All is well as long as everything goes well

Dubious and illegitimate contracts harm PhD candidates

Nieuws | door Sicco de Knecht & Ingeborg van der Ven
11 september 2018 | For a while now, there have been reports of unusual contracts and constructions by which PhD candidates in the Netherlands are employed. What kind of contracts? And what problems do these PhD candidates actually face? In order to answer this question, ScienceGuide spoke to several of them about their employment conditions and about unforeseen conflict situations.
Foto: andibreit

This is the first part of a series of three articles in which we spoke with PhD candidates that have unusual appointments or contracts that do not comply with the regular conditions set for other PhD’s in the Dutch system. Most of these PhD’s contacted us after a call on social media asking for stories in order to investigate repeated claims on dubious or illegitimate contracts offered to (external) PhD’s.

De Nederlandse versie die wij eerder publiceerden

In the Netherlands the PhD is considered as an employee, not a student, entitled to the corresponding benefits. However, as we found, this is not the case for every PhD candidate in the Netherlands, and a wide variety of contracts exist. In most cases, the deviation from the norm benefits the employer – a university, research institute or even the supervisor – far more than the PhD candidate. A situation that mostly goes unnoticed, since most PhDs have little knowledge of what their rights are. In combination with the still inherently disparate relationship between a PhD candidate and supervisor this creates precarious and even unworkable situations.

Although many PhD candidates from a variety of disciplines and institutes were more than willing to share their stories, none of them wanted to go on record with their own name. Either out of fear of repercussions or as not to harm their future career they chose to stay anonymous. Therefore, the names used in this article are fictitious and the disciplines and universities are left out on purpose.

What follows is a story about the employment conditions to which PhD candidates and their mutually employers agree. Contracts that beg the question of how desirable their conditions really are. They are stories in which a lack of financial means lead to unstable constructions. What connects these stories is the initial willingness from both sides to agree to these terms, be it out of good intentions or naivety. Both parties want to make things work, until they no longer do…

Additional work in exchange for tuition

Karin works for a foreign company. When she is about to move back to the Netherlands, she gets offered the chance to do a PhD through her company at a Dutch university. “I was set on doing a PhD and the company I worked for was willing to pay for it. It was a step down from what I previously earned, but it still came down to 1750 euros a month.” However, there was a catch: the university considers Karin an ‘external’ PhD so she has to pay the them 1000 euros a month for the use of their facilities.

Karin’s situation is by no means exceptional. It is common for universities to ask external PhD candidates for a financial contribution or ‘tuition’. What this contribution covers tends to differ greatly depending on the institute. Some state that these are training costs, others only mention ‘the use of facilities’. In general universities claim that this contribution is required because of the additional overhead caused by the use of a working space and the access granted to academic literature. In the case of Karin, the university explicitly states that this should not be considered to be the same thing as ‘tuition’, meaning that the PhD student does not pay for training and supervision.

Poor as a church mouse. That’s how Karin sees her future when she starts her PhD in 2015. But her supervisor helps her come up with a way that will allow her to simultaneously work on other research projects in the department. “By being appointed as an employee, they had to guarantee that I would have a working space. In that way I was exempted from the mandatory tuition I would have to pay to use the facilities.”

“It soon became clear that completing my PhD in four years was going to be a big challenge.”

Initially Karin is positive about this outcome. “It’s definitely not all bad. I figured it would even have added value.” She mentions the fact that working on new projects will allow her to broaden her network and comes down to extra experience, and allow her to work on another project that overlaps with her own research. Combining everything, however, will not be easy.

“It soon became clear that completing my PhD in four years was going to be a big challenge.” Karin continues to work on her PhD and her other projects, while her supervisors keep stressing the importance of finishing on time. “They told me time and time again that the PhD project should be finished within four years. Any more than that will go at the cost of the dissertation fee The dissertation fee, promotiepremie in Dutch, is a fee granted by the Dutch government to an institute when a PhD completes his or her dissertation. It is a considerable sum of money, around €80.000, and is meant to cover the cost of supervision and pay for the infrastructure and administration required to accommodate a PhD. It is therefore remarkable that an institute would even require an additional ‘contribution’ to provide for any of these services. The dissertation fee is not meant to cover ‘overtime’ in a PhD. .”

She soldiers on, trying to meet the requirements for her multiple positions with her PhD usually coming in last place. “On paper I now work the equivalent of 1,4 fte (drop down) and this has even been 2 fte at times. All the while knowing full well that most PhD candidates already work more than 1 fte a week in order to finish their PhD in time.”

