PhD candidates Network of the Netherlands

The PhD candidates Network of the Netherlands (Promovendi Netwerk Nederland, PNN) represents approximately ten thousand PhD candidates by bundling the local PhD associations of the fourteen Dutch Universities.

The board of PNN consists of young and energetic PhD candidates who, like those they represent, work in highly innovative research environments at various Dutch universities, University Medical Centers, or Research Institutions.

The main objective of PNN is to safeguard the interests of all PhD candidates, regardless of whether they are employed at a Dutch University, a University Medical Centre, or otherwise engaged with a PhD research. PNN promotes the interests of PhD candidates at the national level. In order to attain these objectives, PNN regularly meets with policy makers from national organizations addressing PhD-related issues. These organizations are extremely diverse and include the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), various labor unions and political parties. Since 35% of all scientific staff in the Netherlands are PhD candidates, PNN’s voice is a strong one. Moreover, PNN is passionate about ensuring that all stakeholders work together to create an attractive research environment for current and future PhD candidates. Nonetheless, it is PNN’s opinion that several developments in academia are inhibiting the creation and maintenance of such an attractive climate for PhD research.

After years of delays and discussion, the current PhD system – with its fixed salary scale, contract periods, and Education and Supervision Plan – was introduced in 2005. From the moment of inception, universities began searching for alternative methods of appointing PhD candidates, so as to decrease costs. Until recently all PhD candidates in the Netherlands were considered to be employees, ensuring that certain rights and obligation laid down by law were provided via Collective Employment Agreements (CAOs). However, some universities currently appoint PhD candidates on the basis of a grant, the so-called “bursary system”. In doing so, these universities attempt to employ more PhD candidates for the same amount of money, thus improving productivity at the cost of the employment benefits of future PhD candidates. Accordingly, PhD candidates are not entitled to social benefits, such as the right to maternity leave, pension benefits and sick pay. As a consequence a PhD project will become less attractive compared to other commercial functions. PNN fears that this system will result in a less attractive research environment, whereby Dutch universities will lose high potential researchers.

The University of Groningen has been the first to introduce the bursary system. Currently, approximately 50% of the PhD candidates in Groningen have a bursary status. The majority are of foreign nationality (90% of the bursaries, with 57% of all PhD candidates of foreign origin). A recent study of the Dutch Bureau of Statistics (CBS) indicates that only 3% of holders of a doctorate degree are of Dutch origin. Therefore, although we encourage the internationalization of the research environment, the Groningen case illustrates that increasing the number of foreign PhD candidates at the expense of Dutch researchers begins to take on disproportional numbers and is therefore contrary to the Dutch policy of increasing Dutch holders of a PhD degree.

Besides these societal arguments, there are also some strong legal arguments to abolish the bursary system. Several lower courts have ruled that PhD candidates fulfill a primary goal of universities by contributing to the scientific output and hence the scientific reputation of a university. They sometimes fulfill another major goal by teaching undergraduate as well as postgraduate students. Therefore, writing a dissertation, publishing articles, and teaching students, should be regarded as labor according to the law. Consequently the grant should be regarded as remuneration for that labor. Furthermore, PhD candidates have offices, are required to show some regular progress, should communicate holiday plans, and receive instruction from their supervisors. This implies a hierarchical relationship between the PhD-candidate and his or her university. Thus, a PhD project meets the requirements of a labor contract according to the law and therefore PhD candidates should be holders of an employee status within the university. PNN is unable to reach any other conclusion than that either universities should alter their primary goals or that they should make all their PhD candidates employees. This has also been the view of the Dutch Supreme Court (Hoge Raad) on the bursary matter.

