PhD scholarship students

Learning on the fly

September marked the beginning of a new era at the RUG: the era of PhD scholarship students. The UK zoomed in on one research group to catch a glimpse of how the first months of the experiment have gone. Like many pilots, it got off to a bit of a bumpy start. ‘Things are running smoothly now, though.’
Text and photography by Traci White

In the last four months of 2016, 167 PhD scholarship students began doing research at the RUG and UMCG. Their status as students and not employees is part of a Ministry of Education-approved experiment.

While the students conduct research like traditional PhDs, they differ from other candidates in that they pitch their own research proposal and do not accrue pension or receive holiday bonuses, among other things.

The experiment was approved of in April and the first PhD students started in September. Due to the short turn around time, many of the first cohort of students came from top master’s programmes within the RUG or with a scholarship from abroad.

There were some technical difficulties for at least one research group at ERIBA: the PhD students did not have signed contracts for the first couple of weeks, and access passes within the facilities also did not work.

Groningen was approved for 850 positions through the experiment, and due to high demand among foreign would-be PhD candidates in particular, the RUG would like to take on even more.

Reading time: 10 minutes (2,103 words)

Arthur Svendsen shares his desk space with the other PhD candidates from his research group, and it stands out in the airy open floor plan on the second floor of the European Research Institute for the Biology of Ageing (ERIBA): their row of computers is festooned with a stuffed octopus and a goofy seal, characters from Finding Dory. The seal, named Gerald, is a humorous nod to their Principal Investigator (PI), professor Gerald de Haan.

Svendsen started at ERIBA in September after graduating from the MPDI top master – Medical and Pharmaceutical Drug Innovation. He and many of his classmates were planning to move on to PhD positions, either in Groningen or elsewhere. Although he is happy to be conducting research here, he describes having mixed feelings about the news that the traditional PhD position that was referred to throughout his master’s phase would be something else. ‘A couple of months before graduation, everything changed.’

At a nearby desk, another researcher in the group, Daozheng ‘Jason’ Yang, is still getting into the swing of things. He arrived in early November and remains deeply impressed by his new work environment. ‘The facilities are awesome, much better than the lab that I joined in my master’s programme in China’, he says.

‘It’s a luxury’

Svendsen and Yang’s research focuses on the ageing of hematopoietic cells, stem cells from which all other blood cells can be formed. The pristine labs where they work are housed on the UMCG campus. They are two out of 167 people who started during the last four months of 2016 conducting research at the RUG or UMCG not as employees, but as students participating in the PhD scholarship programme.

Both Svendsen’s and Yang’s positions are part of the brand new PhD scholarship student experiment, which came into effect on 1 September. The Netherlands is one of a select few countries – Denmark and Bosnia-Herzegovina are the only othersthat have historically regarded all university-paid PhD candidates as employees. ‘In the UK or Germany, PhDs earn way less, so here, it’s a luxury’, Svendsen says.

ERIBA is just one institute within UMCG participating in the pilot, which was approved of by the Ministry of Education and both houses of the Dutch parliament. So far, UMCG and the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences have the most PhD scholarship students: 48 and 60, respectively. The positions thus far have been filled by roughly two-thirds foreign researchers and one-third Dutch researchers.

As students, their financial and legal status within the university differs from that of traditional PhDs. While there are general guidelines for the PhD scholarship students – officially not employees and not receiving the same financial benefits, but able to propose research of their choice and follow a custom designed educational programme – the specifics may differ slightly.

‘Money does matter’

While Svendsen and Yang both emphasise their gratitude for the work they are able to do here, they admit that the financial difference that initially existed between themselves and their fellow researchers was difficult to ignore. ‘I wouldn’t say it’s distracting, but it is an issue’, Svendsen says. ‘You’re not 100 per cent happy.’ Yang seconds that emotion: ‘Money does matter, as long as you make enough to live by.’

In addition to his scholarship from the China Scholarship council, Yang is paid 500 euros a month by the RUG as part of the experiment. Svendsen says that he and Yang, as well as the other pilot students at UMCG, now have equal financial status to that of any other PhD candidate. While they will not accrue pension or holiday bonuses, they will be paid the same amount, including annual raises.

Svendsen and Yang’s research group consists of group leader professor De Haan, a research associate, one post doc, six PhD researchers and four technicians. Svendsen and Yang are pleased with having the freedom to choose to work with De Haan. ‘As a PhD student, I was able to say, I want to join your lab and I am bringing my own scholarship money. So that is what makes it so attractive, and I am really grateful for that’, Svendsen says.

While Yang entered the experiment having done his master’s programme at Shandong University in China, many members of the first cohort of PhD students at UMCG – including Svendsen – were recruited from top master programmes within the university. That move was not only in the interest of time, but also because writing a PhD research proposal is part of such master programmes.

Svendsen, who is Brazilian-American, says his financial status was initially puzzling to him, but after several rounds of emails with a PhD scholarship help desk, his tax situation was eventually cleared up. But to him, the not-employee status remains a strange construct. ‘It’s still not black and white’, he says. ‘At least here in ERIBA, we are not even listed as staff. However, because we earn money, we have to pay tax. We are students which are tax payers.’

