Science / Society

Academic Slave Work

There are moments in life when you have to realise that things you once craved to do, become impossible, a nightmare instead of your true dream. It is heartbreakingly hurtful to realise that what you have planned over years suddenly seems like a burden, useless and frightful.

For nearly five years I have been writing on my PhD thesis in History while working a full-time job, it gave me sleepless nights and many a weekend when instead of meeting family and friends I buried myself in books and wrote on my computer until my head hurt. I did it not because I had to or because it was good for my career but because I liked it: gaining knowledge, focusing on one topic for such a long time, finding out something new and getting a new perspective of something old at the same time. I have written 120 pages already, but suddenly it felt those five years work did count for nothing. That was when my professor phoned to tell me she had decided I have to change relevant parts of my PhD work. That would have meant starting nearly at the beginning of my work again.

It was the last and final low in a painful process of realisation. I witnessed a lot of changes at university in the last five years, how the pressure on scientists especially the young ones grew to an amount where they for example had to work twice as much as stipulated in their contracts. I am in some kind of luxurious position since I do not depend on a university job that is linked to my PhD work. I can theoretically give up on writing my PhD without doing real harm to my private or working life. And that was what I threatened to do. This was something my professor apparently had never anticipated.

One of the most threatening aspects of an academic career is insecurity. Many academics depend on short-term contracts. In Germany the lucky ones have a contract of two or three years, others have to re-sign a contract every half a year without any security that there will be a job the next time they apply. The current workload of young scientists and the expectations of leading university staff are not only a burden for many young colleagues working in the academic field, but also a real threat to academic research in its entity. Everyone knows about these problems, but only a few dare to speak openly about it, frightened to lose their job.

In 2012 a German survey came to the conclusion that working conditions and payment were bound to the scientific field young academics were working in. From 2009 onwards the “Institut für Forschungsinformation und Qualitätssicherung” (Institute for Science Information and Quality Assurance) asked 6600 PhD students about their income, their working conditions, supervision and their job chances. The result: PhD students in social or philosophical sciences are far worse paid than those of natural sciences and economics. For example up to 20 per cent of History PhD students gain less than 850 Euro a month while in technical or natural sciences two thirds of all PhD students have a monthly income of 1400 Euro or more. None the less the authors came to the conclusion the situation of PhD students in Germany would not be as bad as many of them want to make us believe.

But income is not the main problem since at German universities this is strictly regulated in state laws. A bigger concern is how much young academics have to work to earn that money. The above-mentioned sums are an equivalent of approximately 20 hours work a week – the different income results from whether they actually have a job as junior researcher or as research assistant, the latter does not actually require a master degree and is therefore paid less. Many PhD students in fields like History only get an assistant job even though they are qualified as junior researchers. As a study has shown especially at institutes that are not part of a university the working hours are often more than 40 per week – the salary stays the same though. And even considering many contracts permit research for student’s PhD thesis during working hours most PhD students actually write on their thesis during their spare time only.

For some the working conditions are even worse. To give an example: A young scientist started to work at the Philosophical Faculty of an East German university, her degree had not been perfect but far better than average. She has had a few contracts, always only for half a year, when the faculty ran out of money. She was then offered a half-year-contract again under the condition that she had to work six months but would actually been paid only three – those three months she was giving a lecture, the undergraduate student`s exams and term papers she would have had to correct during the summer would have been unpaid work. At that time she could not have taken another job. For the same work she had done before she would have been paid only half as much. She refused with the consequence that she lost the job and someone else took over.

Another example at another university and in a complete different scientific field: Not only that the PhD student had to work with false data since her PhD work was based on a project of her professor which was a sham, she was also forced to do overtime to have the chance to work in the institute’s laboratory. Shortly before she finished her PhD exam her professor asked her for a paper and the PowerPoint presentation she had used for a lecture. Only by accident did the young scientist detect that her professor gave a lecture on a conference – about the young scientist’s work without referring to her. The only thing the professor had changed in the PowerPoint presentation was the name on the first slide – into her own.

In May 2012 German PhD students started a signature campaign, demanding a secure legal status. Until today PhD students work under very different conditions, some of them have actual scientific jobs, others work as assistants or rely on scholarships. In their declaration they reasoned: „We PhD students make a great contribution to research and teaching at German universities. Without us the system university would be inconceivable.”

But it is not only a German problem. PhD students in the UK lament the rising pressure to finish their PhD thesis in three instead of four or five years and that while many, who cannot rely on a scholarship, work in other jobs to finance their academic research. Those with an actual job at a university have to balance their own research and teaching undergraduate students while constantly being under pressure. Especially since jobs in research and teaching are harder to find these days.

A survey released by the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers (Eurodoc) in 2011 not only shows funding levels vary by country but at the same time many PhD students in the EU are underfunded and not aware of their rights. While in the Netherlands and Scandinavia approx. 90 per cent receive a scholarship or salary for their work, in several other countries up to 30 in Austria even 46 per cent do not receive anything.

Are those working conditions necessary to gain further education or is it only a form of cheap slave work of which only universities and professors profit but not the PhD students themselves? Is the price too much to pay?

There are examples for good jobs at universities where professors and their staff work together hand in hand, respect each other and even if the work load is high the PhD student gains further education and experience through his or her work. But it does not resolve the problem that many professors use this argument as an excuse for the poor working conditions of their PhD students: That they learn through work and are not even real scientists yet.

Since the employer is often the one who is in the end responsible for the PhD grade students depend on the goodwill of their professor. And this makes criticising working conditions hard if not impossible. Many young scientists accept unfair treatment out of fear, lack of alternatives or because they still hope someday things will change on their own.

Having a life plan for many young scientists is simply impossible. How can one start a family when job contracts are only given for month and jobs are paid so bad that some PhD students even draw the dole. Another problem especially in Germany is that this policy of short-term contracts continues for those who stay at university after finishing their PhD. One third of the German PhD students do not know what they will do after graduation and in 2010 only 9 per cent declared they considered a career in science in Germany – the others declared their career intentions in business or a foreign country. That leaves university science to a few idealists and those who do not get any other job.

If we do not want to dry out our scientific expertise we have to change this. Working at a university should offer young academics a perspective – not only because research is necessary for a further development of society. Only if you make science attractive for young people you will have academics who will in future educate students following them on their career path. It is not only something that should be regulated in politics. It is a change that has to take place in the scientific field itself: A change of attitude towards young academics, abandoning academic slave work and promoting an equal partnership between professors and young scientists.

Jessica Holzhausen

What is your experience? Please comment or discuss with us on Twitter @20OneMagazine #academicslavework

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