The peculiar status of PhD-employees

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 31, 2014

One thing that has struck me for years is the peculiar status of people taking a PhD-degree in the Netherlands (and in a few other continental European countries – I don’t know how many exactly). They are hired by the university, as employees, to write a dissertation, and help teach about one course a year, during four years (in Belgium they may have to teach more, but in those cases they have 6 years, of which one third has to be spent on teaching, and two thirds on working towards the PhD-degree). I call this category of people pursuing a PhD-degree PhD-employees: they have a wage, the legal status and corresponding right of civil servants, rights to paid holidays and paid parental leave, and everything else that a civil servant has (except that the contract is temporary). They pay no fees for their PhD studies, and most of the additional courses they take will be paid for by their employer – the university. All universities in the Netherlands are publically funded, and hence while the employers are the universities, the funds are overwhelmingly government funds – although in principle a private party could also sponsor a PhD-employee at a university. This sometimes happens in the natural sciences – when Philips or Shell fund a PhD-position on a project that benefits them too. The cost of such a PhD-employee for 4 years is about 200.000, if we don’t count material costs and overhead at the university (some claim it’s closer to 280.000 if we include the latter).

The contrast with the status of PhD-students in England and the US is quite big, where those who are pursuing a PhD-degree are students, pay (often significant) fees in order to get training and supervision, and if they do teaching or research assistance, they get either an additional contract or they are paid by the hour. In addition to the National research councils and the universities, there are also a number of public and private organizations that provide (modest) bursaries for those PhD students.

I have, for many years, thought that there is nothing wrong to treat those pursuing a PhD-degree as students rather than as employees. In my view, they are not primarily having a job but rather pursuing a degree. And given the general scarcity of funds in the public sector, and universities in particular, it would be better if we didn’t have PhD-employees but rather PhD-students, and reallocate those funds to create additional lectureships.

Since the university wouldn’t have to pay social security and all the employer-related taxes and insurances, it would cost the Dutch government/university not about 200.000 Euro per PhD, but rather would cost them the amount of the PHD scholarship which the Dutch government (until recently) gave to non-EU students taking a degree in the Netherlands– which was about 70.000 Euro for 4 years. One could argue that this amount is too low, since one can’t live a decent life on 1460 Euro a month (which would imply that the non-EU students have been given a too small bursary in the past), and raise that amount to 100.000 Euro, which would give the PhD-students 2000 Euro a month. For the present discussion I don’t care about the exact numbers – what’s relevant is the claim that a significant amount of money could be saved if those PhD-employees became PhD-students.

The money that would be saved should be invested in hiring new lecturers, especially in those disciplines where over the last decades student numbers went up without more funds being allocated to lecturers. More lecturers are, given the vastly increased workpressure in the faculty, really badly needed. But, equally importantly, it would increase the chances of those getting a PhD degree to stay in academia within the Netherlands. And those chances are currently very low, which is generally recognized (I recall numbers that about 1 in 10 PhDs can stay in academia, whereas about 9 in 10 would like to do so).

And, what I personally find very important, in the UK and the US, PhD-students can in many (most?) cases choose their own topic, whereas in the Netherlands they have to work on the topic for which the professor could raise funds. There are exceptions, but to the best of my knowledge most PhD-employees in the Netherlands have not chosen their own topic. And since the PhD-student is an employee, she can’t change supervisors if she’s not happy, let alone transfer to another university.

Earlier this week Roland Pierik and I published an op-ed piece in the major Dutch newspaper NRC-Handelsblad, making these arguments. Reactions have been very mixed and also quite intense. The reaction of many is to say that this will worsen the socio-economic and legal position of those taking a PhD degree and is therefore a bad proposal. Yet I think it is clear that the real dispute is whether the research that the PhD-employees do is work that deserves a wage, or rather training that should be supported with a study grant. (Just to avoid misunderstandings: Our proposal would give PhD-students decent wage contracts for the research assistance or teaching which they would do).

An important argument against our proposal is that it may be impossible to get the best MA students pursue PhD-degrees if they no longer can do so as PhD-employees, but have to do so as PhD-students. If that were true, it could be a reason to go for the more expensive system. But that’s an empirical claim, for which I haven’t seen any evidence. And it still doesn’t solve the problem that they may have good working conditions while pursuing their degrees, but only a very small chance at staying in academia afterwards.

One striking observation is that those who emailed me to express support are generally scholars based in the Netherlands who got their degrees elsewhere, or who spent a long time abroad. So perhaps we Dutch academics take our PhD-system for granted, just like the Americans and the British take their system for granted?



Adam J Calhoun (neuroecology) 08.31.14 at 2:30 pm

As usual, the caveats apply that this is about *most* humanities PhDs but not science PhDs who do get paid. I am not sure what people who are doing humanities research consider themselves to be doing, but in Science I would not consider myself to be ‘pursuing a PhD’, per se. Rather: my job is to do research and a PhD is an accidental byproduct of that.


Chris Bertram 08.31.14 at 2:56 pm

Hmm, I’ve often recently found myself wishing we had the Dutch (or Scandinavian) system here in the UK. Very often, we have really good people who want to come and study for a PhD but who lose out in the competition for public funds and who can’t afford to self fund. We end up with a postgraduate population (whose members meet a minimum quality threshold) which is skewed towards people who can afford to pay for themselves. I wish I had “jobs” to offer to the most talented.


Abbe Faria 08.31.14 at 3:10 pm

Does this effect working conditions? Traditionally employment don’t give much autonomy; someone can tell you what to do, when and how, fix hours, move you between tasks. As a student requirements are mostly just handing in acceptable work by deadlines.


Abbe Faria 08.31.14 at 3:11 pm

Traditionally employment *contracts* don’t give much autonomy; someone can tell you what to do, when and how, fix hours, move you between tasks. As a student requirements are mostly just handing in acceptable work by deadlines.


nomen nescio 08.31.14 at 3:14 pm

The past few years the Netherlands is seeing a large influx of foreign students pursuing a Phd degree. Students rather have a guaranteed job for 4 years with possibility of degree than face 27% unemployment in Greece or other southern countries. I think this might also be detrimental to research quality.


David 08.31.14 at 3:19 pm

I don’t think the position in the U.S.A. is quite as you describe.

The contrast with the status of PhD-students in England and the US is quite big, where those who are pursuing a PhD-degree are students, pay (often significant) fees in order to get training and supervision, and if they do teaching or research assistance, they get either an additional contract or they are paid by the hour.

My understanding of the situation in the sciences is that most Ph.D.-student positions are “fully funded”–in other words, tuition exists conceptually, but is fully paid by the university, or by a professor’s research grant, and the student is also paid a (small) stipend to live on. Possibly the student has duties to perform (teaching or research assistantship).

One can be admitted without funding but this is considered far inferior and almost like not being admitted, and the general advice I have always heard is “do not go without being funded”.


Jon chambers 08.31.14 at 3:27 pm

As a phd student in the uk i frequently wish we had the employment contract system. For one thing, a major point you miss is that you actually have to pay to live – without being am employee you find yourself constantly chasing funding to the great detriment of your work. As for whether phds are doing real research or not – if they are not, then your phds programs are poorly thought out. As a rule phd students contribute significantly to work of labs and insitutes – everything from the core content of their theses, contributions to papers, to even just explaining how computers work to some of the more “traditonal” professors. Frankly given the amount of work i see done by phd students doing anything less than paying them as employees amounts to exploitation.
As for where contract work is less flexible, that is entirely between the student and staff to arrange, much like it might be in a startup company. I know of labs that dont care whether the employees are in the office or not so long ss what needs to get done is done when it is supposed to.


djr 08.31.14 at 3:29 pm

The government paying money to the universities that they then pay back to the government is surely a kind of book-keeping fiction? To increase the number of jobs in academia you’d have to convince the government to put the same amount of money in net that they now put in gross.


