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PNN survey among PhDs in the Netherlands

The PhD Network Netherlands (PNN) represents around 20.000 to 25.000 PhD candidates at Dutch institutions for higher education. Between March and May 2020, PNN conducted a survey among 1.601 PhD candidates on a wide variety of topics, ranging from wellbeing to contract characteristics. In this article, we will highlight some of PNN’s most urgent findings.

COVID-19

More than a third (34%) of PhD candidates experience delay due to the corona crisis; for example, due to not being able to collect data, access research facilities (such as labs), or due to experiencing difficulties working from home. With the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing more than half a year later, we suspect these numbers are now higher. Together with the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), PostdocNL, the Young Academy and labour unions, PNN wrote a guide for institutions for higher education on how to deal with research delays as a result of the pandemic. There is currently no uniform policy on COVID-related contract extension across institutions, faculties, or even departments.

Mental health

Almost half (47%) of PhD candidates is at risk of developing mental health problems. More than 38% of PhDs show severe symptoms of burnout, and over half (60%) rate their workload as high or too high. These findings are not exclusive to the Netherlands: mental health problems affect PhDs globally. As representative organizations, we must continue to put the mental health and wellbeing of early career researchers on the agenda, and urge institutions for higher education to take appropriate measures. Some universities in the Netherlands have begun experimenting with an institutional psychologist for PhD candidates. PNN will keep a close eye on these developments and their results.

Social safety

More than 18% of PhD candidates in the Netherlands experience some kind of harassment at their institution, including sexual harassment, discrimination on the basis of gender and ethnicity, bullying and intimidation, as well as breaches of the Code of Conduct for Research Integrity. The VSNU is working on implementing a university ombudsman at all institutions. Whereas this is a positive development, social safety also requires a shift in organizational cultures that encourage turning a blind eye to workplace malpractices. For example, although more than 1 in 10 PhDs have considered changing supervisors, many have not taken steps out of fear it would jeopardize their project or future academic career. Of those who did take steps to change supervisors, almost 20% did not succeed.

Bursary system in the Netherlands

Finally, in the Netherlands PhD candidates are generally employed. This means they fall under the scope of the collective labour agreement for Dutch universities or university medical centres, which warrants certain wages, benefits and working conditions. The Netherlands’ exemplary position within Europe is under threat due to the Experiment Bursary PhD Students, carried out at the University of Groningen. Scholarship PhDs have, on numerous occasions, denounced the disadvantages of their position relative to that of employees – about which many were not informed by the institution. Although the University of Groningen claims scholarship PhDs have more freedom designing their project than employee PhDs, the findings of PNN’s survey does not support this.

The PNN PhD Survey also addresses supervision, teaching, Open Science and more. The reports can be found on our website.

Rosanne Anholt

Chair of PNN - Promovendi Netwerk Nederland