PhD candidates are offered “dubious” contracts

Short-term contracts, part-time appointments and highly demanding teaching duties: PhD students aren’t always offered a fair deal. One out of ten PhD candidates is offered a contract with “dubious” terms, warns the PhD candidates Network of the Netherlands (PNN).

“Writing a dissertation is a challenge, even if you have four full years to complete it”, says PNN President Rolf van Wegberg, himself a PhD candidate in financial cybercrime at the Technical University of Delft. But Dutch universities seem to be cutting costs by sacrificing the one thing PhD pursuers can’t do without: time.

Structural problem

“We received a growing number of emails from PhD students who got in trouble towards the end of their contract, because they weren’t given enough time to complete their research or they were tasked with heavy teaching responsibilities”, Van Wegberg explains. “So we decided to look into it and examine whether this is a structural problem.”

It is, PNN concluded. “First of all, in 90% of all job offers we examined, the teaching load wasn’t specified in the contract”, Van Wegberg says. “And perhaps even more shockingly, 10% of the contracts can be labelled as ‘dubious’. These contracts aren’t in agreement with official quality standards, which state that the completion of a PhD requires a fulltime, four-year position.”


Writing a dissertation is often the beginning of an exciting career in academia. But for a PhD candidate whose hard work results in an unfinished end product, a daunting lack of time and no job prospects, it quickly becomes a source of disappointment and frustration. Strikingly, these problems are all perfectly foreseeable.

According to Van Wegberg, PhD students often contact PNN when their contract is ending and they realize they have a problem. By the time these problems arise, the PhD candidate is already knee-deep into his or her PhD. But the source of the problem can be traced back to the moment of signing the contract: “Universities are well aware that doing a PhD in three years or less simply isn’t achievable for most people. They are knowingly offering contracts with unrealistic terms.”

Cost-reduction strategy

So why are universities offering such contracts? “Sadly, I believe it’s a cost-reduction strategy”, Van Wegberg says. “Universities are looking for ways to achieve high academic output at low investment costs. Simply put, they’re saving money at the cost of PhD candidates.”

Van Wegberg says universities should to stop offering dubious contracts to PhD candidates. “Firstly, they should be transparent about the teaching load that comes with the job. And secondly, universities need to put quality first. They have to make sure that the quality standards they set can be met by the PhD candidates.”

“Don’t accept a dubious contract”

Because jobs are scarce for PhDs, many students are tempted to accept any contract they can get. “PhD candidates are forced to compete in a game of ‘how low can you go’. That’s extremely worrying”, Van Wegberg says. “I strongly urge prospective PhD candidates not to fall for it, not to go along with unrealistic terms, not to sign dubious contracts.”


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