Ingrid Robeyns 08.31.14 at 3:56 pm

Chris, but if these really good people would lose out in the competition for funds, they could equally lose out in the competition for the projects that the professors have on offer. It’s not as if we have PhD-jobs on offer where the student can choose the content of the project: rather, professors apply for projects (which reflects their interests and expertise, generally) which, if awarded, will lead to PhD-job vacancies that than need to be filled. I know several very bright MA-students who would love to do a PhD but can’t get a job offer because what they want to do doesn’t sufficiently match with the content of the jobs that needs to be filled. This may, however, be a particular humanities/social sciences issue; I don’t know to what extent the natural sciences and medics PhD students care about the topic in on which they’re working.


tsts 08.31.14 at 3:56 pm

Interesting discussion. But at least in engineering and much of the sciences, the financial numbers are not really that different between the US and Europe. I am in Computer Science at a US school. Basically all PhD students in CS in the US at decent schools get more or less full support via scholarships and grants. Which costs about 50-60K per year, similar to the numbers in the Netherlands and Germany. Where the money goes is a little different: in the US about 20K of that money becomes tuition going to the university, and about 20-30K is stipend given to the students (our students get about 2.5K per month). I suspect in Europe slightly more goes to the student employee, but not a whole lot.

Now, the situation in other fields may be very different. History majors may be much better off financially in Europe, if they can get a position, which might be harder than getting into a PhD program in the US. And as far as I know, universities in Germany have become very creative in offering people half-positions or 2/3 of a position in order to spread the limited funds over more PhD candidates – if you have one of those you can just barely survive. I believe that in some fields, most people getting a PhD do not have a full position. Anyway, I think any real discussion has to go into particulars of different fields. And look at the number of people that are currently getting, or should get, PhDs in different fields.

Finally, another important aspect is mobility – my personal experience has been that the European approach tends to limit mobility as students for these positions are typically chosen from the graduating students at the same institution. Which may be partially because these positions come with very defined responsibilities, so professors like to hire people they already know and that may have already acquired the right set of skills during undergrad research. This also means a lot of potential talent is lost to academia if there is no exact match with a position currently open at their undergrad school.

I think you would find that in the US, most students do their PhD in a different school than their undergraduate degree, while in Europe the opposite is true. (Which was one motivation for the creation of the Graduiertenkollegs in Germany, to get people to move around.) And the whole issue is connected to the dominant role of specialized “institutes” rather than department in many European countries. Anyway, it’s complicated.


Ed 08.31.14 at 3:58 pm

This is far from my area of expertise, but my impression was that no one in their right mind pursued a PhD in the US without some sort of grant or scholarship from the school that paid for their living expenses, and that they all were required to teach or assist as part of the program. Again I could be wrong. So my impression is that they functionally are employees, but due to tradition or a scheme to get around employment laws everyone pretends they are students, though I can’t see how it is in the interest of the PhD candidates to keep up this pretense.

Who retains ownership of the dissertation, the PhD candidate or the university? Can the PhD candidate get the dissertation published elsewhere and earn royalties? Does the university press publish the dissertation and pay the PhD candidate royalties? Is there some sort of obligation to teach or assist in a lab? All of these are relevant questions.

Since the process ends in some sort of publishable paper, the implication is that its best to treat PhD candidates as employees working under s contract to deliver the paper, or to use a commercial publishing house model, would be best. Students should be people paying or paid for to receive instruction, which they can then use to somehow make their life better once they leave the academic system.


Ingrid Robeyns 08.31.14 at 4:02 pm

What I think is needless to say (though I may not have spelled that out in the post), is that if there were more money for universities in general, you could drop this discussion and increase the number of lectureships, thereby improving opportunities for those who got their PHD degrees and reducing workpressure-related stress for already-existing lecturers. But that’s a strategy that (a) has been advocated for years and which is highly unlikely to materialize in the Dutch situation, and (b) one can also ask whether, given the other needs in society, it would be a justified allocation of public funds, all things considered (for one thing, I am more worried about primary eduction where class sizes are too big, and for special needs education which is too often of poor quality, and for a totally invisible groups of disabled students who are not in school because they don’t fit any special needs school). But that’s a separate discussion: I have been assuming in the post that we can’t increase the total funds allocated to universities (as Roland and I also did in our piece in the newspaper).


djr 08.31.14 at 4:15 pm

If you’re going to have the same number of paid PhD places and some new lecturers then you have increased the total funds allocated to universities, you’ve just done it by taking the money out of the social security budget that got there via the universities budget.


tsts 08.31.14 at 4:18 pm

Ed — I think your claim about the US applies to engineering and the sciences, but not to the liberal arts where many students do not have scholarships. Now we can argue about whether these students are “in their right mind” — personally I think it is nuts to do a PhD without financial support — but this is the way it is.

As for the other issue about who owns the manuscript, this is usually a non-issue as there is no real monetary value in most research manuscripts. The important thing is authorship, not who gets non-existent royalties. Patents are a different and more interesting issue, but there is no general answer.


Ingrid Robeyns 08.31.14 at 4:23 pm

djr @ 13 – no, that’s not the case, it’s much cheaper for the university (and hence the government) to pay a PhD-student than a PhD-employee, since PhD-students are not entitled to pension benefits, paid holidays, paid maternity leave, and unemployment benefits. There’s dispute about the size of the savings, but not that it would lead to savings. And clearly the cost of this is that PhD students no longer have a right to all these benefits. The question on the table is whether they should have to have that right, or not, given the bigger picture.


djr 08.31.14 at 4:58 pm

Thanks Ingrid, that does clarify things. Forgive my ignorance about the Dutch social security system, but with things like pension and unemployment benefits, does that mean that those individuals are worst off (they get 4/40ths less pension 40 years later, or they don’t get benefits should they be unable to find a job when graduating) or does it just mean that there’s less money coming in to the system, in exchange for nominally not needing to cover someone who typically wouldn’t be a high drain on the social security system anyway (especially due to not being unemployed or a pensioner)?


gabe 08.31.14 at 5:01 pm

i know the us system (ucla) and have friends how got PhD in England (cambridge, kings clg) and all of those cases it works exactly as you describe for the phd-employee.

except that in america there is no worker benefit included because well there is none in the country anyway…

but in none of those cases the student paid for the PhD. and always had to teach. except the last year where the university pays him to write only.


G 08.31.14 at 5:46 pm

I’m confused as to where people are getting the idea that in the U.S., liberal arts students “pay” for their PhDs. Except for vanity degrees, we do not. The vast majority of decent PhD programs in the liberal arts (humanities, social sciences) are fully funded PhDs, paid for by a combination of fellowships, grants, and teaching assistantships. There isn’t some weird divide between the sciences and the humanities here in terms of paying/not paying for the PhD.

And I second jon chambers above: there is a reason grad students at private universities all over the U.S. are pushing to win “employee” status. Because we perform labor, teach, do research, all of which doesn’t get to count as labor because we live in a nebulous “professional student” status, which authorizes our exploitation without any recourse to basic claims of labor rights. It’s a predictable case of arbitrary domination in the workplace. That’s not even taking into consideration that labor in the U.S. is already a screwed up situation. At public universities, grad students are allowed to unionize, but as of now, the graduate students at NYU are the only ones at a private university to have won a voluntary recognition agreement from their administration.

Like Jon Chambers said above, the fact that PhD students are not also considered employees or paid as employees in the U.S. seems like a transparent case of exploitation.


