Students

Scholarships can't get on top

Second-rate PhD's

Many PhD scholarship students feel like second-rate employees. But director of graduate schools Lou de Leij insists their criticisms are misguided and often a result of ‘fake news’.
By Megan Embry / Illustration Kalle Wolters

The PhD scholarship programme

In 2016 the ministry of education launched an experimental PhD scholarship programme. The goal was to increase the number of PhD’s in the Netherlands as well as the research output of Dutch universities. The RUG was granted funding for 850 scholarships in the first round.

Unlike traditional PhD students, PhD scholarship students are not employees of the university. They don’t get cost-of-living raises, holiday pay, end-of-year bonuses, or pensions. But they get other benefits to make up for it. They also get teacher training and a career perspectives series (both of which staff PhD’s have access to as well).

Last month, the ministry of education decided not to open up a second round of admissions for the scholarship programme. The RUG will continue accepting scholarship students until they fulfill their original quota.

The PhD scholarship programme is supposed to be a great deal for students, who can pursue their PhD’s without any of the usual distractions. Scholarship students direct their own research; they have no contractual obligations to teach or even to come into the office; they get time and freedom to focus on what they really care about.

That’s how the RUG has sold the programme since it launched in 2016. And the most recent PhD satisfaction survey from 2017 says students think things are going great. But do they really?

When the education minister decided last month to halt expansion of the nation-wide scholarship experiment, many RUG students cheered her on. ‘Maybe she recognized the bogus-ness of the programme’, says one PhD student at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences.

Illusory

The benefits of the programme, for many, have turned out to be illusory. Is not teaching really an asset? Many PhD students don’t think so, because they can’t compete seriously for academic jobs without teaching experience. And lack of experience is a disadvantage for industry jobs, too. Opting out is not really an option.

And while scholarship students are welcome to teach if they want to, opting in isn’t always that simple. ‘Scholarship students don’t get paid for teaching, and in our department they don’t get extensions to compensate for lost research time’, says spatial sciences PhD student Rik Huizinga. With only three years to finish a PhD, scholarship students in his department must often choose between finishing on time and teaching for free.

It’s easy to get caught up in expectations

Meanwhile, in the Faculty of Science and Engineering, most scholarship students teach as a matter of course. ‘The faculty asks all the scholarship students to help’, says neuroscience PhD Steffen van Heijningen. ‘If we refused in order to make a point about our rights, there would definitely be a shortage of teachers.’

Where the expectations to take on non-contractual duties are not explicit, they are often implicit. Because scholarship students want to prove they add as much value as their employed peers, they often feel pressure to take on a share of the teaching load within their department. ‘It’s very easy to get caught up in expectations, because you want to be a good colleague’, says law PhD Joe van Anken.

Another big calling card of the programme draws similar criticism. Students get to do ‘curiosity-driven’ research, which includes writing their own proposals. But in some faculties, like law, self-guided proposals are the standard for everyone. In others, like science and engineering, they’re practically impossible to pull off on your own.

Thrilled

‘Hardly any master’s student will be able to develop a proposal that’s focused enough to complete in so little time’, says FSE mathematician Jaap Eising. Students just don’t know enough yet. So scholarship PhD’s will have to collaborate with professors from the get-go. ‘A first-year would never be able to do it.’

Even when a student does write his own proposal, he might not get the funding to execute it. Kai-Yu Ma was initially thrilled when his ambitious proposal to work with stem cells was awarded a scholarship. Then he discovered that beyond a standard budget – which covered little more than the cost of a computer and some background work – there was no money for the actual research.

Ma had never dreamed the graduate school would accept a proposal no one could afford. ‘No one took me aside to say, “You won’t have money for this”’, he says. After several lost months, Ma was forced to change his project.

Lagging behind

Now Ma researches Parkinson’s disease, but there still isn’t enough money. Last year he spent weeks writing grants – more time he didn’t have. His work is lagging behind. ‘The university doesn’t talk about this; in the end, everyone knows the scholarship system is mostly about saving university money’, he says. ‘They try to hide that by overselling the benefits, which for most people aren’t realistic – and candidates believe them.’

But the university says scholarship students blame the scholarship programme for problems it isn’t responsible for. ‘There is so much confusion; people just say anything. And then just like fake news, people believe it’, says De Leij.

There is so much confusion; people just say anything

 

Ma’s money problems don’t have anything to do with being a scholarship student. ‘Each graduate school makes its own funding decisions beyond the standard scholarship award’, explains Marjan Koopmans, senior advisor for the Strategy Department of Education and Research. ‘The institution should provide students with money. If they don’t do this sufficiently, of course we should do something about it.’

However, she doesn’t explain who will do what. ‘When scholarship students make budget inquiries we always refer them back to their own graduate school – that’s where the money is’, Koopman says.

