PNN: the new collective labour agreement contains important new rights for PhD candidates.

Promovendi Netwerk Nederland (PhD Network Netherlands, or PNN) is pleased with the new collective labour agreement Dutch Universities. It contains three important steps forward towards a more fair and equal treatment of doctoral candidates. For the first time, the collective labour agreement contains an explicit statement about the length of the PhD employment contract: this will  “in principle be four years”. Doctoral candidates also have the right to an extension of their contract when they take parental leave. Finally, the option to put your PhD on hold to do an internship at a business or governmental organisation has been put in writing.

These three points pertain to longstanding focal points for PNN, and we have worked hard to bring them into practice, alongside our partner organisations. We are therefore quite satisfied to see that they are finally reflected in this new agreement. It does not mean that we will stop our work. PNN will monitor closely whether these points are implemented, and we will continue to put other problems on the agenda.

Four years PhD trajectories

PNN is of the opinion that PhD contracts should be a minimum of four years full time, to ensure the quality of the work. We share this view with, among others, the Royal Academy for Science, the Rathenau Institute and research funding organisation NWO. Although our Monitor Labour Conditions has shown that in the last two years most doctoral candidates received contracts of four year full time (84,4% in 2016), still 15% consisted of ‘dubious’ contracts, which were either too short or part-time. On top of that, we believe that many dubious contracts remain unseen. Such contracts include a too large teaching task, or a part-time appointment on paper while in practice full time labour is expected. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the new agreement contains the following provision:

The duration of employment of a doctoral candidate shall in principle be four years based on a full working week. In the case of part-time employment or in the event of interem conversion to part-time employment, the employment contract shall be extended proportionally.”

It is hard to predict the exact legal value of this provision. According to PNN it means that PhD contracts should as a rule be at least four years full time. Only in individual cases, based on the individual circumstances and qualities of a candidate, could employers offer a shorter contract. This means that the structural offering of three year contracts, which is common for certain institutes, should no longer be possible. If these vacancies persist, PNN will take action.

Parental leave

Until now, going on parental leave was a big problem for PhD candidates. Although PhD candidates were allowed to take leave, this often did not lead to an extension of the PhD contract. This was, for example, admitted by the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen in 2014. So in fact PhD candidates didn’t benefit from their right to parental leave: those who did take parental leave effectively had to finish their dissertation in less time than those who did not take leave. This gave young parents an unfair disadvantage early on in their scientific career. PNN is therefore very happy that the new collective labour agreement contains the following provision:

“at the employee’s request an employment contract with a doctoral candidate is extended with the amount of maternity leave taken and with parental leave taken with effect from 1 July 2018

insofar as this leave was taken during the duration of the doctoral candidate’s promotion process;”

An issue here is that PhDs have to take initiative themselves to be eligible for an extension. Of course they can only do so when they are aware of this provision. In order to ensure that doctoral candidates get what they deserve, PNN will increasingly focus on providing information on labour rights in the upcoming period.

Another issue is that the right to extension only applies for parental leave that has been taken after the 1st of July, 2018. For parental leave that has been taken earlier the university can decide to extend the PhD trajectory (article 2.3, 5, c of the CAO-NU), but is not obligated to do so.  If you do not receive extension for parental leave taken before the 1st of July or if you run into any other problems with regard to parental leave, please let us know through


Doing your PhD does no longer mean that you automatically continue to work in the academic world. In fact, a staggering 80% of PhD candidates finds employment outside of academia. For this reason PNN started its Professional PhD Program in 2015. This program enables PhDs to gain experience in governmental organisations and businesses, while allowing these organisations to experience the (research) skills of PhD candidates. In practice not all universities allowed their PhD candidates to do such an internship. The new collective labour agreement should make this easier, as it reads:

“a doctoral candidate may be afforded the opportunity to take part in an internship of no more than six months during the duration of their employment. In such cases, the employment contract can be temporarily suspended and resumed again following the end of the internship. In addition, the doctoral candidate may opt for a part-time internship, provided that it does not exceed six times the monthly working hours. In the case of a part-time internship, the employment contract of the PhD candidate will temporarily be reduced accordingly in terms of working hours. After the end of the full-time or part-time internship, the employment contract will be resumed or extended, respectively, in proportion to the duration and workload of the internship.”

This provision entails that every PhD candidate can temporarily put his or her PhD on hold (full time or part time) in order to do an internship. During this time, a PhD candidate will not be paid by the university but in principle by the internship employer. When the internship is over, the university is obligated to extend the employment contract with the length of the internship. However, this provision too only applies from the 1st of July, 2018.

Continuing to improve

The new collective labour agreement contains considerable improvements for PhD candidates. It is essential that these new rights are upheld, and that universities comply with them. Do you experience problems with your employer with regards to labour rights? Please do not hesitate to contact us. In the meantime, we will continue to campaign for other important themes, including continuing work while being unemployed, preparation on teaching activities and the mental health of PhD candidates. If you want to know more about the focal points of PNN for the coming time, please read our recently launched PNN Action Plan.