A lost opportunity: PhD Researchers financial hardship might diminish better contributions to the knowledge-economy


It is no longer disputable that today’s economy, and that of the near future, is knowledge-based – growth and prosperity are a result of the creation, application, and dissemination of knowledge (Bell, 1973). Globally, the OECD recognizes knowledge-based capital as a key driver for economic growth (UK Department for Education, 2017). Thus, the ever-increasing support for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education – at all levels – to enable a transition to the new economy. At the universities’ level, PhD researchers – students engaged in a doctoral-level degree – play a vital role in the knowledge economy as they are at the forefront of knowledge production; therefore, heralding a new class of human capital with the highest of value (Lam, 2010). According to the UK’s education department:

“Doctoral students make a vital contribution to the UK’s world class research base and, through the ideas and skills that they develop, to British industrial performance and to improved economic productivity. The Government fully recognises the importance of PhDs to the country’s economic success.” (UK Department for Education, 2017, p. 2).

A PhD journey is intellectually very demanding; it requires the best cognitive abilities of a person. For example, some of the routine activities in a PhD research involves recognising a research problem; which requires understanding the research context and getting to know the current work in the field. That is followed by choosing and justifying research methods and approaches to investigate such a problem and collecting representative data. Then PhD researchers engage in an exhaustive process of critically analysing data, formulating such analysis into outcomes, situating the outcomes epistemologically, and finally, discussing the practical implication of their findings. All these are cognitively demanding processes that require a facilitating, enabling, and empowering conditions such as access to different educational resources, facilities, and financial support.

A recent study linked cognitive function to financial hardship (Mani, Mullainathan, Shafir, & Zhao, 2013). In a highly cited SCIENCE paper: “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function”, the researchers conducted two studies to test their hypotheses of whether there is a causal link – not merely a correlation – between being poor and cognitive capacity. They found that “poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks”. They ruled out stress, and differences in time available, nutrition, and work effort as potential explanations for the diminished cognitive performance. They concluded that:

“Being poor means coping not just with a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources. The poor, in this view, are less capable not because of inherent traits, but because the very context of poverty imposes load and impedes cognitive capacity. The findings, in other words, are not about poor people, but about any people who find themselves poor.” (Mani, Mullainathan, Shafir, & Zhao, 2013, p. 980).

But are PhD researchers poor? According to the Melbourne Institute at the University of Melbourne, “poverty lines are income levels designated to various types of income units”. Thus, if someone’s income is below the designated income for their income unit; they are in poverty. According to their 2019 report, September quarter, the designated fortnightly income – poverty line – for a single person is $1091 (Melbourne Institute, 2020). For the same period of time, a PhD Researcher on a Research Training Program scholarship would make a fortnight income of $1174.

The questions now are: would such an effect on cognitive capacity be a factor behind the prevailing imposter syndrome among PhD researchers? Is it fair to expect PhD researchers to investigate some of the most critical challenges of the present and future, and come up with novel insights, original contributions, and workable solutions without adequate financial income? Or in simple words: how do we expect someone to be at their intellectual best while we are consciously dooming them into cognitive impeding conditions! It is not only imprudent; but yet worse, ethically questionable.


Bell, D. (1973). The coming of post-industrial society: A venture in social . London:    Heinemann Educational.

Lam, A. (2010). From ‘Ivory tower Traditionalists’ to ‘Entrepreneurial Scientists’? Academic scientists in Fuzzy University—Industry boundaries. Social Studies of Science, ,40(2), 307–340.

Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function. Science, 341(6149), 976-980.

Melbourne Institute, A. E. (2020, Feb 28). Poverty Lines: Australia – September Quarter 2019. Retrieved March 01, 2020, from Poverty Lines: Australia: https://melbourneinstitute.unimelb.edu.au/publications/poverty-lines

UK Department for Education. (2017, March). Postgraduate Doctoral Loans. Retrieved March 1, 2020, from Department for Education: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/597333/Doctoral_response_to_consultation.pdf

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