Towards a more equitable PhD system

It’s understandable that PhD scholarship students oppose unequal pay. But they aren’t second-rate PhD’s because they still get many special opportunities, says former bursary student Martijn Wieling. Still, some things could be improved.
By Martijn Wieling / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

On 24 October, the UKrant published the article: ‘Second-rate PhD’s’. According to the PhD students interviewed, the PhD system’s benefits as enumerated by the RUG (no contractual obligation to teach, the ability to direct their own research) are bogus, erasing the supposedly clear distinction between working PhD’s and scholarship PhD’s.

So when you ask scholarship students how they feel about the difference between themselves and employed PhD’s, it’s no surprise they feel second-rate. But is that really the question we should be asking?

Neighbouring countries

Let’s first consider at the PhD systems of our neighbouring countries. In Germany, half of a PhD’s job is as educational assistant, which means they have to perform educational duties. They get paid for this part. The other half of the week, they have work on their thesis. They don’t get paid for this part.

In England, PhD’s often receive a scholarship comparable the PhD scholarships in Groningen. In Flanders, PhD’s get a four-year scholarship that pays a little more: 2,000 euros a month, after taxes.


What this comparison shows is that PhD’s are in many places seen as students rather than employees. I personally think that’s justified. After all, a PhD track is an education programme that teaches necessary academic skills and knowledge.

Just because PhD’s are employees according to the collective agreement doesn’t mean it’s always appropriate to treat them as such. Just like a master student needs supervision when writing a thesis, PhD’s need also need supervision. Poor support for PhD candidates has many negative effects, including increasing the time it takes for the candidate to finish.

I fully understand the scholarship students’ opposition to incongruous remuneration, and two such similar positions shouldn’t be rewarded unequally.

But international PhD’s who come to the Netherlands with only their own (lower) scholarship to live on have been subject to this inequality for much longer. The RUG’s system actually corrects this by supplementing these foreign PhD scholarships.


It’s therefore my opinion that we should work towards a system that rewards PhD’s in accordance with the work they do. We should pay them a research scholarship that they can actually live on (like the RUG scholarship, except adjusted for inflation), and then in addition, pay for any and all educational tasks they perform. This remuneration should apply to each and every PhD – so scholarships for international students should be raised as well.

This would put an end to the incongruence in remuneration. This way, we recognise a PhD track for what it is – an educational programme (that requires proper supervision!) – while rewarding educational work with an employment contract.

This system is certainly tenable – since the costs of a PhD spot would match the government’s compensation – and it would ultimately prevent unwanted ‘creative’ solutions such as the ones that are being applied in Germany.

Right question

Finally, what is the actual question we should be asking PhD’s? I would have asked them the following: ‘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?’

Within our research institute, the current scholarship system means we have four PhD’s every year. At least twenty suitable, highly motivated candidates apply for this position every year. At the same time, we have only two positions for employed PhD’s available. If I wanted to do a PhD, I know which position I’d apply for.

Martijn Wieling was a bursary student at the RUG from 2008 to 2012; he currently works as a professor by special appointment of Low Saxon/Groningen Language and Culture and as associate professor of information science.



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