Another concern closely related to the “bursary” problem is the percentage of PhD candidates finishing their PhD within four years. On average it takes a PhD-candidate approximately five years to finish their thesis. Furthermore, the percentage of PhD candidates not finishing their PhD is alarmingly high; approximately 30-40% quit their PhD project before they finish. Research indicates that the main reasons for this delay are a lack of sufficient and good supervision and coaching and the solitary nature of the job. Over the last 8 years, the number of PhD candidates’ fte’s (full-time equivalents) has increased from 3.000 to 7.000, while the number of other scientific staff’s fte’s has remained constant. Added to this, the number of bachelor and master students has increased by 40.000 or 25%. Accordingly, supervisors and promoters have proportionately less time for the PhD process, both qualitatively and quantitatively. By further increasing the number of PhD candidates, currently overburdened university staff might become overloaded leading to an even lower output of PhDs. PNN believes that a good solution, which will lead to both more holders of a doctorate degree and an attractive research climate, must focus on solving the guidance and supervision problem. The 30-40% of PhD candidates that never finish their PhD, should be reduced to 5% at the very most. This in itself will increase the number of PhD’s by 25% to 35% without the need to introduce a bursary system.

The Minister of Education, Culture, and Sciences wants to introduce graduate school in the Dutch PhD system. PNN recognises the merits of these schools in advancing the level of supervision and coaching of PhD candidates. Moreover, it will also provide the opportunity to evaluate the track record of both successful and unsuccessful supervisors and promotors. When poor supervisors are denied further PhD candidates, they will be provided with an incentive to improve their supervising styles.

In conclusion, the bursary system will lead to increasing quantity and decreasing quality. Appointing PhD candidates as students is an extra barrier to the development of the Dutch ‘knowledge based economy’. PNN will continue to call for media attention for this problem and will undertake action against any university incorporating this bursary system. Nevertheless, several other viable solutions that could bring about a favorable change in both “return on investments” and attractiveness of a PhD project remain open.

PNN also addresses the issue of career opportunities for PhD candidates, both inside and outside academia. Research within the PhD population shows that about 70% of PhD candidates would prefer to continue working in academia after the completion of their PhD. Obtaining a PhD is considered to be a first step in an academic career. However, only 20% of all PhD candidates eventually find a position in academia, while further 10% find a job in other research-related areas outside the university. Therefore, Dutch universities should enhance their career policy concerning young scholars, for example, by introducing a “tenure track” system. This system provides talented young scholars with the opportunity to prove themselves and should replace the current system in which coincidental funding determines whether or not young scholars can maintain their position at a university (usually for a limited period of 2-3 years; after that period, post-docs have to re-apply for funding). The tenure track system would scout for high potential PhD candidates and offer them 5-year contracts. On the basis of predetermined criteria these tenure trackers would be regularly evaluated and if they meet the relevant criteria, these high potentials will become professors with a permanent position.

For the substantive number of the PhD candidates that will pursue their career outside academia, or even outside (scientific) research, a good alternative for an academic career should be available. Therefore, PhD candidates, as well as their academic supervisors, should broaden their view and prepare themselves for careers outside academia, i.e., in business or in a governmental organization. Some Dutch universities already offer an elaborate range of courses, which train PhD candidates in ‘transferable skills’; skills that are essential for a job outside of academia. Other universities lag behind in organizing such courses. PNN urges all Dutch universities, as well as their employees who supervise PhD candidates, to develop an extensive program that will offer PhD candidates an opportunity to train themselves, for instance, in management skills. Dutch companies and governmental organizations often consider it difficult to assess the added-value of workers with a PhD – in comparison to younger workers with a Master degree. Therefore, PNN endeavours to improve the status attached to a PhD degree and the capacities of graduated PhD candidates. Holders of a doctorate degree are especially well-educated in analytical and research skills. Additionally, they have proven themselves able to manage a large scale research project on their own, which involves advanced planning-capacities and the capacity to operate in an international setting (networking). Last but not least, PhD candidates have proven to possess a high degree of personal motivation to achieve specific goals, and are able to deploy the means available. These capacities make graduated PhD candidates very attractive for any organization, profit and non-profit alike.

Finally, this part will provide some reading guidance to the non-Dutch reader of our website. Most, if not all, of the content of this website is in Dutch, as our main audience consists of policy makers, journalists and the local representative bodies of the Dutch universities. As you read this, we are in the process of getting the much needed funding to have everything translated into English. Till that time has come, you can contact us by sending an email to and ask for any information you would like to have.

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