G 08.31.14 at 6:01 pm

I might add: it’s very tiresome to hear condescending remarks from science PhD students, either in the U.S. or elsewhere, who seem to be clueless about what their humanities counterparts are doing, as if what we do isn’t labor, that we don’t consider it work, and that we don’t expect it to be valued accordingly. It would be nice if we could just ditch the caveats about the differences between the humanities and sciences and acknowledge that all graduate students do labor and many of us want it to be viewed as much.


Ed 08.31.14 at 6:46 pm

As some of the other commentators alluded to, the reason graduate student workers in the US have it bad is that workers in general in the US have it bad. Its not really something particular to universities, though the situation bears comparison to that of “student athletes”.

That said, I think organization and agitation to counter the exploitation of graduate students is a good idea. The caveat is that you will run into the “but you have things so much better than (exploited group x)” argument.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would require that all work other than household work and community/ church/ school volunteer stuff be covered by contracts that spell out what work is required, what the compensation would be and when it would be delivered, what would violate the contract, and how either party could get out of the contract, with legal restrictions on what could go into the contract. Among other things, requiring customers to perform renumerative work for the organizations they are purchasing services from would be out. Compensation to be paid in cash within two weeks of whatever services were performed.


Eric Titus 08.31.14 at 6:49 pm

As a current graduate student, it’s hard not to find this objectionable!
You suggest that graduate students shouldn’t get paid maternity leave. In the US maternity leave is more a dream than a reality, but why shouldn’t grad students get it? It’s not as though grad students are so financially stable that they can handle a few months without pay. Other benefits such as paid holidays are harder to translate into the graduate experience. But I wonder if eliminating holidays would really translate into high cost savings.

Flipping this on its head, why should professors be considered ‘employees’ for their research while graduate students shouldn’t? It’s not as though professors are doing radically different work–as you point out, graduate students are often doing professor’s research projects for them (at a significantly lower cost). In the US, once coursework is over graduate students basically cost their depts $20/hr + administrative costs. Your argument seems to be that the university should look for cost savings in the graduate population, which is already fairly inexpensive and low-status.


Barry 08.31.14 at 8:43 pm

djr 08.31.14 at 3:29 pm
“The government paying money to the universities that they then pay back to the government is surely a kind of book-keeping fiction? To increase the number of jobs in academia you’d have to convince the government to put the same amount of money in net that they now put in gross.”

That’s how universities do it internally. Grad student teaches classes and gets their tuition funded, for taking classes which wouldn’t exists without those same grad students. The University will ‘charge’ 10K US$ on up per semester, but if the grad students actually had to pay that, those classes would be empty.

This was pointed out on Invisible Adjust a while back, with the obvious conclusion that when universities talk about TA’s being expensive, they are lying.


Barry 08.31.14 at 8:45 pm

And I second the fact that grad students in the USA are in a tricky position, because the universities refuse to call them employees, and so won’t recognize any legal protections due to employees. ‘It’s not a job, it’s a relationship’ (where the obligations are hugely on the students’ side, especially if the university wants to get rid of troublemakers).


js. 08.31.14 at 8:56 pm

The vast majority of decent PhD programs in the liberal arts (humanities, social sciences) are fully funded PhDs, paid for by a combination of fellowships, grants, and teaching assistantships.

I was going to mention exactly this, but I see that G has it covered. One thing to add is that in teaching fellowships/assistantships, the tuition is simply waived (at least in my experience). It’s my understanding that the university still manages to come out ahead, financially, because given the relevant pay scales, grad students provide a source of exceptionally cheap labor for universities.


Merian 08.31.14 at 10:04 pm

I think I’m going to mostly disagree with your position. Not 100%, but largely. Background: I got my original degree in Germany (I’m German) in the 90s in a very mathematical scientific field, then had an unsuccessful time as a PhD student in France, where cluelessness about what I was doing and bad choice of host lab and advisor led to my dropping out, then taught a while, finally getting a career in computing. After getting a job at a US public university, science called again, and I am now, after some solid private sector experiences, back about half-way through a PhD program in a different science field.

A few aspects relevant to your text. I’ll call the group of people “PhD-seeking researchers”, to cover both the student and the researcher/employee aspect.
1. I believe that being considered an employee first is the appropriate status for a PhD-seeking researcher. Yes, an employee who will spend substantial time learning, but from the level of professional maturity is, or should be, that of someone who has attained a qualification *already*. In a German Doktorandenstelle, and in the Research Assistantship that finances my stipend, this works out to a part-time (20h/week eg.) job, paid as such.
2. Treating the PhD-seeking researcher as an employee first clarifies expectations for the individual. Where I am right now, complaints by graduate students about being students when it suits the administration (eg, absence of benefits) and employees when THIS suits the administration (eg, for obligations of presence in the office and discipline) are common.
3. My dual status as a graduate student an as a research or potentially teaching assistant (employee) is a source of no end of hassle. For example, I managed to attract myself the fellowship that funds most of my post, though it is (by rules of the granting instutution [NASA]) in the name of my PhD advisor. A second, smaller, grant, is in my name in the instution’s grant management system. Neither completely covers my tuition, which leads to odd financial scrambling every single semester. I’m sure larger universities with better higher quality of managing their graduate students this sort of thing may be hidden from the individual, but even so tales are common where a PI goes to a graduate student 2 months before the end of a semester to announce that money has run out. This can have dramatic impacts on the PhD-seeking researcher that are entirely undeserved and leave them in substantially worse positions than scuffles in private employment at similar levels.
4. It is true that the habitus of a PhD-seeking researcher is an odd one. Somewhat of an apprentice, but an apprentice into the community of people who work (research, but not only) at the current state-of-the-art of one’s chosen field. Note that I don’t think that freshly minted PhD should go into academia by default. In some fields (network security, power systems engineering, many flavours of geology, chemistry) this sort of research is done to a large extent in private companies anyway. For myself, academia is not the most realistic of future options, either. The above doesn’t contradict preparing PhDs for a future that may well be outside academia.
5. Your main argument seems to be that the system is too expensive. Maybe. But I wonder, too expensive for whom and why? Is it the general lament of vanishing funds for public education? In which case I think there needs to be a little more resistance as this comes down to: corporations want to keep more of the profits for themselves and in general distribution towards the top 1-10% is the flavour of the day. I think it’s pernicious to give in willingly in the game to impoverish oneself.
6. Your other argument seems to be that the PhD-seeking researcher has less of an opportunity to define the topic themselves. Maybe. Maybe that could be fixed with attaching some of the positions to meritorious new graduates, who then can take them where they want, instead of the PIs. Also, it’s often not a bad idea to insert newly graduated apprentice researchers into existing research programmes. In retrospect, when I decided to go for a PhD on my old days, I wish I had thought about it from the angle of “I want to do a PhD — who has an open job and could fund me?” instead of just going along what one of my professors said (“your work on X is very interesting — have you thought about pursuing a PhD? I can’t fund you but we could attract soft money for the project…”). I’m doing well now, but it took me a long time to define the project because, frankly, I had no experience yet in the field. I see those of my peers who get funded under a large NSF grant, for example, getting done much of that work by the general thrust of the overarching project. I think if you want to be in research long-term, the post-doc time is just right to really fly with your own wings.


Merian 08.31.14 at 10:19 pm

The above is already long, and I didn’t see the updates that have come in since. The upshot of what I’d like to add is that a PhD-seeking researcher is a qualified professional who is doing valuable work. (In addition to contributing research, where I sit, some teach undergraduates, some assist their PIs in general ways, some do outreach to community/local schools, and I for example am going to run an aerial survey for the US Fish and Wildilfe service — something I’m not specifically paid for, and doesn’t contribute to my thesis, but I’m getting marketable experience out of it, and consider I should be part of my justification for being paid.) Why they shouldn’t be getting pension contributions, maternity benefits and paid leave (neither of which I’m officially getting; the latter is considered a matter between me and my PI), completely escapes me.

