FSE wants bonus for fast PhD students

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Hypothetically, rewarding PhD candidates who finish their doctorates in four years with a bonus will encourage more candidates to finish early. But a plan by the Graduate School’s science faculty to implement this bonus has encountered some problems.
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Petra Rudolf, director at the Faculty of Science and Engineering’s (FSE) Graduate School, has asked the faculty board to make funds available to reward every PhD student who finishes within four years with a 1,500 euro bonus. ‘We’ll probably win a few months’, Rudolf thinks. ‘People who would otherwise take four and a half years can now be persuaded to work a little bit harder.’

This is important, Rudolf says. More than fifty percent of PhD candidates fail to meet the original deadline. Anyone who doesn’t finish their doctorate within four years runs the risk of not finishing at all, often because they get get a job somewhere else.

Inconvenient

This might be inconvenient for the PhD candidate, but it is certainly a problem for the faculty, who loses out on a 77,400 euro promotion bonus for each completed doctorate. ‘We want everyone to take the four-year deadline more seriously, and for projects to be organised in such a way that they can be finished within four years.’

The faculty has experimented with a promotion bonus in the past. But the bonus was scrapped because it wasn’t sufficiently clear who got one and who didn’t. ‘We hadn’t properly agreed on that’, says Rudolf. ‘People started coming up with all kinds of reasons for why they felt they had earned it.’

There might be exceptions to the rule: what if candidates fell ill? What if they were doing a part-time PhD? What if they had gotten pregnant? What if their research had run into problems they couldn’t do anything about? What if they’d had a bad supervisor?

Absolutely clear

For these reasons, it should be made absolutely clear who is and who isn’t eligible ahead of time, says Rudolf. As far as she’s concerned, only full-time PhD candidate are eligible. The reference date will be the day their thesis is submitted to Hora Finita. Only illness or pregnancy as confirmed by a medical doctor are legitimate reasons for delay.

During a faculty council meeting, FSE dean Jasper Knoester said the plan was ‘nice’ and that he thought ‘it might just work’. But he raises similar concerns about how to implement the plan. And there are legal objections to the plans as well. ‘The plan can only go through if it is implemented across the entire university’, board secretary Peter Timmerman explains.

The bonus is part of a larger project to speed up doctoral tracks. Making no-go decisions more often – by assessing performance at nine months and cancelling a program track when necessary – could also increase the rate of success, says Rudolf.

The faculty asked other research schools in the RUG about their best practices. The consensus seems to be that being stricter with go/no-go decisions and granting extensions could help. A writing boot camp could also help PhD candidates make progress more quickly. And another bonus was suggested during the faculty council meeting: a bonus for good supervisors whose PhD candidates finish on time at a higher rate.

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