Press release: Scholarship PhDs do not experience more freedom in their research than employee PhDs

PhD candidates who write their dissertation as scholarship PhDs do not have more freedom in conducting their research than PhDs who are employees. This is a result from research conducted by the PhD Network Netherlands. They asked 1,601 PhD candidates about their working conditions and experiences in the PNN PhD survey.

Having more freedom in the execution of their research is often put forward as a great advantage of a position as a scholarship PhD. This greater freedom would justify the poorer working conditions: scholarship PhDs do not have an employment contract, earn less than employee PhDs, do not build up a pension and do not fall under the collective labour agreement. The fact that it now appears that scholarship PhDs do not enjoy more freedom calls this argument into question.

“It is not at all surprising that scholarship PhDs do not experience more freedom than employee PhDs,” says PNN president Lucille Mattijssen. “Scholarship PhDs in practice do the same work as employee PhDs and are just as dependent on their promotors and supervisors. If your supervisor does not agree with something, it is just very difficult to stick to it anyway”.

In the study, PNN also analysed whether the freedom of scholarship PhDs at the University of Groningen (RUG), where the Experiment with scholarship PhDs currently takes place, is better arranged. Because of the experiment, matters such as more freedom could perhaps be better regulated there than at universities where the position of scholarship PhDs is less institutionalized. Scholarship PhDs, however, do not appear to have more freedom than employee PhDs, both at the RUG or outside it. This was also evident from the PhD survey from the University of Groningen itself.

The PNN report also discusses the quality of supervision of PhD candidates. In general, PhD candidates are satisfied with their supervisors, but 42.9% of them still experience that supervisors engage in questionable behaviour, such as downplaying the workload or contacting the PhD at weekend or at night. Furthermore, 12.9% of PhDs have considered switching supervisors. However, for all kinds of reasons, including fear of adverse effects on the academic career and bureaucracy, this is often difficult to carry through: only 18% of PhDs who wanted to change supervisors eventually managed to do so.

It also turns out that 21.5% of PhD candidates have a supervisor who is not a promotor or co-supervisor as their daily supervisor. PNN finds this problematic: not because these supervisors would not be good supervisors, but because these supervisors ultimately have to do most of the work, but do not receive concrete recognition for this. According to PNN, extending the Ius promovendi to Assistant and Associate professors could offer a solution to this problem.

This report is part of a series of PNN publications based on the results of the PNN PhD Survey. Other reports in this series include teaching, harassment and Open Science.