PhD Students: Living below poverty line

Posted: April 30, 2008 in Australia, Education, News, Politics
Tags: ,

There used to be a time when Australia had the title ‘the clever country’ and it seemed, in many ways, it was.  The nation was at the forefront of research in many field, our scientists were paid big money to work overseas and education actually seemed to be important.  I doubt few could argue that the situation is the same in the modern day with Australia boasting an extremely substandard telecommunications network (thanks, Telstra!), substandard energy/resources grid, much less money in the education system and even less going into research.  Some have coined one of the causes of these problems as ‘the brain drain’, where there is a mix of the best scientists being poached overseas (and not coming back) and (probably more importantly) a lack of new scientists and students.

Judging by the article below, it is no surprise why we find ourselves in this particular mess.

PhD students living below poverty line

By youth affairs reporter Michael Turtle

The standard PhD scholarship is now worth about $20,000, which means it has fallen below the official Henderson poverty line. (The University of Queensland: Chris Stacey)

Anyone who has undertaken a PhD will tell you it can be a long, harrowing journey.

New figures show the income support rate for PhD students in Australia has, for the first time, fallen below the poverty line.

It is forcing students to drop out of university or neglect their research so they can take on part-time jobs.

A leading academic group is worried this will have an impact on the whole economy.

With study after study saying the same thing, life as a university student is getting a reputation for being one of destitution.

It is hard enough for 19- or 20-year-olds but what about those who go on to further degrees?

Daniel Bond, 24, is doing a PhD in computer science at the University of Western Australia and his main source of income is a standard university scholarship.

“A lot of the people you went through uni with are earning three or four times what you are,” he said.

“You also sort of want to have a bit more of a normal life – start saving, and not the low-budget student life that you might have had as an undergrad.”


The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) has analysed the data since the early 1990s.

The Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS) collaborated with CAPA and found the standard PhD scholarship has fallen from about half of average earnings to about a third.

The scholarship is now worth about $20,000 which means this year it has fallen below the official Henderson poverty line.

CHASS president Stuart Cunningham says it is having an obvious effect.

“That is causing a number of PhD students to rethink the prospects of being able to study, complete a PhD,” he said.

It is also having an impact on students who choose to stay.


The president of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA), Nigel Palmer, says many people are sacrificing the quality of their work just to survive.

“The conditions of the award mean that they can only work for eight hours a week, which often means they do casual teaching,” he said.

“Balancing research and teaching work together is very difficult and it inevitably comes at a cost in them completing their research.”

He says the first and easiest way to address the concerns of students is to increase the standard scholarship, or APA, by about 30 per cent.

He is also recommending the scholarships cover a longer period and that more be made available for international students.

Professor Cunningham says if these measures are not taken up, it will have an effect on the whole economy, because these students are needed to fill skills shortages.

“Between a fifth and a third of the Australian academic work force is expected to retire in the next five to 10 years,” he said.

“The baby boomers are basically falling off the twigs, so we’re going to need a very, very major renewal of the academic work force.”

The proposed changes have been presented to the Federal Government for consideration.

From that, it is relatively safe to say that the current funding for people who are undoubtedly Australia’s future is pretty horrendous.  These are the people who will make discoveries, who will be a driving force in bettering humanity as a whole and pave the way for the future.  Who will be doing the work and research that will solve all the problems we see in the modern day.  Why would young people be encouraged to go and do all this work when they get paid below the poverty line?

What sense does it make for the Federal and State Governments to have such low levels of Higher Education funding (and education in general) when they can throw One Hundred Million dollars at a religious festival so people can go and worship a decayed corpse?

  1. L. Ron Brown says:

    I was a masters/phd student in Cognitive Psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. My 10-month scholarship was $19K US minus student fees. I would have made about $2K more in the summer, but I ended up leaving before the end of the first year when I realized I didn’t want to continue highly insecure 60+-hour/week for many years on end race for tenure.

  2. Jens says:

    I’m talking with a professor now about accepting an offer to pursue a Masters here in the United States. The stipend is $15,000/academic year. Pretty poor and not likely to improve when I move on to a PhD as I hope to do.

  3. L. Ron Brown says:


    Unrelated favour request: Would you be able to drop a plug for the CarnivUL of The fraudless on your blog? Since it is not a breaking news item it has a high probability of falling off the radar quickly or never being on the radar in the first place. Given that I put about 8 hours into it, I’d like to get it on the radar at least for a bit.

    Any help would be appreciated.


  4. Rod Bruem says:

    Strange how you blame Telstra for “Australia’s substandard telecommunications”. The only company that is investing in networks in a major way. There could be more investment by Telstra and others, just as there could be more investment generally in other crucial areas of infrastructure, like the energy resources grid. If companies are not investing it suggests there are insufficient returns and possibly industry structural problems. These need to be addressed by governments. It should not be left to single companies to sort out the problems. Nor do they deserve to cop the blame!

  5. Matt says:

    Yes, I do blame Telstra. You know, having that rather huge monopoly on the industry (which allows Telstra to charge really horrible amounts for what amounts to poor services, especially evident in internet services) puts them in a rather good spot to actually get the telecommunications infrastructure up to scratch.

    Of course, when another company even attempted to fix it up … well, Telstra cried like a baby. Go back to your propaganda website and admit that Telstra really are a very poor telco indeed.

  6. Tom says:

    Whinge whinge whinge! I left school at 15 and got a job. I had to, because my father was killed and we needed the money. I did a batchelor degree in my 30s and am doing a masters now in my 40s, all while employed full time in tough jobs. Wanna know who annoys me? The snotty little grad student who thinks she is doing it so tough. If I can work full time and study part and raise kids, what is so hard about working part time and studying part time? Study suffers because work? rubbish, the thing that suffers is your social time. The turkey who wrote this wouldn’t know the meaning of hard work or hard times.
    The Henderson poverty line measures relative poverty, i.e in comparison to the rest of society. Living conditions are rising (desoite what you hear from the opposition). A student on a $20k scholarship might earn less in porportion to the average wage than was the case in the past, however still has greater buying power as living standards have risen. Someone studying a Phd should know that!

  7. Ayub says:

    Living on a $20K with family and doing full-time PhD in the presence current rising inflation and housing rent is not an easy job. For a single student this scholarship is more than enough.

  8. Aleksandra says:

    Hi! i was wondering if i could use the picture of that brain you got at the top of the page, in a school assignment? is that ok?


  9. Matt says:

    I grabbed it off google, it’s not my image. Go nuts.

  10. SS says:

    Hi I received a full schoalrships for PhD from an Australian Unviersity, it is about $20000. Is it enough to cover living costs in Melbourne? Also, do you know if it is possible to quit the program and scholarshops if I think I want to go to another uni?

  11. Marc says:

    Very informative post. It is really true, as a graduate student, especially if you are enrolled in a PhD program, you want to start saving money and try to balance life. I think we all should review very carefully the details about funding befeore applying. Thanks again and keep up the good work!

  12. Phd Notepad says:

    This is quite an insight into the life and funding for a PhD student. I am taking notes and learning so much from this post.

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