Following an initiative by PhDoc, on January 20th the University Council invited representatives of Leiden PhD candidates of various faculties to a meeting to ask their input on matters that concern them. Nathalie van Hees attended the meeting representing the PhD candidates of the Psychology institute, and agreed to share her notes with us.
The meeting was quite a success, with lively discussion on various topics, and some decisions were made. We also ran short of time, so there might be another meeting. The main issues discussed were the ones listed below.
The international PhD students present at the meeting took this opportunity to bring some pressing problems to the table. The situation for international PhD students is unpleasant and difficult: a mass of administration, often in Dutch, and no straightforward rules and regulations on e.g. tuition fees. Language courses are not paid for by the University. The P&O department’s English is bad, and their knowledge of PhD’s rights is almost non-existent. Nobody at the University helps you finding a place to live, while you find out years later about the Boerhaave foundation. Our general conclusion was that we need to have the international office returned.
Door Nathalie van Hees
Nathalie van Hees is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Leiden University.
Protection and representation
We discussed the lack of protection of PhD candidates and the lack of representation. We used some unrealistic PhD projects as an example, but also the misuse of PhD candidates and the high threshold of going to your promoter to fight it out. In principle there is a trust/confidence person for this at every faculty, and some faculties have a PhD mentor. These people however are difficult to find, and they are not always neutral, making the threshold quite high. At the Archaeology faculty they devised a way of dealing with this: PhD candidates can chat with another professor at the faculty several times during their project, to report on problems. At the university of Nijmegen they even make sure this person is neutral. We would like to see options like that available in a structured way.
PhD candidates in general were not impressed with the courses provided by the ICLON and the University. The Institute of History even started its own course in teaching for PhD candidates, because the ICLON crash course was so unsatisfactory. Other courses offering general skills are much too general, or offer research-related skills instead of the transferable skills that PhD candidates are looking for. A well organized and good quality university-wide graduate school is something we all want. But: do we want obligatory ects?
And finally we discussed the large differences in the teaching load for PhD candidates. Some participants got almost no teaching experience while really wanting to obtain a BKO, while others were upset because of being forced to spend an unwanted large amount of time (30%) on teaching. The suggestion was made to clearly quantify the amount of teaching PhD candidates are expected to do, as already happens at the Law faculty. Currently there is no policy, which makes abuse by supervisors and institutes possible.
Shady contract types
The UR has noted our concerns about the ‘experiment promotiestudent’. Plans were made to communicate our opinion in a structured way to those responsible. The main points of concern: who will teach the students if the PhD candidates are no longer allowed to do so (only staff can teach)? Plus: another type of PhD student will be added to an already unwanted high number of different types, and there will be jealousy between PhD students and candidates with bad and good deals which in turn will be bad for cooperation on projects. Also, less people will be inclined to start a PhD trajectory because they cannot afford it. And finally, the ‘experiment’ is not an experiment because it appears to involve more than half of all PhD students.
Career after the PhD
We discussed how daunting the prospect of unemployment or endless post-docing after finishing your PhD is. The university does not prepare you for this, and supervisors think you are not motivated when you indicate that you are also preparing for a career outside of academia. Your institute urges you to be competitive, while almost never hiring their own PhDs because allegedly your CV benefits from different countries/universities. This topic had no conclusion. (But it was nice to complain.)
A Council member asked how many of us were interested in pursuing a career in academia and how much of a problem it was that we cannot stay on at Leiden University. The answer differed per participant, but in general the lack of freedom of choice was seen as a problem. He pointed out that PhD candidates are a source of income for the university and that there are vastly more than can be given a job.
Lack of information
And last but not least we discussed the general lack of information. We concluded that we desperately need a good quality and accessible source of information. Improving to PhD-portal would help, also having an intranet would be a vast improvement. And would it not be great if all new PhD students would receive an information package when signing their contract?