07 July 2020

PhD students deserve decent employment conditions

The annual Monitor of Employment Conditions (Monitor Arbeidsvoorwaarden) of the representative body of PhD candidates in the Netherlands (Promovendi Netwerk Nederland) indicates that there are still many PhD candidates working under precarious employment conditions. Specifically, 12.3% of published vacancies in the website Academic Transfer offers employment contracts shorter than the standard 4-year contract. Unfortunately, the VU ranks first among academic institutions in terms of precarious conditions: 20.3% of the vacancies offers such a contract.

We consider this finding the tip of an iceberg of problems that PhD candidates face in universities. After their defence, PhD candidates are expected to be fully qualified and independent researchers. This expectation is however measured to quite specific output criteria. Following the academic culture of natural sciences, PhD theses in Social Sciences and Humanities consist of a collection of articles, preferably published in high-ranking scientific journals. Moreover, this is the only chance for a beginning academic to stand a chance in ‘science’. Additionally, these readymade doctors are expected to have built their own disciplinary network, and being capable to disseminate their findings through their professional contacts, policy makers, media and a result-prone business world, while they are also supposed to have acquired ample experience in lecturing. In sum, they are trained to survive in a world of endless competition and speed.

To survive in this world, a minimal condition for PhD candidates is a 4-year contract (or the part-time equivalent) according to the Collective Employment Agreement (CAO) of Dutch Universities. Unfortunately, for many PhD candidates, also at the VU, this is a mere illusion. The 20.3% of precarious contracts as mentioned existing at the VU represents 3-year contracts or patchwork constructions: PhD candidates start with a 1.5-year contract and thus immediately experience the pressure of ‘up or out’. Also differences between faculties can be noted. In positive contexts, patchwork constructions are banned and education tasks limited to 5% of the working time. However, in some departments 3-year contracts involving 20% teaching time are the unwritten rule. In those cases, PhDs are often expected to continue working on their dissertation after the end of her/his contract, while receiving unemployment benefit. Possibly, the detected percentage of 20.3% even underestimates the problem. Many PhD candidates are financed by scholarships from foreign institutions, such as the CSC-scholarships. These candidates are expected to fulfil the same requirements as PhD candidates (including requirements on lecturing), and are employed by the university while receiving an income that lies below the poverty threshold. Who would dare to say ‘no’ in such a dependent position?

The VU seems to have a long way to go securing good employment conditions to PhD candidates. This requires taking the problem seriously instead of – like the HRM-director did on July 3rd in her interview in AdValvas – just promising to improve the text of vacancy advertisements and questioning the validity of the study of the PNN. Alleviating precarious contracts requires also embarking on real initiatives solutions instead of blaming the Works Council (Ondernemingsraad). The Works Council and the Students’ Council are regularly reporting about these issues to the University Board (College van Bestuur). Ultimately, the question is what the Board will do about it. PhD candidates are the most vulnerable group within employees with flexible employment contracts and are seldom in position to negotiate their workload.

Dimitris Pavlopoulos, Associate Professor of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences
Ida Sabelis, Associate Professor of Organization Sciences, Faculty of Social Sciences and Trustee for PhDs at the Graduate School of Social Sciences.
* Both are members of the Works Council (Ondernemingsraad)




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