Op-ed: PhD students
Open letter to the new dean of graduate studies
Dear Professor Rudolf, dear Petra,
Congratulations on your appointment as new dean of graduate studies. After the retirement of the previous dean, it took some time before a successor was found. We are very happy that it’s someone with extensive experience in Groningen, someone who is known for getting things done.
As dean, you will have the responsibility to make Groningen an even more compelling place to do your PhD. The university is already a wonderful institution for PhD research: from economics to physics, from the humanities to medical, within all scientific disciplines there are fantastic opportunities to contribute to unique, groundbreaking science.
It is a university to be proud of and a place where thousands of PhD students enjoy conducting their experiments. Yet there is an experiment that poses quite a few problems, and that is an experiment on the PhD students themselves.
Perhaps this will come a bit of a surprise, but this is an experiment that no ethics committee would ever accept: the informed consent is missing. A short summary: in exchange for a lower salary, no holiday allowance or thirteenth month, and no pension accrual, PhD students are given a little more freedom in this experiment. This is expensive freedom, because it will cost them 20,000-25,000 euros over four years.
We see no differences in activities between ‘normal’ employee PhD candidates and PhD candidates subject to the experiment
And what do they get in return? Not much, because the PhD system in the Netherlands is originally a system where freedom is of paramount importance, where PhD candidates are challenged to pursue their interests; where PhD candidates are able to perform truly independent scientific research when they obtain their degree.
In practice, we see no differences in activities between ‘normal’ employee PhD candidates and PhD candidates subject to the experiment. However, the latter group is insufficiently informed about the differences: the money and the fringe benefits they miss and the freedom they should be given for this.
Initially, 850 places were created in the experiment, and by no means everything went well here. This was raised in December 2019 in a manifesto written by the PhD students themselves, which was discussed extensively with your predecessor. However, the board of directors wanted to start a new round of the experiment around the same time, in which 650 new places would be created.
Co-governance bodies were sidelined and without a clear plan to improve the situation, an application was submitted to the minister. It stated that (although it was not yet clear who you would be at the time) you, the new dean, would start working on improvements.
That application has already been approved for some time and the University of Groningen has started recruiting new PhD students within the experiment. This is a problem, because the promised improvements are not there yet. Why are new PhD candidates being recruited for the experiment before the exact conditions are clear? The university council discussed a draft plan in May, but this was not yet complete and a new plan is promised for July. Is this not too late if the first batch is to start in September?
This is an excellent opportunity as a new dean to leave a mark on the Groningen promotion system
We call on you to think differently than you are probably used to within the UG. The university is decentralized, but central management is necessary in the case of this experiment. After all, it is the central university that is responsible for carrying out this experiment.
Provide clear informed consent at the start of the PhD program. It should be completely clear to everyone (PhD candidate and supervisors) what they are starting; provide good arrangements for travel costs, study costs and materials (such as laptops, essential in these times where we will have to work from home a lot).
Teaching is also a tricky point, make sure there are clear guidelines for this and maintain them. Ideally, we would of course like to see the grants received by the experimental doctoral candidates aligned with employee doctoral candidates. Of course we are happy to help you come up with solutions, see for example the manifesto or a recent memo from GRIN, the advocate for PhD students in Groningen.
This is an excellent opportunity as a new dean to leave a mark on the Groningen promotion system and really come up with improvements. The problems are now clear, now it is time to solve them! The undersigned, as well as the many PhD councils of the university, are looking forward to improving things together.
Groningen Graduate Interest Network (GRIN), PhD students behind the manifesto and PhD candidates on the university council, Jaap Eising, María Leyva Vallina, Samuël Nelemans, Güven Kandemir, Taichi Ochi, Simon van der Pol, Jitske Sijbrandij, Farilde Steur, Fieke Visser