Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Max Planck Society researchers
Credit:Gisela Lubitz / MPI für chemische Energiekonversion

Junior Max Planck researchers win reforms

Today’s science system puts Ph.D. candidates at the bottom of the academic career ladder with no clear or unified legal and social status. Are we students? Workers? Visiting scholars? This uncertainty makes our working conditions—including salaries, employment rights, and access to the national public social security systems across Europe—highly variable between countries and institutes and often within the same research group. Postdocs face many of the same issues.

In a way, the distinction is moot: Regardless of our exact legal status, junior researchers still do academic research—our professional work. Like those who work in other professions in Germany and elsewhere, we ought to be given adequate employment benefits and social and legal protections; after all, nowadays the junior phase in academic research often stretches beyond 10 years. But junior researchers are often discouraged from voicing their concerns due to the power imbalance intrinsic to academia: The senior researchers who train us are not only our mentors, but they are also the professors who graduate us and the bosses who pay us and eventually recommend us for our next jobs.

Concerned by such inequalities, in 2002 a handful of Ph.D. candidates from several Max Planck institutes initiated a discussion with MPG administrators.

Andreea Scacioc

Andreea Scacioc

Courtesy of Andreea Scacioc

Despite such power imbalances, Ph.D. candidates and postdocs in many countries are now looking more closely at their working conditions and taking action to improve them. Graduate students and postdocs at many U.S. universities have been forming labor unions and ad-hoc associations to pressure administrators into giving them more employment rights. For the Max Planck PhDnet, an active network of Ph.D. candidates at the German Max Planck Society (MPG), a big victory came on 13 March: MPG finally decided to treat all of its Ph.D. candidates as employees, giving them equal professional status and full social security benefits and employment protections. In this article, we explain how PhDnet has been instrumental in leading MPG to improve the working conditions of Ph.D. candidates, and we share the lessons we have learned from this success.

Identifying the problem

In a world of increasing competition for research funding and growing focus on applied research, MPG offers established researchers excellent working conditions. Across its 83 institutes, MPG offers group leaders strong financial support and complete independence so that they may concentrate on pursuing groundbreaking discoveries.

For young scientists, this translates into a vibrant and interdisciplinary research environment. In an unpublished 2013 MPG survey of current and former Ph.D. candidates, 77% of the respondents said they chose to do their Ph.D. at a Max Planck institute for the research infrastructure and equipment available, followed closely by the institute’s reputation and international networks.

Leonard Burtscher

Leonard Burtscher

Credit: Nicolas Blind/Leonard Burtscher

But over the last decade or so, junior researchers at MPG (and other German research organizations) have confronted a profound inequality in professional status and salary compensation. While a fraction of Ph.D. candidates and postdocs have been paid through working contracts with their institute, the others have instead received tax-free scholarships known as stipends.

These different payment methods have drastic consequences. In Germany, junior researchers with contracts are legal employees. As such, their salaries, terms of employment, employee benefits, and working conditions are usually determined via collective bargaining with trade unions; moreover, contract holders are protected by German labor law. Their employers pay contributions to the national social security system, so they—the contract holders—get public health insurance, paid parental leave, unemployment benefits, and retirement rights.

In contrast, researchers with stipends lack employee status and the protections it offers. Stipend holders generally receive lower salaries and are deprived of legal protection and access to the public social security system. They don’t pay taxes, but they must pay for their own social security provisions, which can be not only expensive but also difficult: For example, comprehensive private health insurance is sometimes impossible to get for people who are pregnant or have pre-existing illnesses. As estimated in 2009, over a 3-year Ph.D. the financial disadvantage of a stipend holder, compared to the typical contract holder, amounted to about €9000.

Caroline Behrens

Caroline Behrens

Courtesy of Caroline Behrens

In principle, stipend holders do have one advantage: As visiting scholars, they are given more freedom to define their own research goals and more time to pursue them. Their lack of employment status within the institute officially exempts them from the obligations to work regular hours, maintain equipment, and supervise younger peers. In practice, though, stipend holders at many institutes are expected to uphold these obligations just as much as contract holders. They do the same work but for lower income, fewer benefits, and with less security.

Joining forces and gathering data

Concerned by such inequalities, in 2002 a handful of Ph.D. candidates from several Max Planck institutes initiated a discussion with MPG administrators. A year later, realizing that they needed an online platform to communicate more broadly and effectively among themselves, the Ph.D. candidates launched PhDnet.

In the years that followed, PhDnet organized itself into a formal association, with representatives elected at each institute and a centralized steering group to communicate with the MPG administration. Discussions about the working conditions of junior researchers seemed promising, but they led to no tangible improvement; at first, the MPG administration seemed to deny the existence of the problem.

This impasse led PhDnet to conduct a survey of Ph.D. candidates within MPG, in 2009. Around 2100 of 3500 MPG Ph.D. candidates responded. Half of the respondents declared receiving stipends. In addition, the survey results indicated that stipend holders spent almost as much time on duties unrelated to their Ph.D. projects as contract holders did, confirming the suspected lack of scientific independence.

Andreas Sorge

Andreas Sorge

Credit: Fotostudio Wilder/Frank Lemburg

In a first, small success for PhDnet, that same year MPG started offering stipend holders better benefits, including subsidies toward private health insurance and significantly higher child allowances. Nonetheless, Ph.D. candidates with contracts continued to receive higher pay and better legal and social protections.

Uniting behind a concrete goal

A new impetus was given to the cause when, in spring 2012, German magazine Der Spiegel scrutinized the inequalities faced by Ph.D. candidates at MPG. A few days later, in an opinion piece in Der Tagesspiegel, former MPG President Peter Gruss defended the institutes’ reliance on stipends, stating that a Ph.D. candidate is not a “‘ganzer’ Wissenschaftler”—which translates, roughly, as “not fully a scientist.” Instead, he wrote, Ph.D. candidates are doing an “apprenticeship in the laboratory.”

Outraged, several Ph.D. candidates launched an online “fair pay” petition calling for the pay of all Ph.D. candidates to be raised to the minimum standard set by the German Research Foundation. They also called for a greater oversight of the institutes by the MPG administration, to guarantee the scientific independence of stipend holders. More than 1300 Max Planck Ph.D. candidates signed the petition, which received continuous press coverage. That summer, the MPG administration raised the minimum stipend from €1000 to €1365 per month and reinforced institutional rules.

Scott Kilpatrick

Scott Kilpatrick

Credit: Scott Kilpatrick/Georg Neis

This was a big success for Max Planck Ph.D. candidates—the inequalities among stipend holders were wiped out—but the gap between stipend holders and contract holders persisted. So, in the 2 years that followed, PhDnet collected evidence showing that some of the institutes did not adhere to the measures introduced in 2009 and discussed the results with the MPG administration. Soon the issues again hit the press, prompting German parliamentarians and other politicians to approach PhDnet and hear their concerns.

Making change happen

Sweeping change is now on the horizon. Martin Stratmann, who took office as the new MPG president last summer, announced last week that starting this July, all new MPG Ph.D. candidates will be paid through contracts instead of stipends. Also, all Ph.D. candidates at MPG will enjoy the status of employees and full legal and social protections.

As junior researchers, it is easy to feel powerless, but our tale illustrates how we can improve our working conditions if we rally together around a common goal and show strong and continuous engagement. The newly fair treatment of Ph.D. candidates will make the already excellent research environment at MPG all the more attractive to junior researchers. We hope our story inspires other junior researchers and academic organizations to follow suit in improving working conditions for all.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the five authors and do not necessarily represent the positions of the research organizations they work for.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers