PhD students allow themselves to be treated badly. One in ten PhD students is given insufficient time to complete his or her dissertation or is given too many teaching duties, according to a warning issued by the PhD Candidates’ Network of the Netherlands (PNN).

PNN examined nearly 1,500 job advertisements for PhD students. Some of the advertised positions came with appointments for three years or even shorter. Moreover, some PhD students were saddled with significant teaching duties.

All things taken together, one in ten appointments is dodgy, says PNN President Rolf van Wegberg, himself a PhD student at Delft University of Technology. “PhD students should not accept such jobs and universities should not offer them.”

So what is wrong with getting less time to complete one’s PhD research?

“Even now, only few PhD students manage to complete their dissertations within four years. In many cases, three years will be too short to write a proper dissertation.”

But these three-year programmes have been around for a while. They follow two-year research masterprogrammes. So are you saying these PhD students are not good enough?

“No, they are good enough, because at the end of the track the quality of their work will be assessed. If their dissertation is not yet good enough, they will have to keep working on it. This happens a lot, because four years really is the minimum time required. But PhD students are held accountable for any delays they may suffer, even though it was obvious from the start that this problem was going to occur.”

Why did you decide to look into this?

“We received a lot of emails from PhD students telling us about the strange positions they were in or the strange contracts they were offered. They were trying to find out how to deal with their situation. We do help those people, but we got the feeling that we were dealing with a widespread problem. And since we are academics, we like to investigate such matters.”

All too often job advertisements do not state the amount of teaching the PhD student will be expected to do.

“That’s right, and we feel that universities should be transparent about this in advance. If you don’t make any arrangements about this sort of thing beforehand, it is very hard for PhD students to say down the track: ‘Enough of this, I’m running out of time to conduct my research.’ And the ones we looked at were just the public job advertisements. Underhand arrangements regarding PhD positions may be even dodgier, but we do not have any figures about those.”

PhD students do accept such positions. Is that a bad thing?

“It’s an economic principle. There are more young people wishing to get a PhD than PhD positions, so people are more likely to accept dodgy conditions of employment.”

Do PhD students like their jobs too much?

“Sometimes it can’t even be called a job any more. At Groningen University, PhD students are no longer considered employees, but rather students. And even there all the vacancies for PhD students are filled. PhD students should not accept such things, but for their parts, universities should not exploit these students’ eagerness, either.”

What must be changed?

“We are calling upon universities to be good employers. Give all PhD students four years to complete their PhDs and be transparent about the burden of their teaching duties.”