Exploit or support? PhD students and casual labour


As supervisors, how do we negotiate the tensions of employing PhD students to do casual teaching work? We know this work is underpaid, under-resourced and exploitative. We may even do research in the area of the “hidden injuries of neoliberal academia” (Gill, 2010). We know that contract labour in universities is disproportionately undertaken by women. We know that the superannuation paid for this work is significantly less (in Australia) than we are paid… for the same work. We know that contracts are organised late and that student numbers can change. We know that security and rewards are limited.

And yet… we also know that PhD studies can be enriched, especially in education, by concurrent lecturing work that keeps students in touch with the field. This is also invaluable for women coming back to study and work after parental leave. We know that teaching experience will be important on the CVs of our students when they apply for lecturing jobs post-PhD. We know that university teaching can be very enjoyable and flexible work that fits with students’ busy lives and the demands of study. We know this kind of teaching is a wonderful opportunity to learn from students.

So, what to do? Perhaps the best way to go forward is to make sure that explicit conversations about these tensions take place between supervisors and students, and efforts are made to facilitate change, for example by promoting union membership for PhD students who also come on board as staff. We also need to do whatever we can, from our ongoing, full-time salaried positions of privilege, to support casual teaching work through sharing resources and assisting students to find ways to save time.


Gill, R. (2010). Breaking the silence: the hidden injuries of neoliberal academia. In R. Flood & R. Gill (Eds.), Secrecy and silence in the research process: Feminist reflections. New York: Routledge.



Author: Lucinda McKnight

Dr Lucinda McKnight is a lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at Deakin University. She has a BA in Fine Arts, Women's Studies and English from the University of Melbourne, an MA (Distinction) in Media, Culture and Communication, from the Institute of Education now at UCL, and a PhD in Education from Deakin University. Her cartoons have appeared in a number of publications, including Farrago and Health Voice. She has exhibited her artwork at Museum Victoria and the Victorian College of the Arts.

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