One last aspect is that the policy you describe may serve to limit the number of PhDs. Now whether this is a bad think depends on absolute numbers, but I’m not convinced that it is a bad thing. Currently, many PhD-seeking researchers feel somewhat exploited by the day-to-day running of a lot of large programs depending on them, at low pay, and frankly the record-keeping and stuff like software and data management that I see suffers, being run as it is by inexperienced apprentices who keep re-inventing the same wheels. A structure where academic PIs (tenured and tenure track, and then there’s the rat’s hole of non-tenure-track research professors) lead teams composed of not only PhD-seekers and maybe a postdoc, but also professional research staff, might be a lot saner AND provide jobs for graduates of the upper-level programs.


adam.smith 09.01.14 at 3:43 am

But I think the argument for those types of rights is quite strong. Do we really keep, for example, paid maternity leave from people who are often in their late 20s/early thirties? Is it a good idea to have them fall back to minimum welfare payments if they do end up unemployed after their PhD? I’m not sure what the case is for that.
I benefited greatly from a lot of the things that US PhD programs do right–access to a broader range of faculty, lots of freedom to choose a topic, etc. But I don’t see how that would have been affected by a different employment status (though, of course, in the US the rights that come with that are significantly fewer).

But even if we grant this case–while no doubt there are saving for the universities, I do suspect with djr and others that much of this is a bookkeeping trick. So, for example, I’d assume that there are, in fact, very few unemployed PhDs, so their (and their employers) contributions to unemployment insurance would for the most part just be lost to the unemployment insurance if you take away their employee status. I suspect the same is true for pensions, since most of them are going to qualify for full pensions once they’re at retirement age. So a lot of this “saved” money will just be missing at other points of the welfare state. You could make a political argument that it’s easier to get it back there, but that seems quite fishy.


Enzo Rossi 09.01.14 at 7:52 am

I’m just learning the ropes of the Dutch system so I may be wrong about the details, but it seems to me that part of the problem has to do with the financial incentives for hiring PhD fellows as opposed to postdocs (salaries and teaching duties are almost the same, but the University gets a significant grant for each successful PhD defence). Regardless of pay and conditions, overproducing PhDs is not in the interest of academics, or only myopically so (reserve army of the unemployed and all that). Besides, when writing up a grant application I’d rather put in for a postdoc rather than a PhD: less of a gamble. But financially it doesn’t make sense because of the PhD completion grant. Why does the government want us to produce so many PhDs? Is it because they are effective in scientific research and can perform relatively menial tasks that postdocs would be too qualified to carry out? I’ve no idea.

Going back to the original topic, I guess I’m saying that it’s good to offer good conditions to PhD students, but I agree that too much money is spent on those fellowships at the moment. One way to reduce the expense without shredding labour entitlements could be to drastically reduce the number of PhD positions and spend the money on postdocs and temporary lectureships.


Ingrid Robeyns 09.01.14 at 7:56 am

gabe @17: but the question is whether they got a *scholarship* or a *labour contract*. I did my PhD in the humanities/social sciences in Cambridge, and most students had scholarships, but no-one had a labour contract. That makes a big difference to how much a PhD position costs the university/government. And basically my claim is that, given the overall situation, and in a context in which attempts/activism over many years to increase funds for academia in general have lead to no result, we should consider reallocating those funds. Given the differences in the type of ‘work’ PhD students and staff do, and the poor prospects for PhD students, I believe we should consider reallocating the money.

BUT: one could also argue, as some have done, that we need to simply limit the number of PhD students. One line of argument goes that we have way too many PhD students, and if we were to have fewer, than (a) their prospects for an academic job would automatically increase, and (b) much money could be saved that could be reallocated to other places in academia. But I am uncomfortable with this proposal, since I know several MA students who see it as a calling to do a PhD, and how can we *forbid* them to do a PHD? So, this leads to scenario 3: to have a very limited number of PhD-jobs, and then whoever else wants to do a PHD can do so, but on their own funds (that is, in effect, the system we’re having right now). But this creates inequalities among PHD students. All systems seem to have disadvantages…


Ingrid Robeyns 09.01.14 at 8:14 am

Enzo (@28) refers to another peculiar system of the Dutch PhD structure, which is that part of the overall funding to universities are divided according to the number of PhD students that graduate (the infamous “promotiepremie”). I’ve left this out of the discussion since (a) everyone agrees that this provides very bad incentives and (b) abolishing this wouldn’t generate additional funds: these funds already go to the university in a non-earmarked way, the only thing that would change is to make it independent of the number of PhD degrees a university delivers.
it is relevant to the present discussion in so far that it provides strong incentives to try to get as many PHD students as you can, and also a very strong incentive to let them graduate: there are reasons to believe that this harms the quality of the research (since the incentive is to pass as many PhD degrees as possible, also some where there may be doubts).


Collin Street 09.01.14 at 8:19 am

I did an apprenticeship.


maidhc 09.01.14 at 9:57 am

When I pursued a PhD at a US university some decades ago, I worked either as an RA or a TA. I got a tuition waiver and enough money to live a spartan but tolerable existence. At that time humanities students got much the same deal, except they were more likely to be TAs rather than RAs.

Currently my stepson is pursuing a science PhD at a well-known US university. He has about the same setup as I had in my day.

If you can look forward to getting a reasonable job when you graduate, I think it is an OK system. Being an impoverished grad student is kind of a rite of passage, and all your friends will be in the same situation, so you learn to get by. Then you have lots of stories about how tough you had it to bore your offspring with in later years.

The problem nowadays is that that decent job after you graduate may not be so easy to find. You may end up on the adjunct treadmill or similarly underemployed.


George 09.01.14 at 10:16 am

I believe that it’s the universities’ attitude toward teaching that is problematic, rather than the system of funding PhD candidates. Universities could allocate more funds to teaching staff, and less to hire PhD employees. But that’s decreasing universities’ publication output and, hence, their citation counts. We, in the Netherlands, sometimes tend to forget that education is the most important societal function of a university, and the reason why so much public funds are spent on universities.
I also believe that disqualifying the system of PhD-employees in a public debate will never convince policy makers to spend more money on lecturers. Probably, a more positive attitude toward the benefits of intensive teaching will yield more favorable results.


rwschnetler 09.01.14 at 11:47 am

Somebody at HN linked to this post:


Joshua W. Burton 09.01.14 at 3:20 pm

Chris Bertram @2:

Very often, we have really good people who want to come and study for a PhD but who lose out in the competition for public funds and who can’t afford to self fund. We end up with a postgraduate population (whose members meet a minimum quality threshold) which is skewed towards people who can afford to pay for themselves. I wish I had “jobs” to offer to the most talented.

Whereas, at the other end of the rainbow, tenured positions are offered to the most talented and not skewed toward people who can afford to self-fund. The contrast suggests an agency problem; if graduate students were running the system, many of them would be willing to be supervised by a more numerous and less financially secure faculty, and to later compete to join that faculty.

Daniel Davies made a modest proposal many years ago, arguing some clear benefits of a tenure system like this. Chris would (consistently) oppose a culture of self-funded “gentleman scholars” at both the predoctoral and faculty levels, but it’s illuminating that this is a live issue in the former case, and a mere whimsical dig in the latter.


Barry 09.01.14 at 4:01 pm

“Whereas, at the other end of the rainbow, tenured positions are offered to the most talented and not skewed toward people who can afford to self-fund. “

No. In many fields, if you don’t pull in the grants, you aren’t getting tenured.


Zamfir 09.01.14 at 4:27 pm

I had some friends doing PhDs in Leiden, where their university department tried to reduce pay for PhDs as much as they could.