In the end, the biggest problem of all may be the way many scholarship students feel. While almost all are quick to say they are grateful to be doing a PhD, they also can’t escape the feeling that their situation simply isn’t fair.

Law student Jelle Roelfsema works alongside another PhD who has an employment contract. Their workload is identical. ‘She started one year before me. We do the same amount of teaching and are doing the same project, but I get paid much less’, he says. ‘The dean of the graduate schools says the social position of the PhD scholarship student is much better – but how can that be right?’

There’s a common feeling that we are second-rate PhDs

He isn’t actually upset about the money – most PhD students aren’t. ‘I can live on this; I’m not poor’, he says. ‘But it just feels really unfair. There’s a common feeling that we are second-rate PhD’s.’

Baffled

But De Leij argues that comparing scholarship positions to staff position is like comparing apples to oranges. ‘Employed PhD’s are in a completely different category’, he says. Instead, scholarship students should compare themselves with the bursary students from before 2009, who had much lower pay and no benefits at all. Compared to those students, scholarship students are very well off. ‘That would be the correct comparison’, insists De Leij.

In fact, he is frustrated with most of these criticisms. ‘There is always a lot of negative news about PhD students. And if we try to say something positive people say, “enough cheering from the university”’.

He seems baffled that students – who signed contracts clearly stating the conditions of the scholarship programme – now think they are somehow being taken advantage of. If they are so unhappy, they have other options. ‘They are free to go to other universities or to positions within this university which are paid by a second source of money flow … if they really want to just do what a professor says – ok, please go. Easy.’

Artificially positive

In fact, many students are happy just to have secured one of the additional 850 PhD spots that wouldn’t otherwise have been available. As De Leij points out, the programme makes their research possible in the first place.

He also points to the results of the most recent 2017 PhD satisfaction survey, which is so exhaustive it fills an entire book. The data speaks for itself. ‘The average satisfaction score is a 7.5 or more – that’s really good. If you split the results of first year PhD scholarship students and first year PhD employees, you don’t see any difference.’ And with a 30 to 40 percent response rate, it’s ‘quite representative of what our PhD community thinks.’

If you collect the data you want, you can prove whatever you want

But many scholarship students say the data does not speak for them. Questions were either too general to touch on their specific worries or were framed to encourage a positive response; by the time they had completed the extensive survey, students couldn’t shake the nagging suspicion that their results would be artificially positive. ‘If you collect the data you want, you can prove whatever you want’, says Eising, who is getting a PhD in mathematics.

He wonders – why didn’t the university just ask: do you think the scholarship programme was worth it? Would you do it again?

Benefits

Eising agreed to take a scholarship position last year, believing that it was merely an ‘administrative distinction with respect to employee status’ and that the university had the best interests of PhD students in mind. He calculated the new contract would mean a total salary reduction of nearly 20,000 euros. But the university assured him that loss was offset by the benefits of the scholarship programme.

In the end that just wasn’t true, he says. And he would happily give up all of those ‘benefits’ in exchange for an employment contract: ‘I would take that deal with open hands.’

Fighting Fake News

Research for this article revealed six pieces of misinformation commonly believed by scholarship students. Marjan Koopmans clears things up.

Fake: because scholarship PhD students aren’t employees, they can’t apply for unemployment benefits when their contracts end.

‘Of course they have a right to unemployment, because they are classified under a legal notion of ‘fictitious employment’. But all students – scholarship and PhD alike – should know that it’s illegal to use unemployment to finish writing your thesis. You have to be actively applying for jobs – something like four applications a month.’

Fake: scholarship students don’t qualify for maternity leave.

‘This is simply false. Of course they qualify for maternity leave.’

Fake: the teacher training obligation is determined by faculty.

‘No; every scholarship PhD student is obliged to take the teacher training in order to teach.’

Fake: scholarship students are not allowed to have research extensions.

‘There is no reason why they cannot get an extension, they are in the same position as an employed PhD student: if the faculty agrees to it and wants to pay, then they get the extension.’

Fake: the required training for scholarship students is only a ‘lite’ version of the internationally recognized ‘BKO’ license, which can only be obtained by employed PhD’s.

‘The teacher training that scholarship students get is indeed lighter than the BKO, but it is meant to provide supervision and a useful skill set. Employed PhD students, on the other hand, usually don’t get any training – they just teach.

If scholarship students want to do the BKO licensing, they can. There is nothing to stop them. But few PhD’s do, because it is so time intensive.’

Fake: scholarships students were deceived into thinking they had right to rental subsidies when in fact they are paid only barely too much to qualify.

‘No; the thing is that when we say you have these rights, we mean that you belong to the group of people in the Netherlands who get a certain number of benefits. We make sure scholarship students understand this, because in the past bursary students didn’t have any rights.

But individually, students may not qualify for particular benefits. Every student has a different situation, so we cannot give them specific tax advice. We send them to the International Welcome Center North for that.’

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