The situation of PhD researchers was in the media spotlight last week after NOS published results of its survey, stating that 40% of PhDs in the Netherlands experience misconduct, such as conflict with their supervisor, bullying or exclusion. P-NUT president Guido Peters and vice-president Rob Bemthuis comment on the news.
Four in ten PhDs reported undesirable behavior. Did that surprise you?
Peters: ‘40% is certainly higher than we’d expect. However, the survey used a broad definition of ‘undesirable behavior’. It is important to know the prevalence of the different types of misconduct before we draw any conclusions. For example, having a supervisor who sets unrealistic deadlines can be problematic, but I consider that less serious than experiencing sexual harassment or racism.’
Bemthuis: ‘When we talk to PhDs at the UT, for example at events, we often hear stories involving misconduct. Many people mention that they have experienced or witnessed some form of undesirable behavior, but they rarely follow up on it. They usually don’t want to share any details. It is a topic that is still difficult to talk about.’
What type of issues do you hear about the most?
Peters: ‘Serious offenses such as bullying is not something we encounter often. But of course we don’t know how often it really happens, we don’t hear about everything. High work pressure is the issue we hear of the most. Supervisors often ask PhDs to spend relatively a lot of time on educational activities, while the PhD charter clearly states that teaching must be limited to maximum 20% of their time. Asking for more than that without offering compensation is exploiting the vulnerable position of PhD candidates.’
Bemthuis: ‘That of course depends on the type of contract. Some PhDs teach more based on their contract. However, it is indeed expected for a PhD to devote one day a week to education and supervision duties, while that is usually the maximum amount.’
Peters: ‘A lot of PhDs just follow what the supervisors ask them to do and don’t negotiate compensation, meanwhile falling behind on their research. They expect that the supervisors know what should or should not be done. That said, we need to point out that most supervisors treat their PhDs very well, but there are a few problematic cases.’
If you, as P-NUT, hear of any misconduct, how do you usually handle it?
Peters: ‘As P-NUT, we don’t have much power to do anything. We refer PhDs to the existing support structures, such as the confidential advisors, the ombudsperson and counsellors.’
Bemthuis: ‘Nevertheless, one way how we approach this, or at least how we attempt to make it more accessible to talk about misconduct concerns, is to bring doctoral candidates together through our community efforts. Just being able to tell your story to someone who understands parts of the dynamics can be helpful.’
Do you think University of Twente should offer any additional support to PhDs?
Bemthuis: ‘Establishing the ombudsperson was already a big step. The topic is receiving more attention, which means we are moving in the right direction. We should try to bring attention to the support structures that are already there. Emphasize that it’s normal to reach out to them, ask for help. If you feel that something isn’t right, do something about it.’
Peters: ‘Changes at the policy level could also be beneficial. I was reading up on the UT’s code of conduct, trying to find out what the sanctions for misconduct are. The code of conduct simply states that ‘unacceptable behavior relating to intimidation, sexual harassment, aggression, violence, bullying and discrimination can result in sanctions’; but there is no indication of what they could be. It needs to be clear what the sanctions are. There should be serious consequences to misconduct, otherwise there is no reason not to commit unethical behavior.’
Do you plan to follow up on this issue?
Peters: ‘We first need a better idea of how big the issue really is. There needs to be a thorough investigation, specifying what types of misconduct PhDs at the UT experience and to what extent. You need to know what you are dealing with so that you can come up with targeted solutions.’