Value of the Dutch Approach of the PhD

Today, the Dutch government confirmed the current Dutch approach to the PhD, i.e. where PhD candidates are seen and rewarded as employees, not students. Dutch universities (VSNU) have been trying to create the option that PhD candidates get a student status, which would be much cheaper. They encounter much resistance, both from organizations of PhD candidates (who joined forces at e.g. promovendus.org) and from trade unions. The discussion has been going on for years now (e.g. article Trouw and DUB). I will not bore you with a summary of all arguments, but briefly indicate the main reasons that have been brought forward.

Universities argue that tailor made and differentiated PhD positions are needed to keep up with international developments, and besides that such differentiation formally recognizes what already happens in practice. Sometimes a PhD position would be that of a researcher executing a specified research task ordered by an external funder, while another PhD position would rather resemble a student project. Universities claim that having the option of PhD students besides PhD candidates allows them to appoint more PhD’s on balance and gives them more flexibility e.g. to participate in international joint-PhD programs with other universities. Thus, differentiation of PhD positions boosts the Dutch position in the international knowledge economy.

However, as supporters of the employed PhD put forward, Dutch PhD candidates with an employee status are not only internationally known for the quality of their research: they also tend to finish more quickly than their international colleagues with a student status. Besides the obvious personal financial and social benefits, these facts make Dutch PhD positions very attractive to international talent. That does not seem to me like a negative force on the Dutch international ranking. To the contrary: a scholarship system seems like a potential risk to these well documented positive effects (as noted in last week’s advice by the Raad van State).

Universities answer that they do not want to do away with the employee PhD candidate at all: they want to have both options available. Many people, myself included, have been worrying about the inequality this differentiation is bound to generate among PhD’s and the way they are treated, the tasks they are set, the chances and support they are given. A PhD student would be offered an extended education organized by graduate schools, following the Anglo-Saxon model. A PhD employee would, besides his research, be required to teach in its university’s bachelor programs.

This has a huge effect on their career perspectives. Besides education in her discipline, the student would presumably be offered courses and workshops to train e.g. her transferrable skills that improve her employability. However, she would have no official track record of working experience that would help her find a job outside the academic path. The employee, on the other hand, would possess such a track record and possibly also some additional teaching qualifications. However, he would be primarily qualified for an academic job that is increasingly scarce. His chances of obtaining such a job already are unlikely and they are not going to improve if universities appoint more PhD candidates with a cheaper scholarship system.

I would initially think we are better off with fewer PhD positions with more financial means for support and (personal) development and a better career perspective. That would serve the Dutch ranking in the international knowledge economy, rather than a `blind’ striving for numbers of PhD theses and international cooperation with graduate schools without regard for personal and employability consequences after obtaining the degree. On the other hand, universities do increasingly have to operate as businesses. As such, they are not alone in considering competition and strength in numbers as valuable aspects of a free market economy. I am not an economist, so I guess I am missing something about the universities’ position and motivations here. Can you fill me in on that?

In all, I do feel strongly that doing a PhD successfully means becoming an independent researcher by the end of the project. Granted, PhD candidates are still learning how to be one, and they need some support for their development. However, if we keep seeing and treating them as students they cannot reach that goal as quickly and thoroughly as when they are considered as employed, independent researchers. Yes, that is probably very Aristotelian of me: you can never learn to be independent if you never act independently, for instance. In the Dutch approach to the PhD, candidates get a good chance to practice being an independent researcher. Where and if needed, additional education is available to help them get there. That is where graduate schools enter the picture.

It seems like a fundamental difference of perspective. Is a PhD the third phase of higher education or is it the preamble to being an independent researcher? What would you say? And how do you consider the career consequences of doing a PhD in with a scholarship or under employment?

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