The PhD voice

5 frequently asked questions to a PhD student

Hey all, it’s May already and it’s the first time I will write about being a PhD student and a research fellow, one of the purposes of this blog. I will answer 5 questions I have been asked (and that other students have been asked) and some of the points are going to be directed to the Portuguese scientific scenario, but anyway, if you are reading this from outside it’s good to know how it is here. In this way, even for the readers that are not from the academic world, will know better about what I do for a living. Curious?

1. What the hell do you do?

I hope to graduate in Bioengineering and my thesis is related to Industrial Biotechnology. Very briefly, I am simulating a stem cell manufacturing facility through computational tools and I want to study the best options for cost-effectiveness.

2. What is a PhD useful for?

Having a PhD is now a prerequisite to go up in the academic track. You cannot be an Associate Professor at the University without one. In order to teach classes at lower levels, an Education Masters or a Post-Graduation might be more useful. A PhD is also vital if you want to supervise students and research fellows, become an independent researcher and, eventually, lead your own research group. Outside academia, some specialized companies recruit PhDs and really value this as a qualification, but I think that, from my experience, most of them are not in Portugal. It’s one of the reasons why so many PhDs leave. I know a PhD graduate that was offered a monthly salary of 600€ in a company here in Portugal and they even told her that if she did not want it, someone would. Needless to say that in another European country where she ended up working she got paid what she deserved.

3. Do you get paid for your work?

This question is weird…Research work at the junior levels is still not recognized by the general population as a real job here in Portugal. My monthly earnings are no secret and anyone can look it up online in any grant opening funded by the Portuguese Science and Technology Foundation (FCT). I earn 980€ monthly from my PhD scholarship, tax free, and the scholarship also covers my yearly tuition fees. Before I started my PhD I worked for three years in other research fellowships where I earned exactly the same. I cannot complain because, for what recent graduates earn here in companies, this is not bad at all. However, we do not have access to unemployment subsidies when the fellowships end, since this is an activities that is not subject to taxes, and we do not have access to much social protection since we discount voluntarily to the National Social Security system, which is now about 124€ that is refunded in the month after. This can cover a little protection in the case of disease and motherhood. I know that in other countries PhD fellowships are like a regular working contract, where you pay taxes and have mandatory Social Security discounts according to the amount earned.

4. When will you get a real job?

I really want to know from people from abroad how your work as a PhD student is seen, feel free to discuss it in the comment section! Anyway, another question that comes from lack of knowledge. I already have a real job and everyone who works in research and takes it seriously already has! Those “not a real job” have led to so many important scientific discoveries in so many different areas that can be capitalized in products, patents, start-ups and, if we are talking about more social and humanistic sciences, also in cultural activities and even museums. Our work, most of the time, also ensures that the discoveries are independent of other interests. Also, a week of work from a PhD can easily surpass the 40 weekly hours by law in the public sector in Portugal and it is often necessary to work in weekends and public holidays. Now talking about when will I pay taxes and make proper discounts, I would like to do that of course. I have some plans for what I would like to do after my PhD but I will not disclose them yet because these things always change and I haven’t reached halfway of my PhD yet.

5. For how long does a PhD thesis workplan last? 

In Portugal, if you receive a fellowship from FCT, you will be funded for four years with paid tuition and the monthly stipend. Of course this is the best case scenario, because the fellowship is renewed yearly and, if you don’t accomplish your results and your supervisor does not support the renewal, this is not the case. Depending on the doctoral program you are in and the type of fellowship, you can work almost full time for these four years on the thesis and need to have the thesis defined beforehand, or you will have a lengthy period of full time classes (like I did) and choose the thesis during these classes. In my program I had the whole 2015 with classes and lab rotations and only started the thesis in January 2016. This means I have about two years and seven months to complete my work before the fellowship is over. However, it is not uncommon that delays happen with the work  and that you have to take more time. Of course this is at the own risk of not having another fellowship to fund you, but of course it’s better to deliver a better PhD thesis that will have more high impact publications than cutting it short because of the fellowship if you really want to pursue that academic career.


Do you have any further questions about what it is like to be a PhD student? What are the main questions you are asked if you’re a PhD student like me?


Did you like this post? Pin it!


One thought on “5 frequently asked questions to a PhD student

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *