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From Dutch Pyramid Into Babel's Tower?


PhD students are the foundation on which Dutch science is built. In the Federation of Dutch Universities' (VSNU's) 1999 annual report, Frank Miedema stated that "70% to 80% of scientific research in medical sciences is done by PhD students." The physical sciences are no different. In the same report, Ad Lagendijk argued that in physics, without the research of PhD students "the output would be five times less than now." But the foundations are shaky. Dutch politicians cannot afford to be complacent that the Netherlands will continue to be a world-class performer in terms of publication citations 1 and Nobel Prizes. While the apex of the Dutch scientific pyramid bathes in sunshine, the base crumbles in shadow. Repairs are necessary to prevent the edifice tumbling down.

Great care must be taken when shaping the stones that form the footings of a monument. Unfortunately great care is not being taken in shaping the Netherlands' future scientific leaders. The majority of PhD students (AIOs & OIOs, see sidebar) pay a lot for education and supervision (more than 1/4 of their scholarship in the 1st year). But a survey conducted in 2000 2 showed that most were not at all satisfied with the quality and quantity of their supervision.

The Dutch PhD Student Union is preparing a report looking at the experiences of students who have terminated, or considered terminating, their contracts due to problems with supervision. "I never had any contact or discussion of progress with [my supervisor]," one such student complains. "He did not make a 'plan of supervision'," something which is a requirement of the Dutch PhD system, and after repeated attempts to improve the situation this student terminated his contract and moved to another university. "My supervisor fired me after 3 months," a student of a technical university says, continuing, "I really do not have a clue about the reason why. ... He had never complained about anything to me before." The only explanation she can come up with is that, as the only woman in her department, she didn't fit in with the "masculine working culture".

Sometimes problems arise because supervision is too overbearing, preventing students from developing as independent researchers. "Very soon it became clear that my supervisor had his own ideas about the project," explains a biology student. "He stressed that the research method I was going to use was more important for him than the subject of my research". Authorship too can be contentious. "As with the previous two papers, I never received any more feedback from my supervisors than on facts and typos. There were no genuine ideas," says one student of his experience, and yet, "his signature was added to the authors." The student felt the supervisor had no right to put his name on the paper and complained. But, after being put under a lot of pressure, "I finally surrendered. I submitted my paper without any pride that day, feeling empty, exploited, and robbed of my work." Since PhD students are completely dependent on their supervisors, areas of conflict such as this will be resolved in favour of the senior scientist on most occasions.

Even 10 years ago a survey 3 found that 32% of the students said that supervisors did not pay enough time to supervision and 29% did not expect to learn much from them. Supervision has never been considered important and the subordinate position of students makes criticism difficult 4. However, lack of proper supervision is one factor that contributes significantly to student drop out 5. Of the PhD students who started in 1994, only 7% managed to finish their doctoral thesis within the official time 6! Since completion rate is a measure of the success of an institute or university, we PhD students believe there is a good case for including the quality of supervision in the regular five-yearly visitation reports that judge the scientific quality of the universities. (For some additional suggestions on how to improve the situation for Dutch PhD students, see the box.)

Top Priorities for Policy-Makers

Improve supervision by:

  • Enforcing the existing regulations requiring an annual review of progress in research and personal development between PhD student, supervisor(s), and professor(s). Such discussions are seldom held, and the agreements arising from them are rarely carried out.

  • Reducing the number of PhD students per supervisor.

  • Introducing courses in supervision and guidance for new supervisors.

Improve career progression by:

  • Making research income dependent on research quality and output. Currently, public money is divided between universities, faculties, and research groups in the way it was divided in 1983, with no major changes in the last 18 years to adapt distribution to the current situation. The mere existence of a group is not sufficient justification for continuation of funding.

  • Creating more entry-level academic posts by abolishing the current 'job for life' philosophy of the universities and removing dead wood (see above). We support the creation of more tenured positions, but continuation of a position should be quality dependent.

The loss of motivated PhD students is not only a bad experience for the students themselves; it is a loss of scientific work and future staff which are desperately needed. A report commissioned by the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Sciences last year showed that a third of the scientific staff will retire in the next 10 years. Universities should do their very best to keep young talent. That they do not take this advice to heart is further demonstrated by recent problems with regard to unemployment benefits.

All academic employees (and Dutch PhD students have that status--see sidebar) receive 78% of their final salary for up to 1 ear as unemployment benefit when they stop working for the university and have not yet found another job. Traditionally, this means that pragmatic Dutch supervisors plan PhD projects to last for 5 years 7, 4 years on contract and the fifth year on benefit. However, the law was amended at the beginning of this year so that PhD students in their fifth year are no longer entitled to this unemployment benefit. Worse, this change of policy was not communicated to them, or to their supervisors. As mentioned earlier, the majority of PhD students (93%!) need more than 4 years to finish their dissertation. The Dutch PhD Student Union (LAIOO) was inundated in March this year with e-mails from PhD students whose 4-year contracts had just ended and who suddenly found they had no income. "This has very bad consequences for me," wrote one. "If I do not stop writing my thesis, I am not able to claim an unemployment benefit. I think I will stop. My wife and I have children. We cannot afford to play around with money."

