PNN Monitor: international scholarship PhD candidates

This report presents the first detailed study examining the working and living conditions of international scholarship PhD candidates (ISPCs) in the Netherlands. The Netherlands has several PhD trajectories, which differ from one another in terms of funding and the candidate’s employment status at the relevant institution. Approximately 3800 international PhD candidates receive a scholarship instead of a salary. While these candidates do similar work to employed PhD candidates, their financial compensation and employment benefits are considerably different.

Public data on the working conditions, experiences, and problems of international scholarship PhD candidates is scarce. To better understand the challenges and needs of this group, Promovendi Netwerk Nederland (PNN) conducted a survey between 20 March and 15 May 2023. PNN obtained data from 250 international scholarship PhD candidates in the Netherlands, approximately 7% of the total population of ISPCs.

The working conditions and experiences of ISPCs and their supervisors have been on the radar of The Young Academy [De Jonge Akademie] for many years as well. This report also presents the results of a survey that The Young Academy conducted between June and October 2018 focusing on the same group of PhD candidates and their supervisors. The main findings of the PNN survey show an urgent need for fundamental restructuring to ensure fair employment conditions guaranteeing fair living and working conditions for all ISPCs in the Netherlands. Given the precarious situation of these candidates, however, PNN also makes several short-term recommendations for immediate action based on the findings presented in this report.

Main findings:

  1. The financial situation of ISPCs is alarming. The vast majority of ISPCs who participated in the survey are worried about their financial situation and struggle to make ends meet. On average, our respondents’ monthly income is 1402 euros, with a median of 1350 euros. Some scholarships are as low as 700 euros per month. A few respondents received a top-up grant (363 euros on average). The average scholarship is therefore significantly lower than the Dutch minimum wage (1995 euros gross monthly salary in June 2023) and much lower than the average gross monthly salary of an employed PhD candidate at a university in June 2023 (which starts at 2541 euros, increasing to 3247 euros in the fourth year of employment). Many ISPCs would be unable to make ends meet without an additional income, which is often provided by their family or by undertaking other employment beyond their PhD work.
  2. Scholarship and employed PhDs are treated differently, something that is not clear to many ISPCs before they come to the Netherlands.
    Most candidates only became aware of such differences in working conditions after they started working on their PhD. Once they had become aware of the differences, the vast majority said they would have preferred an employed position.
  3. The position of ISPCs is unclear. They are neither student nor employee.
    The undefined position of ISPCs affects many important aspects of living in the Netherlands, including access to healthcare insurance, housing, and social-security benefits. Their position within the university leads to ambiguity regarding the allocation of facilities, budgets, and teaching and other duties.
  4. Scholarship conditions differ vastly depending on the scholarship provider and the host institution, highlighting the lack of regulation.
    While some ISPCs have side jobs in addition to their PhD work, others are prohibited from undertaking extra employment. Some ISPCs report not being allowed to teach to earn additional income, while others report performing teaching duties without this being part of their contract.
  5. ISPCs face additional stressors – in some cases leading to existential problems – beyond completing a PhD.
    A substantial proportion of scholarship PhDs do not expect to finish their PhD in the allocated contract time. Extensions are difficult, and in some cases impossible, to obtain. As their residence permit is tied to their guest agreement, ISPCs are under extreme pressure. Many experience their workload as high or very high. Additional difficulties stem from navigating a new culture and handling discrimination and occasionally racism. These difficulties affect their mental health, sometimes severely.

Fundamental restructuring is essential for inclusive and fair academia

Dutch institutions currently have limited control over the scholarship conditions set by the various providers. Rather than treating the symptoms (e.g., providing top-ups), then, what is required is a national solution to the root problem, specifically the way in which international scholarship programmes are embedded in Dutch academia. PNN is not against foreign institutions awarding scholarships to individual PhD candidates, but believes that these scholarships should be paid directly to the PhD candidate’s research institute. The institute can then hire the PhD candidate as an employee and use the scholarship to pay part of their salary, similar to the procedure when a researcher obtains a grant that they then use to hire PhD candidates. This practice will ensure fair financial compensation and basic employment rights for all PhD candidates.

Short-term recommendations

  • Institutions should offer a top-up that ensures scholarship PhDs of a minimum wage at the very least but ideally matches the salary of employed PhDs. This would alleviate the financial pressure on candidates and their families, who often share the burden with them. In addition, formal sick and pregnancy leave agreements should be established as well as opportunities for extensions.
  • , ISPCs need to be informed before being accepted into a doctoral programme about the differences between employed and scholarship candidates in salary, employment rights, teaching obligations, access to facilities, and requirements regarding Dutch proficiency. The information should also include a reliable estimate of the cost of living in the Netherlands.
  • Guest agreements should be more standardised and comprehensive and include the rights and responsibilities of ISPCs with regard to recommended working hours, holiday leave, training and supervision, teaching, budget, and contact information for support if they have questions about their situation.
  • In efforts to monitor PhD wellbeing and social safety, ISPCsshould come in for specific attention because they face more pressure than employed PhD candidates. Social safety for PhDs must be improved, with a particular focus on discrimination and racism. Institutions should guarantee that the social safety structures put in place for their employees also cover scholarship PhDs.

Read the report here.

Share this page