For example, they would hire people for a ‘part time’ PhD for 4 days per week, so the PhD would take 5 years instead of 4. Naturally, the workload was not adjusted and people were expected to work the same hours, just for 5 years at 80% pay. And theses would generally be considered insufficient at the end of the 5 years,an extra half-year without pay was an unspoken part of the deal.

PhDs were quite aware of this, and considered it an unavoidable aspect of doing a PhD in a field wihout much funding.

Thing is, I never heard anyone say that the saved money would go to fund more postdocs and lecturers. The claim was the money was used to create more PhDs position than would be possible otherwise. Which makes sense, also for Ingrid’s proposal to create PhD positions without benefits. If PhDs become cheaper, it becomes attractive for instituions to get more of them, and cut back on the more expensive positions

Even if an instutution starts out with the aim to create more downstream positions, I am not sure they can keep that aim under pressure. Once the budget starts to bite, there must be a tremendous temptation to reverse the policy of downstream jobs.


TM 09.01.14 at 4:45 pm

I have always found it grotesque to regard a researcher pursuing a PhD as a “student”, after having already spent close to 20 years of their lives studying and earning degrees. The requirement to pay tuition, even though in many cases (but by no means always) only hypothetical, seems offensive. I always wondered what it does to people to be assigned such an inferior status for so long in their lives. Add to that that I have heard an Anthropology professor explain that in her field, a PhD typically takes no less than 8-10 years. WTF??? And yes, some PhD students need a lot of work from the supervisor but then, if after studying for almost 20 years they are still mentally students, maybe they shouldn’t pursue an academic career after all.

The other remark I would make is that there are way too many PhD “students”, certainly in the US. It is absurd to find it normal that a single professor cranks out new PhDs, factory-like, by the dozen a year. What academic positions are all these PhD’s gonna pursue – the one (1) that will open once their supervisor retires? And the reason is money – departments make money from graduate “students” and have strong incentives to pull in as many as possible. And I also know of Universities that explicitly pursue a higher graduate to undergraduate student ration. Why? Because on some of those arbitrary rankings (News of the World or The Onion, whatever), that ratio is used as a criterion for ranking Universities. Follow the money, as always. These decisions, affecting the lives of so many young people, are made not based on what makes sense academically but on what some idiotic University ranking tells Provosts to do.


Joshua W. Burton 09.01.14 at 4:54 pm

No. In many fields, if you don’t pull in the grants, you aren’t getting tenured.

A quibble, at least where grants are peer-reviewed. (I suppose the “gentleman scholar” category could be extended to researchers who come in with a bespoke corporate grant where the PI was chosen opaquely, but that’s a rare and broadly despised corner case.)


TM 09.01.14 at 5:00 pm

Btw, to add more injury to insult, even post-docs sometimes have the status of students. Seriously! Highly qualified and specialized professionals who have gone through way more than 20 years of schooling – and still “in school”, huh? (*) I don’t know whether anybody has researched this but this has to have some effect on people’s self-esteem doesn’t it?

(*) I realize this may be cultural prejudice on my part. I also resist calling a University “school” because in my cultural universe, school is where children learn, not where grownups study. But then, in a US University, students, even grad students, are as a matter of fact not regarded or treated as grownups – they are “kids”, subject to “homework” and curfews and all kinds of regulation continental students would never find tolerable.


Merian 09.01.14 at 5:37 pm

Joshua W Burton, @35: “if graduate students were running the system, many of them would be willing to be supervised by a more numerous and less financially secure faculty, and to later compete to join that faculty.”

This may be true but it doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea for the graduate students. Where I am, substantial numbers of faculty are non-tenure-track — not adjunct but research professors, who basically attract grants that fund their salaries, with some redistribution built into the system. This system has attractions for early career researchers and also many downsides that would need to be carefully managed, but in practice aren’t. The most salient one is the wall between academic faculty (involved in teaching and service, in addition to research) and research faculty (no teaching, very little to no service, all research) for such things as offering courses and advising students. My main advisor is in this situation, and he is uncomfortably (to me) aware that none of the tuition that is being paid into the university’s tuition pot under my name goes towards his salary. Most of that tuition is not for coursework, after all, but for “thesis advising”. Some research faculty set their eyes on a tenure track position, get it, and get into that (those that succeed tend to be pretty good professors, for research, teaching and advising). Others do extremely applied stuff, basically highly specialized scientific consulting to government and industry. They lack power and experience advising, and are explicitly discouraged from acquiring it.

” tenured positions are offered to the most talented and not skewed toward people who can afford to self-fund” — I’m still unsure if this was meant straight or ironically. Obviously people who are as early career researchers able to self-fund some small part of their research life (such as, can afford not to take a summer-school teaching appointment, self-fund conference participation and part of publication fees) have a small advantage in getting themselves into the right positions.


G 09.01.14 at 6:38 pm


But then, in a US University, students, even grad students, are as a matter of fact not regarded or treated as grownups – they are “kids”, subject to “homework” and curfews and all kinds of regulation continental students would never find tolerable.”

Um, no.

More to the point: @29, 30:
It seems deplorable that the approach is to first ask, “given how much money universities have right now, should graduate student workers be considered workers?”

Because we could say, oh I dunno, “oh, look, graduate students are also workers (funny, those two aren’t mutually exclusive!), are working hard to insist on their status as workers, but isn’t it really screwed up that rather than giving them *already anemic* labor rights, we should adjudicate whether their labor counts as such on the basis of available funds, independently of the fact *that they do work*?”

I agree with the many commentators above that it’s hard not to find this conversation deeply objectionable. Open to an explanation on why it’s not, though
[sorry of this comment is a re-post. something went awry with the first one.]


Merian 09.01.14 at 7:24 pm

Yes, G @43 brings it to the point: It’s a problem to me that basically a left-wing blog (I know, one blogger speaking for herself) of established academics (mostly) suggests to push PhD-seeking researchers into precarious employment as an answer to limited funds for higher education and research.

(Also, I’m still intrigued by the numbers. 70,000 EUR vs. 200,000 EUR looks extreme. The comparison should not be with the 280 kEUR as obviously overhead and material would apply to everyone, whatever their pay arrangements or lack thereof. I’m familiar with a factor of 2 between net salary and cost-to-the-employer, that is, payroll taxes and state-mandated social security payments such as health insurance, pension, disability, and whatever else is mandated, but not a factor of 3. Also, how would the student’s health insurance be funded if they were only given a stipend?)


TM 09.01.14 at 7:37 pm

42: May I ask on what grounds you disagree with my statement, or perhaps which part of it you disagree with?


Paul 09.01.14 at 8:05 pm

Any field should recruit the number of staff it needs, and treat those staff, junior and senior, with appropriate respect (and reward them with appropriate benefits). Academia feeds off a surplus of under-renumerated PhDs who additionally have poor long term career prospects (I should note that I’m a scientist, so my experience is not strictly comparable, but I think the main difference is that in science it’s relatively easy for PhDs to move onto post-doctoral positions for a few years – but there’s still a big bottleneck to getting permanent jobs. As someone running a group, I do feel uncomfortable about being the right side of the bottleneck, and earning my living off those the other side. But at least the post-docs get paid. As a Ph.D student (on a very small grant), I had the same work and the same career insecurity, but no compensation. Trading worse early career conditions for better longer term odds seems like a zero sum game at best, and probably something worse (given the powers that be would likely take any savings and cash them in elsewhere).