Karin’s supervisors also push her to complete 30 EC worth of course work for her PhD. As an external PhD this course work is not mandatory for Karin, but her supervisors are adamant on her completing these courses. “The department receives a financial incentive from the university for every PhD that completes 30 EC, they simply don’t want to miss out on that.” Karin feels that everything is too much, but there’s little she can do to change things. “You always assume that things are going to be ok, but there really is no way for them to not be.”

“You always assume that things are going to be ok, but there really is no way for them to not be.”

Karin understands that the university charges a ‘tuition’ fee, but not in combination with the fact the university also receives a promotion bonus. “I think it’s pretty outrageous that the department not only gets a huge amount of money for supervising me, but also charges 1000 euros for external PhD candidates. If it wasn’t for circumventing that tuition fee, I wouldn’t have had to work on those other projects.”

Karin’s situation illustrates how employers gradually push the limits of what can be realistically asked of PhD candidates. New requirements are added, even though they don’t apply to that particular situation, and it is unclear how these requirements will benefit this particular PhD personally. One thing is clear, which is that there is a strong financial incentive for the university.

Unable to agree

Samira starts on a research project in a team of PhD candidates, financed by several outside organizations and a governmental department. “With the same amount of money, three PhD candidates could be appointed.” The grant could buy out the risks related to work disability and unemployment. “The research group decided to hire us through this grant and in turn we were then ‘hired’ out to the university. We worked for the university as ‘external employees’.”

According to Samira, this construction isn’t unusual. “Half of the PhD candidates in our department are external employees, based on all sorts of different contracts.” She explains that most people are aware that these hiring methods exist, “but they lack formal structures or ways of holding each other accountable. Speaking up generally means paying a price for it, one way or another.”

Not taking this responsibility to speak up about these dubious hiring methods all rests in a lack of transparency. “Most candidates don’t even know how their peers’ contracts are set up.” Samira thinks that this only benefits the university. “I think the lack of transparency is very profitable for the university. As soon as people know what their rights are, they’ll appeal to them. If you don’t know what your rights are, you just assume your situation is correct.”

The department emphasizes that this form of employment is purely a ‘technical solution’. “The financial director promised us that we would always be treated like regular PhD’s, for example by financing publications and reimbursing conference costs. Only rarely was this the case though. Most of time we had to go to great lengths to what we were entitled to.”

"If you don’t know what your rights are, you just assume your situation is correct."

Samira’s group project is a compilation of multiple assignments, consisting of a scientific project and practical research. “We were all put in the same room and had to figure out how to divide the two projects amongst the group. There was barely any supervision.” After half a year it proves impossible for the candidates to divide the tasks by themselves. The group approaches a confidant for advice: “Are we supposed to have so little supervision and such unclear assignments? Is it just us or does that seem crazy?”

In the first meeting with the confidant it becomes clear that she also does not think that this situation is normal. She suggests that the next conversation should involve both the candidates and the supervisor. Per the candidates’ request, she meets with the supervisor first. Samira explains that: “It seemed fair to me that the supervisor would have a chance to say his thing before we all met. Maybe this was naïve of me.”

Fairly soon after the meeting between the confidant and the supervisor, the candidates receive a letter from their supervisor, stating that it is obvious that the group can’t handle the project and that their appointments will be reevaluated. The group doesn’t know what this reevaluation will be based on. In anticipation of their first-year evaluation, they come up with a proposal. “We were afraid that one of us would be fired, so we each gave up one day of work, so we could all stay.”

This proposal is accepted by the supervisor and department head, without any further communication with the PhD candidates. “Eventually, an extra person was appointed to help with the practical research from the supervisor’s research group. So, another PhD candidate.” The days of work the group handed in to keep their jobs resulted in the addition of another PhD candidate. Meanwhile, the original group continues to work as hard as they did before for the same amount of time, in order to finish the project on time.

“We were afraid that one of us would be fired, so we each gave up one day of work, so we could all stay.”

Samira’s situation is typical for the stories ScienceGuide has accumulated. The stories are a combination of a department trying to make the most out of limited means, and PhD candidates that (initially) don’t know their rights and are willing to do whatever is needed to keep their appointment. Voicing concerns about feasibility are to the detriment of PhD candidates, who now have even less time to finish their projects on time.

Tax evasion 

Jerry started working on research assignments for the university while he was still completing his master’s degree. While living in the United States, he helped write interviews and articles. “I could use the money, and as a young researcher I wanted my name on published articles.” The assignments were project-based. “You can compare the contracts to those of a contractor that, for example, builds staircases in houses. We had agreed upon clear deliverables.”

