‘Promoters use PhD candidates as their property’

Some supervisors use their PhD candidates as their personal property and are effectively the head of an assembly line – at least according to a report from the RUG’s confidential advisor, that is. Are PhD candidates truly treated that poorly?

What do you do if your PhD research consists entirely of providing data that your supervisor uses to further their own scientific career? What if your promoter suddenly needs you to work through the weekend because he really needs to get something published? Many PhDs could never imagine such a thing, but those who have dealt with these scenarios go to Marijke Dam, the confidential advisor at the RUG. In her annual report for 2015, she is sounding the alarm.

Extreme cases

At first glance, it does not seem that bad: out of the thousands of PhD candidates working at the RUG, only six had problems with their supervisor last year. But Dam thinks that those numbers do not really give a good indication of the reality: ‘I only see the most extreme cases, so it is likely a very common thing. Thankfully, the PhD candidates are usually able to solve most problems themselves, but there must be candidates who don’t dare to complain.’

Dam sees that most of the problems are attributable to cultural differences. ‘The majority of PhD candidates come from abroad, so they don’t always know how things normally work here. Dutch supervisors are often extremely direct, and they can’t always handle that.’ Another issue is how dependent foreign PhD candidates are on their promoters: in order to retain their residency permit, they have to continue working. But their promoter is focused on their own career and needs to publish. ‘That is a source of tension, and some supervisors and promoters cannot handle that.’

The number of PhD candidates having problems has been progressively declining in recent years, though. That is at least in part attributable to the introduction of a second promoter. If there is not a good click with one promoter, the PhD has the second one to fall back on. Another big improvement has been the implementation of the graduate schools: ‘because of the graduate schools, if something goes wrong, then those in close proximity are likelier to intervene more quickly’, says Dam. ‘And through contact with the directors of the graduate schools, I can more easily get an overview of the options that exist to solve a problematic situation.’

‘Supervising your Chinese PhD’

One of the directors is Petra Rudolf, who serves as a supervisor in the graduate school for the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. She also sees things go wrong from time to time: ‘With nearly 1,000 PhD candidates, FMNS has the largest graduate school, so of course there are cases where problems occur with the supervision. That is just a matter of statistics.’ Nevertheless, Rudolf does all that she can to avoid such problems. ‘We have all kinds of courses and workshops to prepare supervisors and PhD candidates alike. There was recently a course called ‘Supervising your Chinese PhD’, and all PhD candidates also get assertiveness training during an introduction day.’ Furthermore, there is coaching for PhD candidates who are having issues with procrastination – students come together in groups of ten at a time and meet with a mentor to talk about their problems.

Through such workshops and the network of confidential advisors, Rudolf hopes that PhD candidates will no longer feel alone. ‘The task of supervision no longer lies with the promoter alone. We are really trying to help.’ Dam sees that as well, and she reiterates that supervision is done well by and large. ‘In general, it really goes quite well, but sometimes, it just gets completely out of control. If we all remain vigilant, we can solve these problems progressively quicker.’