Part of the problem here is “people who consider it their calling to do a Ph.D.” On one hand, this should be part of the benefit of becoming an affluent, robotised society – people with free time on their hands choosing it to study. But this is a privelege you would pay for, just as you pay to play football at your local club. It can’t be your calling – your entitlement – to a track to a professorship, any more than its the calling of an amateur footballer to play for Man Utd. But, in any career that people positively want to do, the surplus of applicants is going to drive down rewards for all but an elite. My friends in engineering got better starting conditions and better long term odds of a permanent job than anyone in academia, even though the salaries of the salaries of experienced staff are not in fact especially high (well, not if you ignore those who work for big oil). But there’s not the same market-depressing glut at the lower end.

An interesting thought – someone once told me that they considered the problem with acedemic careers was not so much the absence of permanent jobs but the presence of them – the set up of a competition that you either win or lose, whereby at a certain age, you’re either effectively certified an academic or kicked from the groves. That one could live with temporary funding (in exchange for the chance to do research for a living) but what’s rotten with the system is the caste structure and the differential level of privelege therein. A system where PhD’s have proper salaries at least has one tier removed.


adam.smith 09.01.14 at 8:10 pm

42: May I ask on what grounds you disagree with my statement, or perhaps which part of it you disagree with?

yeah, curious about that, too. In my experience, the degree to which “College kids” are treated as “kids” rather than young adults is one of the most consistent observation among European academics coming to the US and I find it odd even after many years here. I would add sending letters to parents to the list. (Curfews are admittedly quite rare and mostly limited to religious schools, though).


John Quiggin 09.01.14 at 10:42 pm

G @19 I’ve read this kind of thing a lot, not from condescending scientists but from current and former humanities grad students, advising others against this path, eg here

Are there any stats on the proportion of humanities grad students who get tuition waivers and stipends? Certainly, it’s good advice not to go to grad school unless you get both: their absence is both a major financial problem and a signal of low confidence in you from the school.


js. 09.01.14 at 11:00 pm

JQ @47:

As far as I can tell, there’s nothing in that Chronicle article about having to pay for a humanities PhD. This is seriously unheard of. (The author mentions debt, but I wouldn’t be shocked if that’s for living expenses/running out of funding for a year or so towards the end, which can happen.) But as dumb as it might be to get a PhD in Philosophy or English under current conditions, I can’t imagine that anyone would be dumb enough to do so if they actually had to pay for it!


G 09.01.14 at 11:36 pm

@John Quiggin, 47:

Are you thinking of this line?

“If you take that path, you will be starting at the bottom in your 30s, a decade behind your age cohort, with no savings (and probably a lot of debt).”

What the author means here (I’m guessing from context clues) is debt accumulated *before* graduate school which hasn’t been paid off. So yes, you’d be beginning your 30s with debt, but it’s not from the PhD. It’s from your BA. As js. said @48, the idea that liberal arts PhDs in the U.S. accumulate debt from getting their degree is virtually unheard of. That’s simply not true. PhDs in the U.S, whether arts, science, humanities, whatever–at any decent institution that most anyone has heard of, we get paid a stipend, tuition waiver, and oftentimes healthcare. (Caveat: this is not true of “professional” degrees, like an M.D. or a J.D. But then again, those aren’t generally considered to be “graduate school” in the U.S. They’re professional, not research degrees. Different ball game.) A few schools will offer “unfunded” spots, but those are vanity degrees. They are, by custom and tacit knowledge shared by most everyone, identical with rejections. I know of nobody who has done that.

@46, 44: Sorry I know I was terse. I wasn’t disagreeing that undergrads are sometimes treated as kids in the U.S. I was objecting to the idea that most undergrads live under such things like curfews, subject to vague “regulations which continental students would never find tolerable.” I simply don’t know what regulations you are talking about. My undergraduate students act like kids–they’re immature, of course they do. But they do what they like… as, I imagine, most college students do who can afford to do so.

And the idea that American graduate students live under these un-grown-up regulations is preposterous (“even graduate students,” as TM writes). That kind of statement sounds like flip, ungrounded cultural generalization. The only universities I know that even approximate what you describe are religious universities. Graduate students generally do not live on campus, and as this may surprise a few folks here–they have functional, adult lives, do adult things, labor, pay bills, fret about their professional futures, their work relations, struggle to balance work-life issues, struggle to find extra funding to support their kids when applicable, and all the fun “grown-up” activities our continental counterparts are apparently so good at doing habitually. And, conversely, color me skeptical that European college students are so “grown up” by contrast.

It sounds a lot like cultural condescension masquerading as hand-wavy sociological analysis.


TM 09.02.14 at 12:31 am

I concede I exaggerated a bit but it is true that US college studies are far more regulated than their continental European equivalent (both academically and in general), even without curfews.

Grad students aren’t generally subject to the same regulations but even they are frequently referred to as “kids”. I didn’t mean to suggest that they don’t behave as adults, quite to the contrary – I made the point that grownup, highly qualified professionals, many of whom have children, are still relegated to “student” status, still in a relationship of extreme dependance and economic precarity.


js. 09.02.14 at 2:10 am

US college studies [sic?] are far more regulated than their continental European equivalent (both academically and in general)

Can you actually give some specific examples of this? Because I am also a little bit puzzled by this. I mean, I don’t doubt that there’s somewhat more hand-holding in US colleges and universities than in Europe (tho it varies a lot on the type of institution—a private liberal arts college is going to be quite different in this regard than a large state school, e.g.), but I suspect that it’s really easy to exaggerate the differences here.

On other thing: typically, how old are the students entering university in Europe? Of course, I expect there to be national differences, but from my limited experience in Germany, I have a sense they tend to be a couple of years older, say 20-ish vs. 18-ish. I may be wrong about this, but if not, that makes a big difference because at that age, two years is significant (especially if, e.g., one’s spent a year or so out of school post high school).


Carl D 09.02.14 at 9:26 am

In some countries, we have moved away from PhDs funded by various scholarships, and instead made it a a fixed employment. then the PhD hets a decent pay, gets social benefits like sick leave pay, and pension, and the right to maternal leave etc. this allows the PhDs to live a “normal” life, and can help stop the ‘exploitation’ of PhDs (esp those from Asia, who are at the mercy of the professor in some cases). it also stops the mergence of ‘shadow PhDs’, which is people who research while on temporary pay, grants etc., hoping to get a PhD position eventually. the problem is that its more difficult to hire a PhD as the university must in principle guarantee 4 years of funding (incl taxes and social fees etc.), which may mean that fewer people get the chance to get into research. In my view, a PhD should be minimum 5 years and include teaching and involvment in projects work, and ideally interactions through projects where they eet actors outside universities (municiplaities etc.) to avoid having a 23 year old PhD witj little knowledge of real life. but that is just my opinion.


Damien 09.02.14 at 5:13 pm

I did my PhD in Belgium, which has a similar system as the original post notes. My understanding is that, here, universities did not just stumble into this system but that it was pressure from PhD-grant recipients and their union reps that made it possible. So I share G@42’s and Merian@43’s surprise that a left-wing blog is seriously considering making life more difficult for people who already hold precarious jobs, in order to supposedly benefit the organization that employs them and its “customers”. But that’s too often true in academia, which, puzzlingly enough, has both the highest concentration of leftists and one of the most exploitative, winner-takes-all labor structures.

It’s funny how unions are fighting to prevent fixed-term employment from becoming the norm, and we’re here arguing that, really, we need less protections for workers and less stability, because OUR industry has special needs. But why stop there? Is it not the same reasoning that has led to a massive shift away from tenure and toward non-permanent contracts in the civil service? Is it not the same reasoning that leads private companies to argue for employer-friendly labor market reforms?


Linnaeus 09.02.14 at 6:28 pm

As js. said @48, the idea that liberal arts PhDs in the U.S. accumulate debt from getting their degree is virtually unheard of. That’s simply not true.

I’d question that and would like to see some statistics on this. I know multiple PhD students in my program that have at least some debt. I myself have, ahem, quite a bit. Of course, I could just be an outlier.


