The 2017 PhDnet Survey: Quality Management for Doctoral Research

by Johannes Kaub

Pursuing a doctoral degree is tough. It takes a lot of dedication and passion for science to voluntarily commit typically more than three years to working towards a far-off and often poorly defined goal. In many cases, the workload is high and the payment less than attractive. On top of that, not only do fields of research and projects vary a lot between disciplines, but also from site to site and from institution to institution. Furthermore, working conditions and scientific conduct may be blatantly different for other doctoral researchers even though they are in the same situation. So how can we make sure that the highly diverse German academic landscape manages to keep up its renowned high quality in research and education?

With hundreds of institutions committed to the training of junior scientists in Germany, acquiring data on the working realities of doctoral researchers seems like a monumental task. Still, every step towards this goal—no matter how small—bears its own significance, and the effort made by the PhDnet with its 2017 Survey, collecting and evaluating data on the working conditions of Max Planck doctoral researchers, is far from small!

Of the well more than 4,500 doctoral researchers currently affiliated with the Max Planck Society, the Survey managed to collect details about the professional lives for a total of 2,218 young scientists. One thing to note: There were participants from every single one of the 84 Max Planck Institutes, even from the five Institutes that are situated outside of Germany! This inspiring level of participation does not only emphasize the importance of this tool of quality management employed by the PhDnet, but also speaks to the reliability and representativeness of the data collected. A great thank-you to everybody who took the time to participate!

In this article we want to highlight some of the Survey's interesting findings and illuminate their implications for the future of doctoral research with the Max Planck Society. The full report can be found here.

As the biggest Survey ever conducted among Max Planck doctoral researchers, the questionnaire focused on several different topics. After recording some basic Demographic details to put the responses into perspective, a section of questions regarding Employment, Funding and Vacation details was posed, followed by several inquiries about the researchers' Working Conditions, especially directed at satisfaction with various factors like supervision and working hours. The next—particularly sensitive—section raised questions on issues of Equal Opportunities and discrimination, with parenthood and mental health as the most prominent subjects in this context. Finally, the Survey closed with collecting data on the notoriety of the PhDnet and its activities among the Max Planck doctoral researchers, and added some questions regarding the Max Planck Alumni Association (MPAA) and the red-hot topic of Open Access publishing.

An integral part of the statistical analysis of data collected through surveys like this is cross-correlation. In this way, it is possible to explore connections between different items of interest, identify inequalities and provides hints to their causation. For instance, cross-correlation allowed insights into the financial reality of salaries for male vs. female researchers. Only through such compelling evidence from correlation is it possible to back theoretical claims and initiate well-founded actions aimed at changing the highly bureaucratic system that is modern-day academia. Past Surveys have provided the PhDnet with data corroborating the bias between international doctoral researchers—who were more likely to obtain their funding through a stipend along with all its implications—and those of German origin, who were more often employed with contracts, offering a much broader spectrum of social benefits. While stipends offer greater flexibility e.g. in the organization of working hours and vacation and hence put a strong emphasis on promoting the scholar’s self-responsibility, unlike contracts they do not include a proper health insurance, and stipend holders do not contribute to the pension system. In 2015, this led the Max Planck Society to start offering contracts to all new doctoral students as a standard procedure.

One peculiar finding of the Survey in the context of Gender Equality is this: While institutes focused on research in Chemistry, Physics and Technology employ twice as many male doctoral researchers as females, this ratio is flipped in the section of Human Sciences. Feminism and similar concepts are doing their best to break with restrictive traditions of inequality, but a closer look shows that Gender Equality comprises more than just the enforcement of a contingent of female employees. All the individual Max Planck Institutes make efforts toward a more gender-equal employment situation, both in management positions and on a more basic level. For further information, the Equal Opportunities officers, who—among other things—are tasked with formulating a Gender Equality Plan for their respective institute, can be approached. Another useful source of information and support on Equal Opportunities issues is the PhDnet EO workgroup.

The Survey identified two major sources of dissatisfaction for doctoral researchers: salary and holidays. While many Max Planck Institutes have adopted the policy of offering compensation equal to 65% of the public service labor agreement in Germany (TVöD), this is not true for all of them. The resulting disparity in wages—sometimes even between doctoral researchers at different institutes in the same city—is a major cause for discussion and concern. Another recurring cause of discontent is the Max Planck Society's policy of abidance by the Federal Leave Act (Bundesurlaubsgesetz) and its guidelines on minimum holidays in Germany—a practice uncommon, for instance, in doctoral research at a university. The PhDnet has been working towards loosening this policy and earning ten additional days of annual vacation for its doctoral researchers for quite some time. The Survey might help them finally put this motion through.

While Max Planck doctoral researchers are generally very satisfied with their working conditions, reports of dissatisfaction mainly relate to supervision and scientific support. Specifically, a low frequency in meetings with the supervisor appears to be a strong factor contributing to negative evaluations of supervision quality. While respondents to the survey report an average of seven doctoral researchers per supervisor (a number that is in concordance with the limit of eight as defined in the Max Planck Society's rules and guidelines), one in five respondents report sharing their supervisor with nine or more other doctoral researchers. If a research group grows too large, a number of problems can arise, among them an increasing difficulty of maintaining an overview of all the different projects and their status. This may adversely affect the quality of scientific support, possibly leading to a palpable decrease in motivation and satisfaction in doctoral researchers. Countering and controlling this is one of the tasks faced by the Max Planck Society's administration.

And yet another very important challenge to the MPS (as well as every other institution contributing to the training of doctoral researchers) shows itself through the Survey: Even though the ratio of junior scientists that wish to continue working in an academic environment after graduation has been steadily declining for the past years, today more than half still bear this intention. On the other hand, only about one in three actually believe they will be able to achieve this, and the actual number of available positions for emerging researchers in academia paints an even darker picture. In light of recent developments in the job market for young scientists, it becomes apparent that an effort must be made to point out alternative possibilities of career for all those that will, despite their wish, not be able to follow the tenure track.

As mentioned previously, one of the Survey's major focal points was the topic of mental health. Recent publications have raised awareness that the conditions of modern-day doctoral research is likely to contribute to symptoms of stress and depression in young scientists. Even though the Survey's results did not offer any evidence for an apparent connection between mental health issues and workload (as in working hours per week), stress-related symptoms are prevalent in a majority of doctoral researchers, and a large ratio of respondents agree with the statement that their work is a significant contributor to this.

A careful collection and distribution of well-grounded statistics has gained even greater importance in the wake of the emerging practice of “alternative facts”. The Information Age has made it easier than ever to spread information—be it actual facts or mere opinions—through a multitude of channels ranging from social media, online blogs (such as this one), video platforms, discussion forums to privately-owned websites, and this doesn't even begin to touch all the possibilities outside the Web. Sadly, it has also become increasingly difficult to draw clear lines between truth and misinformation, between thoroughly investigated findings and mere rule-of-thumb estimates, between proper results of scientific investigations and far-fetched numbers made up to support arbitrary claims.

Thus, it is vital to maintain an orderly culture of documentation, particularly in scientific publishing. Polls like the PhDnet Survey 2017, time-consuming as they might be for those involved, are invaluable tools to foster a repository of data and information that may well serve to promote equality and a sense of belonging in the rather individualistic and competitive environment that is A-list research.

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