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Survey: European Ph.D. Students Underfunded, Unaware of Rights

Money is the most pressing concern for European doctoral students, according to the first Europewide survey of working conditions for young researchers, which is set to be released today. The study also found that many Ph.D. students aren't fully aware of their contractual rights and obligations.

The survey, released by the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers (Eurodoc), shows that funding levels vary widely by country. In the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, 90% or more of doctoral students receive some form of scholarship or salary for their work. But in several other countries, 20% to 30% don't receive anything, and in Austria that percentage can rise to 46%. "We did not expect the lack of funding to be so extensive," says Karoline Holländer, a former president of Eurodoc and a co-author of the report. "Many doctoral candidates have to find other sources of income to live on."

The report is based on a 2008-09 survey of 8900 doctoral candidates and junior researchers in 30 European countries. Then, Eurodoc volunteers spent nearly 2 years cleaning up the data and preparing the report, Holländer says. In the end, responses from just 7600 researchers in 12 countries were included because the remaining data were not considered statistically significant. The report will be presented today at a meeting at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, where Eurodoc hopes to bring attention to young researchers' plight. "The idea [of the study] was to substantiate our discussions with numbers," Holländer says.

Funding issues also hamper mobility, say survey respondents, most of whom were aged between 26 and 35 years and were drawn from disciplines such as math, physics, and biology. In some cases, young researchers end up drawing unemployment benefits or taking loans from their families to be able to spend part of their Ph.D. studies abroad, Holländer says. "Funds are available all over Europe, but the information about them doesn't seem easy to find."

Many respondents appear to be unclear about the intellectual property rights to their Ph.D. findings, the report concludes. The authors say that about 25% of Ph.D.s studying in France and Spain were not allowed to make commercial use of data from their theses, compared with 21% in Slovenia, 12% in Belgium, and 10% in Germany. "Patent rights are very important," Holländer says. "A number of candidates coming from outside Europe have direct contracts with industry and sign away their rights before they start their research. That means they also earn nothing from the end product."

In most countries, the majority of doctoral candidates have some form of binding agreement that defines their supervisors' role, as Eurodoc recommends. But almost half of the surveyed Ph.D. students in Germany did not, and a "disturbing" number of respondents—more than 20% in some countries—had no idea whether such an agreement even exists, says the report.

Surprisingly, more men than women said they were at a disadvantage in academia because of their gender. In Finland, for instance, 78% of men felt that their sex was "very much" a disadvantage, whereas only 37% of women did. "We have no explanation for this," says Holländer, who adds that the next round of the survey, to be conducted in 3 to 5 years, may ask further questions on the topic.