TM 09.02.14 at 8:46 pm

js. 51. First your question about age: German Gymnasium used to go up to grade 13 so you are correct, students entering University would be slightly older than in the US. In addition there used to be compulsory service for males, now abolished. Now most states have abolished grade 13 (to become more competitive blah blah) although some are regretting that decision.

The level of reglementation at US colleges is is really enormous for somebody used to the German system and this applies to many aspects of student life. It is however understandable that if you are used to the US system, you may not notice it as much in your daily life. A huge difference is that German students do not live on campus and even if they live in a student Wohnheim, its administration would be separate from University. There is no campus police, no “dean of students”, J-Board and so on. The University admin doesn’t reach into students’ lives as it does here; again, this may be a question of perspective – it may not seem intrusive if you are used to it.

The way of studying is very different. There is usually no attendance control, no formal signing up or dropping of classes, no “homework”, very few limits on what classes can or must be taken. University is much less structured. On the flip side, there is much less support, less access to instructors, tutors and so on. In my time, basically the Uni didn’t care. Whether I passed the exam was nobody’s problem but mine. US College resembles much more German upper level Gymnasium (Kollegstufe) than University. The Kollegstufe also shares the goal of a diverse, well-rounded education whereas University is specialized. These impressions are dated however – with the introduction of the bachelor, things have changed quite a bit.

US College resembles a (mostly benevolent) patriarch – it houses, feeds, educates the student, gives them rules, disciplines them or shows leniency – some colleges are quite flexible with alcohol rules for example (which obviously they don’t have in Europe) but I also know of a student who was busted for mushrooms (imagine that!) and basically the next day the University kicked him out. He wasn’t even on campus and it had nothing to do with the Uni but they can do that – it’s solely up to the admin – and forget about “presumption of innocence”.


Hix 09.02.14 at 8:59 pm

Im not sure the workdrones german society produces should be considered more grown up, but they definitly do on average function much better according to expectations without supervision. American exchange students do tend to face a lot more problems adjusting than most other countries of origion. German culture is a pretty extreme outliner, expecting massive intrinsic control from everyone, not just students. However the us is not on the other end of the spectrum, so there might be something specific about us college, or alcohol regulations maybe.


adam.smith 09.02.14 at 11:52 pm

js @51 – basically I’d agree with what TM writes, though the degree of independence expected of German students they describe has decreased significantly, mostly as a result of a switch to the BA/MA system.
But to give you some specific examples:
PSU, for example has this to say about off-campus offenses by students:

There are many circumstances where the off-campus behavior of students affects a Substantial University Interest and warrants disciplinary action. … Student conduct committed off the campus which affects a Substantial University Interest is conduct which:
– Constitutes a violation of local, state or federal law, including repeat violations of any local, state or federal law committed in the municipality where the University is located;

So, e.g. getting drunk on the street in College Park is something that the university can punish its students for. German universities did use to do that (and in a much more drastic fashion–there are beautiful student prison you should go visit in places like Tuebingen, Freiburg, or Heidelberg), but it’s unthinkable today. If the police breaks up an off-campus party and arrests 25 people, in the US there would be no end to the letters from the rector, Dean of Students, etc. in the US. In Germany, the university would ignore it.
Related to the on-campus, university housing that TM rightly mentions (which also includes Greek life, heavily regulated by universities) is also the common requirement for students to live in said campus housing, at least during the first year of their studies. Again–absolutely unthinkable in Germany.

(FWIW, I agree with G @49 that this does not apply in any way to graduate students. While a graduate student in the US, I did field work in Germany and hung out with the graduate students at my host institution and there really wasn’t much of a difference at that level).


js. 09.03.14 at 12:59 am

Re TM @55 and adam.smith @57:

Yes, there are some very significant differences, but I don’t think they are as stark as portrayed @55 esp., and some of the points raised there also seem irrelevant to whether US colleges & universities infantilize students (which was the original claim). I won’t cover everything, but a few points:

1. Of course tons of students live in Wohnheime (Wohnheimen? Sorry, my German’s really rusty). I lived in one, and mostly everyone I lived with was German. Is it true that a greater percentage of US students live in dorms? Probably. But the idea that “don’t live in” what is effectively university housing is just not true. Note also that there are tons of “commuter colleges” (not scare quotes, just what they’re called) in the US where almost no one lives in university housing. (At the other extreme, a small private liberal arts college is going to seem radically different from the German system. But in that case, a very particular kind of cloistered existence is a large part of what they’re selling.)

And Greek life strikes me as a completely separate issue; I also avoided it was like the plague when I was in college, so I’m not sure what to say about it. I’m all about it ceasing to exist though. I’ll give you that it’s heavily regulated (it probably should be), but note that no one’s required to take part in it (leaving aside social pressures).

2. As for alcohol/drugs: yes, it’s a problem, but it’s not a problem with colleges in the US. You can’t drink until you’re 21, you can’t drink on the street or in a park, etc., etc. This is just normal regulation of citizens in the country. Universities just regulate their students in the same way. In my experience, there’s really no issue with drinking on campus if you’re of legal drinking age. (And honestly, there’s not that much of an issue if you’re not of legal drinking age. It’s not exactly as if college students in the US don’t get drunk!)

Speaking of which, exactly how likely is it that a police officer in Germany is going to arrest 25 people after breaking up a party? Maybe it’s likely , and my sense of this is totally wrong. It just still seems to me that policing of alcohol and drug consumption is not a problem that colleges have—it’s a problem that the US has.

There is usually no attendance control, no formal signing up or dropping of classes, no “homework”, very few limits on what classes can or must be taken.

The point about attendance is well taken, but the rest of this strikes me as deeply weird. There are no, umm, assignments? People don’t have to read shit for class? This wasn’t really my experience in Germany. Maybe the nature of the assignments seems more infantilizing in the US—more short papers/exams, etc.—but still, there’re various kinds of work and evaluation that are required in Germany, or really anywhere. As for required courses: yes, there’s a major structural difference there, but I’m not convinced that the US model is infantilizing, whether in intent or in effect. There’s a particular model of what a liberal arts education should accomplish that in good part informs the requirements, and I would want to see an argument for why that’s infantilizing.

Yikes! This is already very long. I’ll stop here.


G 09.03.14 at 1:04 am

@TM, 50: That’s really clarifying, thanks. I’m aware there are differences (as you mention, meal plans, on-campus housing is a good example, although as some folks mentioned, even these things vary wildly from university to university). My guess is that the rule of thumb is: the wealthier the school, the more regimented it is.

For those who ask: I can’t find statistics off the bat about funded humanities PhDs. But this Atlantic article at least includes many submitted statements which lend credence to the claim that it’s well known that “Most Ph.D. programs in the humanities don’t cost the student a dime” (as one contributor put it).

As far as I know, that’s just common knowledge here in the U.S. At the risk of sounding outrageously elitist, the only “notable” schools, off the top of my head, which do *not* automatically fund their PhD students are The New School and CUNY Graduate Center–although I’ve heard the latter has been working to change that in the last 2-3 years. The New School is a peculiar exception: it mostly caters to internationals with funding from elsewhere. I have no idea what their domestic graduate students are thinking–my understanding (open to being corrected) is that they compete, year by year, for funding.

So I’d be curious what degree programs folks are going to that are not fully funded offers. At every program I applied to, the policy was that the school *only* offered fully funded acceptances. It wasn’t even an option to do otherwise. Sure, I have the privilege of being at a pretty good program, but I cast my net pretty wide when I was applying.

