Are we just cheaper research assistants?


I don’t know what everyone else’s experience is: but I’m starting to feel my supervisor perceives and treats me as her very cheap research assistant rather than a PhD student. In the first few months of a PhD, I thought it was important to read, increase subject and theoretical knowledge, develop research ideas, develop a conceptual framework, establish gaps in the literature. Though my supervisor is pushing me to get data, without hardly doing a literature review, is this common in Psychology PhDs?


hi jollygolightly, I have seen with my very own eyes how supervisors treat their students as "very cheap research assistant". I will tell you the truth.

I wont say where and which university.

This is what the students (whom I personally know) have been doing for their supervisors:

1. preparing teaching slides (for their supervisors to USE while teaching certain modules!)
2. writing lengthy reports (of which their supervisors acquired grants for certain project, but students are made to write the reports)
3. teaching undergrad students (because their supervisors do not teach, but instead, get the phd students to teach, and these phd students ARE NOT PAID anything for this)
4. helping the supervisor to do his personal things like moving house (while he is moving house, he gets his phd students to carry boxes etc.)
5. phd students doing the supervisors' OWN PERSONAL research (of which, he is getting paid from an outside source) but he is using his phd students to get in the mud and get the data

I have seen with my very own eyes, people doing more than FOUR years masters degree and not able to finish because of the enormous workload their supervisor has made them do. Why they did not walk away, why they still stay and bear with it, I don't know. I know I was lucky not to be in this situation.

In your case, your supervisor is only pushing you to get data, what more can be worse?


I agree with Satchi. And I don't find anything strange with your situation. I don't do psychology PhD tough.


I'm in psychology and that sounds about right. Most people will start collecting data quite quickly but do the reading simultaneously. Probably you had some experiments planned in your proposal anyway and that's what you're doing now? I don't really think it's about being a cheap RA, more about wanting to see if your first idea will generate some interesting data and leaving you enough time to move on to Plan B if it doesn't work out.


No, I don't think PhD students are cheap RAs, maybe expensive work placement students and by the end cheap technicians.

It seems treatment of PhD students varies wildly, I was basically left alone for three years - Treated more like an afterthought than a member of any group or department. Sounds like your sup is still relatively interested in you, which is brilliant, definitely ride that wave. Don't fret too much about reading constantly, when you've got some data you'll start synthesising your own ideas and start challenging the literature. Good luck and enjoy! (up)


Hey! I'm doing PhD psychology (clinical psychology) and I don't feel as though I'm being treated as an RA, although sometimes it seems as though I spend my time in a similar way to the RAs on our team, i.e. visiting patients, collecting data, analysing it, writing, etc. But for my first year I was doing what you have suggested- lit review, conceptual review, proposal, ethics, theoretical framework and so on, and this is how all of the PhD students on the same team have worked, although I have friends with different sups who haven't even done a lit review. I don't see how you can possibly progress research in the right direction without understanding the current literature, but I think on some projects the sup has already done this before the PhD student starts the project- looked at the literature, picked the gap in the research and decided how to address it- so just wants the PhD-er to get on with it and worry about the lit review later. I think this happens where a PhD is advertised where funding has already been awarded to the project- the sup has had to do all of that just to get hold of the funding, so then the project is ready to get started on. When it's the other way round and you choose a project yourself and then develop the proposal then it hasn't already been done for you and you need to do the review yourself, if you see what I mean. There are important differences between PhD students and RAs though in my experience- I have a lot more input into the design and undertaking of my project than the RAs do on theirs and am able to make changes as I see fit, I get first author on my work where the RAs don't necessarily, and at the end of it all we get a doctorate after 3-4 years if we're lucky and they've basically done very similar sort of work for 3 years but have nothing to show for it at the end and so can't progress any further in the world of research until they've done the all important PhD (well, not in our field anyway- it might be different in others). So I think the PhD is def the way forward. I do get asked to do some things for my sup like helping out with her module and supervising MSc students, but it's all experience so I just get on with it really and quite enjoy some of it. But back to your situation- you really should get to grips with your literature as early as you can- I wrote a literature review in my first year and am now writing a conceptual paper which I am aiming to publish as well, and even though it's been a nightmare writing them (my subject is horribly complex!) it has helped me HUGELY to get to grips with the research and understand what I am doing and why! Best, KB


Hmmm I did a science PhD so not sure about Psychology PhDs but my experience really was that of the 'independent researcher' - I never felt like a research assistant or skivvy to any of my supervisors once. I did use data provided by one and so was expected to do something meaningful with it, but by and large I was left to find my own direction and not be pushed through what my supervisor wanted.

Although having said that I also did a project that none of my supervisors individually were experts in so maybe that helped, that I wasn't just continuing their research. Jolly, are you just extending your supervisor's research?