The VSNU told us that they didn't anticipate that these problems would arise from this change in the law. But it states that the difficulties should be solved locally, by extension of contracts. That this policy is failing is clear from the fact that the Dutch PhD Student Union continues to receive numerous phone calls and e-mails about this issue. Meanwhile, the organisation that provides unemployment benefits recently changed the rules again. Now, PhD students do receive benefit for the time that they are not working on their dissertation. So if you work on your dissertation for 2 days a week, you will receive 3/5 of your unemployment benefit. That means that you will receive more money (a full unemployment benefit) by doing nothing, lounging on a couch watching television, than by doing scientific research! Not only could these problems have been prevented by including the PhD students themselves in the discussions leading to this decision, but also students are left in the cold again and feel how little scientific management appreciates their efforts. Most victims see it as though full-time, working PhD students are not even worth an unemployment benefit.

A quick glance at salaries (see sidebar) shows that the financial rewards cannot make up for poor education, spotty supervision, and lack of appreciation. Since status is somehow linked to income in the modern Europe, you will be considered a loser when choosing a career in science. Having this degree does not better one's financial position compared to the rest of society, as the table shows. Decreasing numbers of PhD students, and young researchers leaving science in droves, suggest that the president of the VSNU should follow his own advice to "undo the cut in wages" 8.

The Dutch government spends just 0.78% of GDP on science. The total investment, including the input of industry and commerce, is only 2% of GDP, significantly less than the U.S. (2.7%) and Japan (3.1%), but also less than several Scandinavian countries (3% to 3.5%), which have fewer inhabitants than the Netherlands. Everywhere within the EU, science budgets are being boosted (e.g., by 7% total in the UK and by 16% for France's INSERM) and other countries are trying to attract expatriates and foreign young talent. The Dutch are doing their best with the Impulse program (worth 600,000 euros over 5 years for young researchers to start their own labs) 9, but neighbour Germany has similar initiatives, such as the Humboldt Foundation's Kosmos program for young scientists, which is worth much more (up to $1.1 million/1.19 million euros over 3 years) 10. This not only shows the naïvety of Dutch science policy-makers, but also their lack of European collaboration and knowledge.

Dutch science needs another view. In a changing Europe, it is only becoming easier for young scientists to leave the country. Who wants to start their own group in a country where it is difficult to find PhD students, where there is a continuous struggle for inadequate funding and even for your own (in most cases short-term) position? The base of the scientific pyramid is becoming smaller and smaller and erosion at the top won't be repaired with stones making their way upward. Dutch research is still close to the top of international science, but an elevated position should give a better perspective on the neighbours' activities. If Dutch science is to have the longevity of the monuments of Cheops, those at the pinnacle of the pyramid must communicate with the newest additions, otherwise the danger is that it will slowly turn into a tower of Babel.


1. Netherlands Observatory of Science and Technology (2001). Science and Technology indicators 2000 (Dutch Text).

2. B. Keijzer and E. Gordijn (2000). Results PhD student questionnaire (Dutch Text). NWO ORP and LAIOO (Dutch PhD council).

3. Van Hout, J.F.M.J., Hulshof, M.J.F., & Jurgens, H.J.H. (1991). De opleiding van onderzoekers: Een evaluatie-onderzoek naar het functioneren van het AiO-stelsel (Dutch text). Zoetermeer: Ministerie van Onderwijs en Wetenschappen.

4. Van Vucht Tijssen, B.E. (2000). 'Talent voor de Toekomst, Toekomst voor Talent. Plan van aanpak voor het wetenschapspersoneelsbeleid' (Dutch Text). Utrecht.

5. Schuyt, Th. N. M. (1986). Wie wil er nog promoveren? Negatieve ervaringen van promovendi in de Sociale Wetenschappen: analyse en suggesties tot verbetering (Dutch text). Amsterdam.

6. VSNU (2000). KUOZ: kengetallen universitair onderzoek. Utrecht: VSNU.

7. Bal, J., Hoffius, R., Imhoff, E. Kessel, N. & Oudejans, A. (1996). De jaren tellen: een onderzoek naar de achtergronden van de wachtgeldproblematiek in het onderwijs (Dutch text). Den Haag: SDU Uitgevers.

8. Onderzoek in Nederland, February 2001 (Dutch Text).

9. M. Enserink, 2000. Science 289:2033

10. R. Koenig, 2001. Science 291:1876

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