Just to get back to topic: the major problem is course not starry-eyed humanities and social science PhDs who are running away from the “real world” by paying for our PhDs. It’s that among American graduate students at private universities, we work a gazillion hours a week with no employment benefits or protections, subject to the arbitrary authority of an employer because of the whole regressive “graduate students aren’t employees” thing. Again, seconding Damien@53’s bafflement with the OP.


js. 09.03.14 at 1:18 am

I know multiple PhD students in my program that have at least some debt.

You have debt you took on to pay tuition costs? I mean, I took out a loan because I didn’t have summer teaching one or two years (and I was profligate during the year, probably). I know people who took out loans for various kinds of living expenses, more so if they lived in a place like NYC or LA, but several people in your program are paying for the program? I’m not mistrusting you, of course, it’s just extremely unusual in my experience.


js. 09.03.14 at 1:48 am

Just to clarify my @58: I do think that there’s some amount of infantilization that goes on in US colleges, and I find it deplorable. Sternly worded letters from the dean of students are a perfect example of this sort of dumb shit. I just think it’s easy to (a) overstate the case, and (b) fail to notice the diversity of institutional structures within the US higher education system. At @58, I am pushing back against what I perceive as a bit of both (a) and (b) in the thread.


adam.smith 09.03.14 at 2:36 am

@js – well, I don’t think we’re that far apart, and don’t want to push this too far, but you’re wrong about Wohnheime: While they are for university students only, they are _not_ run, owned, or administered by universities, but by a separate, state-run organization (“Studentenwerk”). What may seem like an administrative quirk is fairly consequential, especially as dorms are, in my experience, really a major way in which US universities try to govern/shape/regulate undergraduate live (Wohnheime also don’t have resident assistants, say…). I threw Greek life in there as it’s another way in which US schools regulate students. Now, admittedly my experience is limited to highly-selective schools, one elite public, one elite private school, so my observations do apply mainly to those, but those are also the schools that are closest in nature of their student body/characteristics to German universitites.
We haven’t even started to talk about the governance structures, which give German undergraduate students a significant voice in every single university body, something which not even graduate students enjoy at most places in the US (the degree to which we were excluded from formal governance bothered me quite a bit in grad school). Admittedly, that’s partly due to the corporate structure of US schools, which also give faculty less of a voice, but the degree to which students are in the US can maybe petition, but certainly not vote on anything of consequence is rather striking.


js. 09.03.14 at 3:08 am

Point taken about Wohnheime. I didn’t know that — or if I did, I had long forgotten. And about governance structures too; but again, Germany has works council representatives that sit on corporate boards. The US has… Chattanooga. Which fits with what you’re saying, I think.

Fraternities and sororities are weird beasts tho. I may be wrong about this, but the extent to which universities encourage them vs. just tolerate them (or even kick them out in some famous cases) can vary a lot, I think. They also have an organizational structure that’s independent any given university, so regulating their—i.e. the association’s activities on campus seems entirely fair to me. (But again, as I mentioned, I’m not quite neutral when it comes to them.)


Meredith 09.03.14 at 5:09 am

Peculiar mixing in many comments here of undergrad and graduate experiences. Two different worlds in US. Aren’t they elsewhere?

More broadly: I am not sure that Europeans can appreciate the burdens on US (and Canadian) grad students, esp. in the humanities (whose stipends are much smaller than in STEM fields — not that the STEM fields aren’t a scam for most, in the long run). From health insurance and parental leave policies to such ho-hum issues as telephone support (I am showing my age here — don’t know how cell phone support might, or might not, work in Europe), US (Canadian, too) students lack larger governmental supports that are taken for granted in much of Europe.


Ingrid Robeyns 09.03.14 at 8:17 pm

Meredith’s point is well taken, but it can also be reversed: perhaps some of the US commentators on this thread have no idea of the current conditions in the countries where I think it would make sense to consider creating PhD students rather than only keeping PhD-employees. It may be that the problem is misdiagnosed in the OP, but my guess is that if you compare a research university in the US with a research university in the Netherlands, the PHD’s are much better off in the NL. So claims about the situation of the American PHDs do not apply to the Dutch case, even not for the change I am proposing (they would still be well-funded and like all citizens have access to health care; and if one copies the Belgian PhD-student payment, they would also keep maternity leave and pension savings – though in that case the money that could be reinvested to create more lectureships would be smaller).

I think it’s worth stressing that I have made my argument against a particular background. General government funding to universities has gone down for about a decade, and it is sadly highly probably that overall funds allocated to academics won’t increase (and that’s what the OP assumes after having been involved in science policy lobbying and debates that tried to achieve this for 5 years, with zero success. Many tenured staff have no time left to do research except for their late evenings (if they are not preparing teaching) and their holidays, and the number of staff reporting being chronically overworked is poorly documented but I have very good grounds to believe that this is high. There are no sabbaticals for faculty and Summers are very short (often no more than 6 weeks in which to take off and do research), so there is hardly any systematically protected research time left. There are perverse incentives on always hiring more and more PhD employees, since if they get their degrees a larger share of funds goes to that university (but note that the total amount of funds to all universities is not dependent on the overall number of PhD degrees, so this is a ridiculous arms race). New assistant professors are increasingly hired to teach 6 or 7 courses a year (often without TAs). Do we want an oversupply of PhD employees who most of the time cannot choose their own topic to write on, who after graduating have less than a ten percent chance of getting the job they want (an academic job), and who will after getting their degree have an exceptional hard time to find a somewhat stable job that has space for research? Note that I have not argued for cutting benefits for PhDs full stop. I have argued that in a situation in which all paths have been walked in order to try to increase funds for universities in general, and none of which have succeeded, and a world in which we have a series of money-related-problems in the universities, we should consider the option of reallocating money from the PhD-level to the associated professorship level.

Perhaps I have been badly influence by my years as a relatively poor PhD student (without pension savings or maternity benefits) which I felt the intellectually most rich years of my life because of the amazing freedom to pursue what I wanted, and not what someone else’s project said I had to do as a part of a job. Perhaps me and my fellow students were deeply exploited and we were so stupid not to see that what we did was not studying and investing in our own intellectual development, but rather doing work that shouldn’t’ be done if it wasn’t properly paid with a regular wage contract.

Many think that in the Netherlands or other continental European countries the PhD-employees are the worst-off in the current system, but why would that be the case? I think those who got their PHD degrees, and for whom there are hardly any options left because all the cuts have happened at the level of the associated professor rank, are actually in a worse position.

But guys, I am happy to be argued to be wrong, and to change my views. For one thing, I am glad that many people have started to debate these issues, and in that process have learnt more about the facts and current trends of science policy. Some have suggested alternative solutions, such as drastically limiting the number of PhD positions (in the humanities). Either way, I think that if we can’t increase overall funds allocated to academics, what is needed is a shift from funding from the PhD-level to the lecturer/Associated professorship level.


Enzo Rossi 09.06.14 at 10:59 pm

It’s hard to disagree with Ingrid on the diagnosis of the problem. Universities started out as medieval guilds. One thing the guilds did well was regulation of the supply side. We should take a cue from that and stop overproducing PhDs. That won’t happen in the NL unless the promotiepremie is eliminated. I think reducing PhD numbers would be preferable to worsening their pay and benefits, if only because eroding current conditions could set a dangerous precedent: “If the PhD students can take a hit, why not the tenured faculty?”, I can hear a future government say. Much as I value the input of PhD students, I’d rather have more postdocs and tenure lines, and a smaller reserve army of unemployed PhDs. It’s sad to tell a good MA students that we don’t have funding for them, but telling them that there are no prospects for an academic career four years later is much worse. And if they’re passionate in most cases they’ll be able to find a PhD position abroad, which has independent benefits, particularly in small countries with close-knit disciplinary communities. So let’s campaign to eliminate the promotiepremie and divert that money to regular funding. Just my two cents.

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