PhD candidates are professionals

In his UKrant opinion of 29 October Martijn Wieling argues in favor of a doctoral system with PhD students instead of PhD employees. According to the PhD candidate Network of the Netherlands (PNN) this would lead to a race to the bottom.
By Anne de Vriesand Marten van der Meulen

In his opinion Wieling reacts to another Ukrant article in which PhD students from the RUG indicated that they feel like second-rate PhD candidates. The PhD students earn € 20.000 less than employed PhD candidates and have no pension rights. The promised advantages of being a PhD student are lacking.

Nonetheless, Wieling tells them to be happy with the fact that they have found a place as a PhD candidate. He argues that the question that needs to be answered is: ‘If you had a 50 percent chance of a spot as an employed PhD, or a 100 percent chance of a position as a scholarship student, which one would you choose?’ Wieling answers his own question: let’s shift to a system with PhD students only, because this is cheaper and because “a PhD track is an education programme.


To start with that last statement: doctoral research is not an educational program. At least, not according to, amongst others, the Dutch Council of State, the student organization ISO and the European Council for early career scientists (Eurodoc). Moreover, in 2005 European Universities agreed that: ‘Doctoral candidates as early stage researchers: should be recognized as professionals – with commensurate rights – who make a key contribution to the creation of new knowledge.’

Research is a core task of universities and it is untenable to argue that this task is largely carried out by so-called students. Wieling therefore forgets to answer an essential question: are PhD candidates carrying out academic research? The answer is wholeheartedly ‘yes’, which means that PhD candidates are performing work to the benefit of universities.

It is true that PhD candidates receive doctoral training. However this is not unusual for junior employees. For example, also junior doctors are trained and supervised in order to become a medical specialist. Likewise, Dutch junior lawyers are supervised by a senior and receive extensive, three year training (exams included).


Just like PhD candidates these professionals have obtained a master degree and are at the beginning of their careers. Do we call them students? No. Similarly, it does not make sense to treat PhD candidates as students merely because they happen to work in an educational environment.

A system with only PhD students has one obvious advantage: it is cheaper. In the Netherlands, however, we pride ourselves on the fact that we uphold certain minimum standards and labor conditions, such as a salary and pension rights in accordance with the collective labor agreement.  In other sectors we would find it absurd to devalue this system, but in academia this is proposed as a way to create more output.

As a result, PhD students at Groningen enjoy a shady and unequal legal status. Moreover, they cannot properly defend themselves because students are not represented by labor unions. Abusive practices can go unnoticed because individual PhD students are in a weak position, in particular because of the unequal relationship with PhD supervisors.

Race to the bottom

Wieling argues that we should pay PhD students less, because this way the costs ‘would match the government’s compensation’. This is the world on its head. If there is a need for more PhD research this has to be paid for by the community at large, not by a small and vulnerable group. If increased government funding is lacking, universities do not have to accommodate the demand for more research.

After all, that would lead to a race to the bottom in which the responsible party (the government) can simply lean back and PhD candidates are presented with the bill. Furthermore, under the current financial model a nation-wide increase in PhD dissertations leads to a decrease in government funding per dissertation. When universities continue to produce more and more PhD dissertations, the government contribution per PhD trajectory will further decline.


In case of scarcity there are always people willing to work under bad labor conditions. Because of this dependent position, one cannot leave it up to an individual worker to decide on whether he accepts a degraded legal position. Hence the answer to Wieling’s unapt question is: rather fewer PhD trajectories with fair labor conditions, than more unprotected, underpaid PhD candidates.

Anne de Vries is Chair of the PhD candidate Network of the Netherlands (PNN), Marten van der Meulen is Vice-chair. 


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