Jerry ends up having to wait a whole year before he finally gets paid. “They told me there was miscommunication between the different administrative systems. At some point, I was emailing the department every day.” The financial department, in turn, blamed the chaos on the different international payment systems. Right after Jerry gets paid, he gets a request to pay taxes over his salary. This message from the U.S. tax authority makes it clear to Jerry that the construction for his assignments was deliberately set up so the university wouldn’t have to pay taxes.

“What I now know is this: the less taxes the university pays over a grant, the more of it they have left to spend.” Despite this bad experience, Jerry decides to start a PhD project at the same Dutch university. “I was really close with my supervisor and I trusted her. My parents thought I was crazy, but I did it anyway. My supervisor kept telling me: ‘We’ll make this work.”

Until it didn’t.

The terms of employments with the university are based on another contract of deliverables. Jerry gets paid every three months. “The first two years of my project were financed through left-overs from various ERC-grants. Which, by the way, is not how it’s documented in the administration. There, it says that I’m an external PhD candidate with a foreign grant.”

“My supervisor kept telling me: ‘We’ll make this work’.”

“That’s why it’s difficult to pinpoint how far along I now am. I’ve been in the Netherlands for 1,5 years now.” Jerry is now awaiting the decision that has to be made in the summer concerning the financing of his project and if and how it can be continued. The department has said that they can finance the last two years of his project.

The first payment by the university works out, but the second one doesn’t. According to the financial department, the amount can only be made out to a foreign bank account and not a Dutch one. Jerry quickly opens a German bank account, but still has to wait three months to receive his money. “I had to loan money from my Dutch friends and I have no idea how I’m going to pay them back.”

Past spring, the situation escalated/worsened. At the start of his project, Jerry assisted in the writing of grant proposals. The proposals turned out to be successful. He was supposed to receive 2000 euros for the assignment. “The financial department told me I wouldn’t be receiving the money. It would throw off our construction.”

Pushing money around

After his supervisor gets involved, the financial department agrees that they can pay Jerry if it concerns a reimbursement for a purchase. He decides to buy a laptop. “While I was picking out a laptop, the rules suddenly changed. They couldn’t reimburse things anymore, but only airplane tickets.” At the beginning of the year Jerry books two tickets to be reimbursed. When he files the forms for them to be reimbursed, the next bump in the road appears. The airplane tickets were supposed to be for research purposes, and he doesn’t get his tickets reimbursed.

Pushing money around was another common theme in the interviews ScienceGuide held with PhD candidates. While a PhD project financed based on declarations is exceptional, it is not unique. In this case, the close relationship between the supervisor and candidate was reason enough for the candidate to want to continue, though financially speaking he only suffers.

When external parties get involved, it becomes clear that Jerry’s construction is not sustainable. “When other universities were found guilty of tax evasion, mine started ‘cleaning up’ in preparation of the coming audit. This turned out to have big financial consequences for me.” According to the financial department, Jerry’s reimbursements can’t be higher than the previously agreed upon amount. That means that his additional assignments cannot be reimbursed because this has consequences for taxes.

What’s financially possible turns out to be a open for interpretation, when Jerry ends up finally getting a room to live in after a lot of hassle. “The housing department of the university helped me find a place to live.” After weeks of not being able to find somewhere to live, his supervisor presses the housing department. Then, it suddenly turns out he has to pay mediation costs for that one phone call.

Without agreeing to these costs, his department transfers the amount, from the money they still owe him, to the housing office. “The amount of money was moved around amongst departments. The money that I’m supposedly not entitled to can apparently be moved around internally.”

Nothing from the amount of money that Jerry is contractually entitled to has been transferred and he is now awaiting a decision from the university about his financial decision after the summer. There is no financial security for Jerry. On the one hand, he is halfway done with his PhD, but on the other, nothing is certain.

Holding each other accountable seems impossible

The PhD candidates we talked to all started their projects with a lot of enthusiasm. Their lack of work experience combined with their initial excitement let them sign highly unusual contracts. The terms of their employment are unstable, and when things go awry, the PhD students, the ones in the most precarious position, pay the price.

Are these obscure contracts really a problem? While the contracts are something that both the PhD candidate and the supervisor sign, these cases nonetheless contribute to an uncertain working environment for young researchers. Nobody seems to want to be in these types of situations, but as Samira puts it, “We lack a formal procedure in which we can hold each other accountable without paying for it ourselves.”

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