Doctoral candidates should not be treated as cheap labour

In Europe, doctoral students are facing problems such as lack of money, low status in the higher education system and very high expectations. As a former president of the European Doctoral Students Association and now president of the Polish Representation of Doctoral Candidates, Ewelina Pabjańczyk-Wlazło stands up for their rights.

“Most European countries prefer employee status for doctoral students. It is more appropriate to what they do,” says a doctoral candidate at Lodz University of Technology, whose research is in biomedical engineering, notably textiles and their application in medicine, industry and business. Ewelina Pabjańczyk-Wlazło runs her own company in the same field.

In terms of conditions for their studies, how do Czech and Polish PhD candidates compare with such students elsewhere in Europe? Do they come out badly?
Unfortunately, I have the impression that doctoral candidates and doctorate holders in general gain less recognition in our region than in other parts of Europe. Some see doctoral training as a dragging-out of the period of study, with the result that they do not always see why researchers at this stage should be treated seriously. Consequently, DCs are so poorly remunerated that they are forced into finding a second job. Very often, too, they have no social benefits.

Which examples of best practice do you think Central European countries such as Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic could follow?
There are plenty of good practices that our countries could follow as they strive for higher standards in higher education and research. In my opinion, one such practice is the long-established recognition of doctoral candidates as employees in the Nordic countries.

Is there any research or data about PhD candidates in Europe?
I’m afraid no official or current data is available. Eurodoc has access to such data only due to the kindness of our members – national organizations of ECRs. Each year we send out the so-called Annual Questionnaire, in which we ask about different aspects of ECRs’ lives in each country. Despite the fact that every country has its own special socio-economic characteristics, we are able to identify issues in common. The majority of member organizations (e.g. PT, IT, LV, LT, SK, CZ, HU, PL, SR, UK) indicate that DCs have student status, although there are countries (CH, NO and NL) in which DCs are employees or have mixed status (e.g. UA, FI, FR). Therefore, most NAs prefer employee status for DCs, with small exceptions for securing the benefits of both statuses, as is the case in IT, UK, HU. In line with Eurodoc policy, early-stage researchers, including doctoral candidates, should be recognized as professionals contributing to the higher education and research and development systems. This entails proper working conditions, social benefits such as maternity leave, insurance, pension schemes and career opportunities.

I was surprised by your data which made clear that doctoral candidates in the Czech Republic and the Ukraine have the lowest monthly incomes.
Yes, and Poland is not so far behind them. The estimated mean value of income for DCs across our member countries was 1352 EUR, higher than in 2016 (1200 EUR). Unfortunately, there are dramatic differences among our member countries, where countries such as UA, CZ, SR, PL, LT, HU and IT are below the mean value, while western and northern countries are far beyond it. Of course, the value of income is not the whole story. Income differs from country to country depending on the year of doctoral training, scientific domain, university and type of contract (stipend) or the absence of one. It does not include income from projects, which are additional and very often voluntary, and whose availability differs from one country to the next. Therefore, we have applied an index (Big Mac Index) which measures purchasing power parity (PPP) and indicates how expensive it is to live in each country under investigation.

Have differences between incomes changed, then?
Although they were slightly smaller, the tendency was maintained: countries in the Central and Eastern Region provide much less remuneration for DCs. I believe that this is one of the biggest mistakes governments and the academic community can make in their national science and research environment. When DCs are treated as cheap labour, with no financial or social stability, they focus on finding ways to earn a living, instead of developing their talents and exploring scientific opportunities. Very often, we see DCs being obliged to do work unconnected with their doctoral training, just to earn a living. In this case, how can a good researcher make best use of their three or four years as a doctoral candidate?

What can we do about this?
We need to understand the role of ECRs in the academic environment of every economy – after all, we are the lecturers who will teach future generations, or researchers who will build the scientific and innovative potential of each country, by staying in academia or leaving for industry or other fields. When we are able to provide DCs with proper conditions and remuneration for their work –which very often include a large organizational and administrative workload in addition to lectures and their own research–, we will give them a chance of finishing their doctorate in time, with diligence and all else that is required, so that we can all benefit from high standards and innovative research in the European Union. By adopting such an approach, we would also raise the profile of the doctorate in society and business, resulting in a more intensive intake of doctorate holders into economy, which in the long run may lead to an increase in the innovative potential of economies in general.

Apart from what I’ve already said, the most important practices and recommendations are described in the European Charter for Researchers, a document adopted in 2005 by the European Commission whose priorities are key values for Eurodoc. It encourages institutions to implement and promote its “best practices” in order to work on and raise their standards. Unfortunately, not every institute of higher education in Europe has adopted the document’s prerequisites, even though it has been twelve years now.

