Recently I have been thinking about the pros and cons of the PhD student system here in Australia and I sometimes find it a bit odd.
Here are my thoughts - I'd like to hear yours about this.
Doing a PhD is considered to be part of ones education, which is finalized by getting a degree. Therefore people doing a PhD are considered as students. On the other hand, to get a PhD degree one has to contribute to the knowledge in a certain field in a substantial and unique way. The work needed to get a PhD degree is very different to the work that is needed to get a Bachelor or Master degree. No lectures, no exams, no clear time table, no crowd of other students doing exactly the same homework, quiz, assignment. Instead the opportunity to work on a project that does not have a defined end product, to solve questions without the solutions already written down in a text book. The possibility to find amazing new stuff, publish in great journals, present on conferences. And the possibility to have the most frustrating time of your life, when nothing works and you don't understand your results at all.
These two situations are very different and the expectations from the people who finally grade the student are very different as well depending on if we talk about a Bachelor or PhD degree. But still one is called a student in both situations - "title-wise" no progress has been made when one enters a PhD program.
And as the future PhD is still a student, he still has to pay fees on his way to a degree. At the same time he is maybe contributing to the success of his advisor's projects - professional projects, which were rated so important, that the ARC or the NHMRC or whoever funds them. A student who is doing work on a professional level. Something is odd about this.
But not only the academics / the supervisors see their future PhDs mainly as students. The PhD students themselves do that as well. The "common" student life style comes with a bunch of advantages and esp. with a lot of flexibility in how to arrange ones day (I'm not talking here about the students who have full-time jobs additional to their studies). Skipping the class early in the morning? Postpone studying for just one more day? The decision on how much time students spend on their studies (additional to compulsory lectures) is their decision alone and besides studying for their exams, they learn a lot about time management, stress handling, learning styles and efficiency "on-the-go". However, for a "common" student it all comes down to his or her degree alone. If they fail it's maybe not good for the universities statistics, but in principle it's not affecting anybody else than the student.
For a PhD student the framework in which they work often doesn't change much compared to a "common" student. Their working times are still kept very flexible and they might have the impression, that their work/studies are still "just about themselves". Usually they work on quite confined projects and not all of them get the opportunity to see the larger impacts their work has in the context of their supervisors grant, the faculties' success, the long term achievements of the university. Their projects might not seem to be significant in a bigger context. But in reality their everyday work is embedded in larger projects, more people are involved and might depend on the outcomes of the PhD students work. Certainly the future funding situation of their group is determined by the outcomes and quality of their projects - but still they are "only" students.
How much PhD students see themselves as students or as professionals certainly depends a lot on the culture of the supervisor with his/her group. But the general university culture of referring to them as students with everything that is involved in that - from student fees to total freedom in their time management - does not fit with the high expectations their supervisors and the universities (and in principle the funding agencies) have when it come to the outcomes of their projects.
To be successful with ones projects, a researcher often needs a bunch of highly motivated and curious PhD students. And it's not always clear on what the motivation of a PhD student for his/her PhD project is based on. So, one can be lucky (or talented) and only pick those student who are curious about the science, who see themselves already more as a professional and who are committed to their projects. Or one has to find ways to change the view (and the motivation?) of those PhD students, who still see themselves mostly as students. And maybe a general change in university culture that somehow "upgrades" the PhD student would help as well...?
Our PhD students have already left or are about to leave for their long Christmas breaks. Most of them are traveling to their home countries for family re-union. They take about 4-6 weeks breaks - at a stretch. That's more than my whole annual leave!
One of the nice perks of being a grad student....