman applicant, I want one because I was the best applicant. Why shouldn’t the Rutherford and other schemes be the same?

    Now onto the myth of the returning kiwi. It’s often posited that NZ science is full of kiwi’s that have gone away and returned. Yes, there are some but are they really in the majority? Do the Government and/or institutions really have to make specific changes for such a career path? Based on the department I work in, returning kiwi’s are distinctly in the minority (less than 30% of the academic staff). In Physics at VUW only 2 out of 10 staff are kiwis. Engineering is similarly international. Just like an institution in Australia or Europe or the US, and that’s really the point. Yes, there are a few returning kiwi’s, but looking at the overall origin of NZ-based scientists, there seems (on my very limited statistical test) to be not that many and the fact they are kiwi’s shouldn’t matter. So, please, Elf, as one of the bright and up-coming young scientists in NZ, consider that it’s not all about bringing home the ex-pat’s, it’s about attracting the best regardless of nationality because that’s what all the great scientifically productive countries do.

    • Melanie – you are entirely correct and that is a huge failure on the part of my article to have missed that out. This a particular issue, I have noted, in the prime minister’s science prizes as well. For instance, in this year’s crop – my pick for the emerging scientist prize isn’t eligible to apply, as he’s not a born kiwi, even though (as far as i can tell) he has done more for NZ science than any of his peers.

      Hopefully some of the points I have made for returning talent to NZ also applies to attracting talent to it as well!

  • >We don’t expect our politicians to be literate in science, nor our business-people, so why are the expectations of our scientists so much higher?

    The short answer is because most researchers depend on taxpayer funding for their employment and most taxpayers do not understand or appreciate the value of what you do. It is a good idea to become expert at wheedling funding out of the funders, unless you want to finish off like the Neurological research people, washing Robin Olds’ car to raise a few dollars.

  • Hey Elf, doesn’t surprise me that the PM’s prizes are like that as well, it is an endemic attitude in NZ. It seems really rather silly. Maybe if people start to think a bit more about this particular issue, it might change 🙂

  • Thank you so much Elf for that post – and the addition by Melanie – makes this thread great value! Well done!

  • Firstly, thanks guys for an interesting discussion.

    Melanie’s post misses a key issue though;
    Yes, science is fantastically international – long may it remain so. BUT, this misses the key point that only a small fraction of our PhD trained ‘kiwis’ (many of whom are not actually born in NZ, at least in physics – science is fantastically international) will not have a scientific career after they graduate. The ‘brain drain’ is not a problem for science in NZ, it’s a problem for that ‘geek culture’. Or to say with more words; it’s detrimental to the ecosystem of highly-educated, highly-skilled, highly-trained people in NZ. The health of this ecosystem effects NZ’s ability to produce and/or develop the high-value-manufacturing industries NZ needs (I’m sure there are plenty of posts on why we need these HVM companies). That’s how I see the problem of the ‘brain drain’ – the depletion of this ecosystem.

    Why does the argument for the academic situation, put so nicely by Melanie, not apply here? Because in that situation we’re talking about ‘existing’ or well defined positions/jobs. The equivalent issue for HVM industries, a specific R+D problem or skill shortage, can be addressed by either (i) IRL (that’s the easier part of their job) (ii) internationally sourced R+D or IP (iii) international recruitment.

    For that amorphous blob of an issue, ‘how do we raise per capita productivity of NZ?’, the solution is reliant on a healthy ecosystem of highly- trained, educated, skilled people. The ‘ecosystem’ excels at providing value through chance conversations, leveraging personal networks and ideas generated from more frequent, relaxed and social meetings. This is most valuable for (i) providing solutions to problems in ways that are not immediately obvious (the obvious solutions, innovative or not, can be outsourced easily as mentioned above) (ii) creating new HVM pursuits and jobs (iii) social well-being. For these things to happen we need people around, interacting.

    Now, talented people are not attracted to NZ to ‘participate in chance conversations’ – they will be come for specific, defined, ADVERTISED jobs. People doing their PhDs in NZ however are more likely to stay and populate this ecosystem if given the option. This is importance of initiatives like Chiasma or Tell-us-a-story – they are the petri dish where these connections can be made; perhaps a company will take on a person without a specific job in mind, they are simply the right person to help grow the company? However, here there is considerable scope for more money and support to give our PhDs the option of staying in, or returning to, NZ to populate this ecosystem.