On being an employee vs a student during your PhD

This is probably my most retweeted tweet to date. Since this seemed surprising to many people, I thought I’d explain a bit more about what this means.  [Disclaimer: most numbers are estimates based on my sample size of 1 – if you have more detailed / up to date information, please leave a comment!]


First of all, being an employee means that you get a salary. As an example, let’s take a look at some PhD vacancies in the Netherlands. Many of these can be found on AcademicTransfer. Here are two positions in the group I’m currently working in.

At the bottom you will see “Gross monthly salaries are in accordance with the Collective Labour Agreement of the Dutch Universities (CAO NU), increasing from € 2191 per month initially, to € 2801 in the fourth year.

You might think the salary is there because it’s a STEM PhD, or because of the PI. Well, here are two positions in different fields and different universities – investigating why Dutch people are so tall and how people communicate positive emotions. Both mention exactly the same numbers! This is because of the labour agreement, which defines the salary, and a number of other benefits (more on this later).

[Note: at the time you are reading this, these exact vacancies might be closed, but you can find other similar positions on AcademicTransfer].


Of course, the salary doesn´t say much if you are from a place where the cost of living a different. First, there are taxes. The actual salary you get depends on a number of things, like your savings, whether you rent or own a house (yes, this is possible during your PhD) etc. To give an indication, in 2011 my 1st year PhD after-tax salary was around 1400 EUR, and in 2014 my 4th year PhD salary was around 1900 EUR per month.

The biggest cost is where you live. This varies between the Dutch cities, with Amsterdam being the most expensive one. Delft, where I did my PhD, is a bit on the expensive side as well, but it’s doable. Even if you don’t search too long for a great deal, you could rent a room in a shared apartment for starting at 400-500 EUR or so, or rent your own apartment starting at 800 EUR. As an example, I was first paying 600 EUR (of a 1200 EUR house) and later I was renting a two-bedroom apartment for 750 EUR. You can get an idea of prices and how much space you get in return here.

Other big costs are food (200 EUR), utilities (100 EUR), health insurance (100 EUR), internet/phone (50 EUR), municipality taxes (50 EUR).  You can find much more precise estimates of everything online, such as food. Based on these main expenses, even my past self in 2011, had at least 1400 – (600+200+100+100+50+50) = 300 EUR to save or to spend. Not a “pot of gold”, but definitely enough not to have to budget every expense.

Not part of expenses

Yes, tuition is not on the list of expenses – it does not exist at PhD level. You do follow a couple of courses, but these are paid by the employer.

Also not on the list of expenses are conferences. The general rule of thumb (although this is likely to differ between fields) is that you can go to at least one conference a year, especially if you published a paper there. The registration, travel, hotel, dinner and even the 1-2 glasses of wine you had with dinner are reimbursed.

Paying off student debt is not on my list, either. This is mainly because tuition is low (less than 2K a year) and students (bachelor’s and master’s) used to receive a stipend.  With a part-time job, I didn’t need a loan. This is not the case for everyone, but on average, the debt is 15K, and it’s expected to go up to 21K because the stipend no longer exists. According to the tax office, the average case translates to payments of less than EUR 100 per month.


Next to salary, the labour agreement (friendly English language version) takes care of a number of other benefits that make life easier. First, you have 29 vacation days per year if you work full-time (=38 hours per week). That’s more than 5 weeks of vacation. I’ve never gone on vacation for that long, but I do use vacation days here and there for a day trip, or just to relax after a busy period.

If you are ill or if you are having a baby, you don’t need to use your vacation days – you just get your full salary for up to 39 weeks of illness and 16 weeks maternity leave (fathers only get a few days off, though).

You also automatically build up pension. I have to admit I’ve never really looked into this, because I didn’t feel like there is a reason to worry. While writing this post, I actually looked at my pension account, and discovered that so far, I’ve built up a pension of 220 EUR per month, and I keep working a full-time job, this will grow to 1900 EUR a month when I retire. This is on top of the basic pension (1000 EUR) from the government.

How you see your PhD

Next to the financial side, I feel like the fact that you are employee affects the way you see your PhD. First of all, you are getting paid for becoming an expert at a topic. This is pretty awesome in itself, but it’s also helpful for your self-esteem, even though it doesn’t erase impostor feelings completely.

You and your PI are both employees of the university, with similar employment conditions. Sure, he or she has more responsibilities and more salary, but you have the same rights in terms of leave. You don’t need to negotiate whether you are “allowed” to stay home when you are ill, or if you need to visit a doctor. Of course you should inform the PI, but there cannot be negative consequences of you taking care of yourself.

After 4 years, your contract ends, and you don’t get paid anymore. As a result, people try to finish their PhD on time, and find their next job. Or, since finishing on time is difficult, just find their next job, and plan to finish the PhD later. But the emphasis is that the PhD is a job and it’s normal to move on afterwards.


 All of this helps with what happens outside of your PhD. You just have less things to worry about, so you can concentrate more on the things that are important to you.  You can travel, buy a house, or start a family. Maybe not all at the same time, but the point is, you don’t have to put your life on hold for research.  Hopefully, this translates to a healthier and happier you, and better research as a result.

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