As a member of the Polish National Representation of Doctoral Candidates, you are in a position to comment on a new law due to be introduced in Poland in autumn. Have you drawn attention to the problems you talk about in order to address these issues in the new law?
Yes. As the National Representation of Doctoral Candidates in Poland, we provided significant input in debate on the topic. To outline the most important things in doctoral education, I need to mention a change in the model for the education of doctoral candidates: a shift from studies to doctoral schools with mid-term evaluation, supervision schemes and an individual research plan which lasts up to four years. There is also a universal scholarship system, which means that every doctoral candidate in Poland will receive remuneration (probably 110% of the minimum wage for the first two years of training and 170% in the remaining two years, on completion of the mid-term evaluation). Generally speaking, the plan is to strengthen and structure all qualitative criteria for doctoral training, including the evaluation of the doctoral school by the Commission for Science Evaluation not less than once every six years.

What is the situation with the new law now?
An amended bill for the Law on Higher Education and associated laws is entering the final stage. The final form of the bill that will enter the legislative process will be announced in January. We realize that some of the proposed improvements may be subject to change before the final draft of the bill is announced.

At the Prague autumn conference, it was stated that Czech PhD candidates are partly responsible for their situation – for instance, they are not active enough, they study for too long, and they do not take their studies seriously enough. Do you agree?
In my opinion this is about more than just the attitude of the doctoral candidate. I made a few points I consider important in my previous answer. DCs are basically people who want to start their research or academic career and need support at this very early stage. Doctoral candidates can be an important part of the academic community, if only we let them be so. Being an early-career researcher is a very demanding task, entailing very many different skills, including the conducting of research, project management, teaching, presenting and public speaking, writing grant applications and articles, team work and, of course, an organizational and administrative load, which overloads them with responsibilities.
If you can pay your expenses and your situation is financially and socially stable, you can be a very active and motivated researcher who is able to offer significant support to other academic staff in terms of teaching and project realization.

With no such support?
Early-career researchers struggle to combine external work with doing a doctorate, because they are not paid for the work they actually do. Such recognition will very quickly “pay off with interest”. What is more, in such a competitive environment it is very easy to become demotivated. The mental health of researchers is a topic that is getting ever more attention. Without support, we will bring up another generation of poorly motivated researchers, causing us to replicate bad models of old that, unfortunately, are still present in academia. ECRs should have the opportunity to speak about their needs and problems out loud. Freedom of speech is a basic rule, and I hope that it is respected. I strongly encourage ECRs in the Czech Republic to stand up for their rights and work on the most favourable solutions to these problems, while respecting all groups in the academic community. I am aware that it is not easy, but there must be a spark of initiative for others to follow. I believe that in Poland we are kindling this spark, and I believe, too, that we can now expect improvements.

As a researcher, you focus on biomedical engineering and textiles, which is probably run more by men than women. Your interests also include gender equality in science. In your opinion, is the position of women in science still a problem?
Unfortunately, too little is said about the huge role played by women in business and science and our leadership qualities. Unfortunately, we see in many cases how leadership roles for women are limited and heavily dependent on the specific sector. Scientific studies indicate no differences between the leadership capacity of women and men. However, social conditions and traditional role models often result in young women being unwilling to undertake the risks and responsibilities related to leadership.

Why do you think this is so?
Usually it is due to lack of motivation, self-confidence, conducive environment and/or support of relatives. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in women and girls enrolled in or working in technical fields, as well as in the education sector, where leaders are usually men. Where we do find women with sufficient motivation, knowledge and skills, plus the desire to lead, there are many difficulties associated with the mentality of organizations where most management positions are held by men. Unfortunately, the topic is still something of a taboo. Still, there are ever more scientific studies on this, so the problem is starting to get noticed and addressed by many of the most important organizations in the EU and worldwide. I truly believe that we will finally conquer this problem, but to do so we need men and women to work together to change the mentality of both groups. We need to be aware that by not recognizing women researchers, we are losing the potential of half of the world’s population of researchers. The situation is similar for early-career women researchers.

Are you in favour of institutional help for young women researchers?
Very often women leave academia on completion of their doctorate or even before they complete it, because there are no or too few support and career schemes for women in academia –especially ones concerning maternity. Very often, women sacrifice their careers for the sake of their partner’s, or they leave academia to start a family. It is very difficult to come back to it later. Managerial positions in business can be directly translated into professorships and managerial positions at universities. Look how many women and how many men hold such positions or titles! This situation is also manifested by discrimination in terms of unequal pay in academia and funding disparities. But to come back to your question, yes, I am in favour of institutional support for women researchers that would secure equality of access to research opportunities, mobility, funding and career paths, including managerial positions in academia.

What would be your recommendations to post-doctoral researchers?
Well, I am still a doctoral candidate myself, so it is not easy for me to give extensive, well-informed advice, but I would recommend that they plan everything and listen to the advice of mentors and more experienced researchers, even if this is not provided as part of an institutional career-advice scheme. It helps to make plans for the years to come, learn about different options and allow for conscious decisions about the future – about whether to continue abroad or stay in the place where you live, for instance. I would add that every researcher should keep an open mind and take an open approach if she or he wishes to get on in the world of science.