Science
Illustration by Kalle Wolters

PhD candidates face uncertainty

Who will get those few extra months?

Hundreds of PhD candidates at the UG suffered delays because of the lockdown and the restrictions that followed. But as their contracts are ending, only a few of them will get an extension. ‘We are all quite scared for the future.’


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

6 October om 9:27 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 9 October 2020
om 13:37 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

October 6 at 9:27 AM.
Last modified on October 9, 2020
at 13:37 PM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio
Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Full bio

Amanda van Tilburg is a fourth-year PhD candidate. All she still needed to do was a few experiments for her research in which she tries to use bacteria to produce antimicrobial substances. Then the lab closed down. 

Daniele Lima is in her third year. She develops hardware for astronomy instruments. She finished the theoretical part of her research in Brazil, but for the practical part where she constructs and tests the equipment, she had to come to the workshop at the Kapteyn Institute. She had only been in Groningen for three months when the lab closed down.

Felix Pot is a second-year PhD candidate who studies mobility in the countryside at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences. He had just printed nine thousand copies of his survey when the lockdown started, rendering his questions about the use of public transport and automobiles useless. 

Joanna Porkert is also in her second year. She studies multilingualism and language processing. She was just about to start her EEG experiments. But then her lab closed down, too.

Frustrated

Four PhD candidates. All of them in a different stage of their research. All of them have been hit hard by the lockdown. Their supervisors advised them to start writing their thesis or do their literature review, but many of them simply couldn’t.

It was the lab that made me come to Groningen

‘Our survey asked how people travelled from one place to the other over the past week, or how they felt about their hometown. But if we’d kept going, we would have run into so many problems. We wouldn’t have been able to compare the result to earlier data’, Pot explains. ‘In the meantime, the clock is ticking.’

‘I had already done all the preliminary research in Brazil’, says Lima. ‘It was the lab that made me come to Groningen. It was all extremely stressful…. I was so frustrated.’

‘I helped out my supervisor with online teaching’, says Porkert. ‘There really was nothing else I could do, as this was the most important experiment of my research.’

1.4 million

The labs may have reopened, albeit with restrictions in place, but that hasn’t solved any of their problems. Normally, PhD candidates spend every day working on their experiments, but now they only have access to the labs two days a week. In the labs themselves, efficiency has essentially come to a standstill. If a colleague is using a fume hood, you have to wait for them to move before you can pass. This only leads to more delays.

In the meantime, the UG is no closer to a solution. As early as May, the universities and various unions reached an agreement to use 0.45 percent of the wage increase margin to extend the temporary contracts for academic staff that couldn’t finish their work because of the corona crisis. For the UG, this amounted to 1.4 million euros. 

The board of directors also decided to give the UMCG, which wasn’t included in the deal, 325,000 euros for the same goal, and to allocate 755,000 euros to PhD candidates, although the faculties have to come up with 60 percent of those costs themselves.

Compensation

While that sounds like a lot of money, it’s already become clear that it isn’t enough. ‘The financial compensation should be aimed at helping those who need it most by extending their employment by three months’, the board of directors writes. Those who needed it most were approximately eighty members of staff – PhD and postdoctoral candidates – and 98 scholarship PhDs. 

This could lead to a power struggle between PhD candidates and supervisors

Who they are exactly has not been made clear. Back in May, the PhD scholarship PhD’s received an email, warning them not to count on a contract extension. ‘Many of you may think that just adding the lost months in the form of a contract prolongation solves the problem, but unfortunately that will not be possible for most PhD students, because the financial means made available are not sufficient’, dean of graduate studies Petra Rudolf.

The available funds were distributed across the faculties in proportion to the number of PhD candidates. The faculties were asked to determine ‘who needed it the most’. The faculties can decide for themselves who to help. 

Psychological help

This may unfortunately lead to other issues. ‘Each faculty has its own rules, and they vary greatly. There also big differences between the units’, warns PhD candidate and university council member Simon van der Pol, who did not suffer any delays himself. ‘That could lead to a power struggle between PhD candidates and their supervisors, but also in the groups themselves.’ He thinks there should be a more centralised policy in place. ‘This will only lead to the people yelling the loudest getting the benefits while others miss out.’

Petra Rudolf doesn’t think it will be that bad. It is still unclear how big then number of ‘dire cases’ is exactly. However, says Rudolf, ‘it looks like we’re able to help all those who have applied for an extension’.

Besides, it is what it is. ‘We and university association VSNU have fought hard to get more money from the ministry’, she explains. ‘But this is all we could get.’ She focused on psychological support – for which the possibilities have expanded since 2018 – for PhD candidates who are having a hard time, as well as on interview training to help them prepare for the labour market. ‘A lot of people made use of that in the first few months.’ 

Nevertheless, Rudolf emphasises, we need to be wary of money as the solution to all problems. ‘After all, adversity is part of a PhD track. Every scientist needs to be prepared for when things don’t go as they expected.’

Adapt

When this happens, the solution is to reorientate; find a creative way to head in a new direction. ‘We’re encouraging all supervisors to start talking to their PhD candidates to see what the options are to make any changes to their projects’, she says. 

Problems are normal, but these PhD candidates haven’t even been able to do any experiments

The supervisors should also take another good look at the thesis requirements. At many faculties, PhD candidates are expected to publish four or five articles before they graduate. But is that really necessary? ‘The objective of a PhD track is to show that someone has grown into an independent researcher’, says Rudolf. 

But the PhD candidates in question aren’t satisfied with the way the UG is handling the problems. In what respect is ‘adversity part of it’? says microbiology professor Oscar Kuipers, who supervises Van Tilburg. ‘Sure, problems are normal, but they usually involve experiments going awry. These PhD candidates haven’t even been able to do any experiments.’ 

Competition

Adjusting projects is difficult in many cases. ‘I cannot change my project’, Lima says. ‘I’m too far along already and I’m working with external collaborators. I can’t just end all that.’

Then there’s another problem: anyone who finishes their PhD degree having published fewer articles than usual and having done less experimental research will have a weaker position in the labour market, where competition is fierce. ‘EEG and eye tracking research is vital in my field’, Porkert says. ‘If we change the project because I can’t do that kind of research, I would be pushed into research I would never have applied for in the first place. And once I’m finished, I’d lack skills other PhDs did acquire.’

Fourth-year PhD candidate Lu Zhou recognises this scenario. His project is nearly finished and he hopes to be one of the lucky ones whose contract is extended. But he vehemently hopes the UG doesn’t lower its standards. ‘Your position is just not as good as that of other PhDs.’

Lucky ones

This means that hundreds of PhD candidates are at their wits’ end. They do speak highly of their supervisors, who often work really hard and try their best. They also understand that the university is in a difficult position. But they worry that ‘those who need it most’ will end up being the lucky ones. ‘I hope they realise that the real consequences won’t manifest for another two years’, says Pot. ‘I won’t know whether the delays I’m suffering now will ruin my career. And I don’t think people will accept the coronavirus as an excuse two years from now.’

Porkert agrees. ‘We are all quite scared for the future.  The early PhDs collected their data already and they get to analyse them. We didn’t even have the chance to collect them.’

After publication of this article, some adaptations have been made.

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