In March, Lou de Leij, the Dean of the Groningen Graduate Schools who, together with Marjan Koopmans, is the architect of the PhD student pilot’s implementation in Groningen, stated that the ’special status’ of the students had been affirmed by the Dutch tax services: the students are classified as notional employees.


Given the speed with which the experiment began – there were technically four months between the experiment’s approval at the end of April 2016 and implementation in September – it is easy to see why things got off to a bit of a bumpy start this fall at ERIBA.

Why the rush? De Leij says that is simple: where the PhD students end up working upon graduation will be part of the evaluation of the experiment. Since the experiment will officially end in 2021, it had to start in the fall of 2016 in order to have enough time for the students to get their degrees and find work.

Even though the pace of the changes can be explained, it still meant that certain important details were not exactly ironed out. At ERIBA, students were already working in the labs for several weeks before their contracts were signed. Even getting into the lab was a feat at first: opening doors in the building requires a pass, and Svendsen’s pass was still connected to his status as a master’s student. ‘Because it took a little while for them to make the new contract as an employee, that meant that things were not working. Things are running smoothly now, though’, Svendsen says.

Eager for more

The Ministry of Education had made 2,000 PhD student positions available for all Dutch research universities, but since virtually no one else chose to take part thus far – the only other participant is Erasmus University in Rotterdam, and they only requested 15 positions – the RUG and the teaching hospital are eager to take on even more students, if and when the minister opens a second round of applications.

While informational evenings have been held at UMCG to discuss the experiment and a memo about the first months of the programme was provided for the faculty boards, Gerald de Haan – yes, the Gerald of stuffed seal fame – who is also the scientific director at ERIBA, still has some reservations. He has been an outspoken critic of the experiment, and his main concern remains that prospective PhD candidates may choose to take a position at another Dutch university if that means they get to be an employee instead of a student.

‘If you’re a good student and you could go to either Groningen or Utrecht, and you are equally interested in the research in both places, but Utrecht offers you a better deal? Well, I think everyone would choose that instead’, he says.

There have always been different types of PhD candidates

‘This experiment means there are technically two kinds of students in the lab. In reality, that cannot be the case’, De Haan says. ‘Everyone should be treated the same, so we don’t have higher or lower expectations for anyone. There cannot be any difference in how people are treated at work.’ Svendsen recognises that: ‘This system generates inequality between PhD candidates in the same lab.’

De Leij disagrees. ‘There have always been different types of PhD candidates: normal PhD candidates who work on a project, but also PhDs from abroad and a PhD candidate with a grant from China, for example. I think it’s fine for these students to be handled in the same way.’


Although the traditional PhD candidates with employee status working side by side with the new PhD students in the labs playfully kid around about the students being second-class citizens, this experimental status does not appear to be turning off any would-be researchers. ‘We are going through the number of allocated positions very quickly, especially when it comes to international PhD candidates’, De Leij says. ‘There are so many more than we originally requested.’

But De Haan wonders if the lowered costs connected to a PhD student is the main motivation for the RUG to ask for even more. Currently, Dutch universities receive a so-called ‘promotion bonus’ for every PhD candidate who gets their degree. The more graduates there are, the more PhD bonuses the university receives. But De Leij states that the math for that argument simply does not add up: a PhD student costs 28,588 euros per year, and the bonus is currently 72,000 euros. If the researcher is here for three years, that amounts to at least 85,764 euros, which would mean that PhD students technically cost more than they generate for the university.

Career perspectives

De Haan also questions the basic premise of the Ministry of Education that the Netherlands needs more people with a PhD. ‘While we’re launching this experiment, we’re also saying that we’re training too many PhDs for the number of jobs available within academia, so we have to offer them other tracks. So we want more even though we already have too many, and we have to provide them with the means to pursue alternative careers. There’s a gap there.’

But De Leij thinks the likelihood that up to 80 per cent of PhD graduates may wind up working outside university education is a good thing. But that is all the more reason that he sees the career perspective courses provided for the scholarship students as a crucial responsibility. ‘No matter how you slice it, there is a need for highly educated people in the private sector as well. It would also be great to see more people who have a PhD in positions in the government at every level – I’d love for there to be more PhD graduates in the Upper and Lower Houses, personally’, he says, with a laugh.

He is deeply proud of the programme, especially in light of how quickly it all came together. He believes in it so passionately that the notion of it being a temporary experiment seems unimaginable. To De Leij, this new structure means an opportunity for more aspiring PhD candidates to get a degree for research of their choosing while receiving the training they need for their career. As such, De Leij struggles to see how anyone could have any doubts. ‘It’s a very important programme for this university, and we’ve really stuck our necks out for it’, he says. ‘A lot of people worked incredibly hard to get us this far.’

‘Everything still has to crystallise’, De Leij says. ‘You can’t know from one day to the next if the seeds you have planted will grow, and you can’t expect it to be done right away. It still needs time to grow.’


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