Press release: Optional provisions for PhD candidates in the collective labour agreement are often not put into practice

The provisions in the collective labor agreement that offer PhD candidates the option of obtaining a contract extension in the event of long-term illness, internships or employee participation are often not put into practice. This has emerged from research by the PNN, based on a survey among 1,601 PhD candidates in the Netherlands. In this study, approximately 800 PhD candidates formally employed at universities were asked about their knowledge of the collective labor agreement and their experiences with the clauses specifically intended for PhD candidates.

The collective labor agreement for Dutch universities contains a number of optional clauses that state that in certain circumstances, PhD candidates could obtain an extension of their contract. For example, if they have been ill for more than eight weeks, are doing an internship or take on a role in employee participation. In practice, these so-called ‘may (optional) provisions’ mean that universities do not have to grant this extension and, therefore, often do not.

Particularly in the case of long-term illness, this ‘may provision’ poses a challenge: only 16% of the PhD candidates who had been ill for more than eight weeks, eventually received an extension. Some of these PhD candidates were told that at the end of their contract it would be assessed whether an extension would be necessary. Some others were even actively discouraged from applying for an extension. PNN chair Rosanne Anholt: “We have already shown that a large number of PhD candidates have an increased risk of psychological problems and burnout. It is therefore all the more distressing that, especially in the event of a dropout due to illness, universities do not take their responsibility to give PhD candidates the necessary contract extension.”

Extension in the case of maternity leave seems to be much better arranged: the vast majority of these PhD candidates were given a contract extension or were compensated in some other way. This may be explained by the fact that this is not an optional clause: universities are obliged to extend the contracts of PhD candidates who take maternity leave for the duration of the leave.

PNN’s research also shows that few PhD candidates are well aware of these clauses in the collective labor agreement. Although most PhD candidates are aware that contracts must be extended in the case of maternity leave, many do not know that an extension must also be granted in the case of parental leave nor that contract extension is an option in the case of long-term illness, engagement in employee participation or internships. In fact, 90% of PhD candidates did not know that contract extension is a possibility in the case of internships. Open responses show that this survey has encouraged some PhD candidates to apply for contract extension now that they know this is a possibility.

This report is part of a PNN publication series based on the results of the PNN PhD survey. After this report, two more publications will follow, on international PhD students and open science.