by Juliane Hafermann, Julian Gethmann and Stephan Körner (Helmholtz Juniors Survey Group)
Things are moving in the scientific world: the working conditions of PhD students in two large German scientific societies, the Helmholtz Association and the Max Planck Society, will be improved dramatically. This week we will present recent developments at the Helmholtz Association. Stay tuned for more insights into the changes at the Max Planck society next week.
The Helmholtz Association recently made huge progress in the way they treat PhD students. A working group chaired by Prof. Dirk Heinz and coordinated by Nina Löchte (who is responsible for the promotion of young and early-stage researchers and international networking) has prepared guidelines for the completion of PhD projects within the Helmholtz Association. The Helmholtz Juniors, PhD representatives from every Helmholtz Centre in Germany, were also heard and involved in the process of writing these guidelines.As Germany’s largest scientific research organisation, the Helmholtz Association comprises 18 research centres working in six different fields: Energy, Earth and Environment, Health, Aeronautics, Space and Transport as well as Key Technologies plus Matter. A total of 36,000 staff work there, approximately 6,500 of them PhD students.
These PhD students make a significant contribution to the research and the successes of the Helmholtz Association. Thus, the Helmholtz Association is interested in promoting and supporting them and their career with a talent management concept. 34 Research Schools and Graduate Schools have already been set up by the Helmholtz Association, offering a structured education and training for doctoral students.
Setting up the Graduate and Research Schools had been a first important step. Since then, further measures have been taken to improve the situation of PhD students within the Helmholtz Association. The Helmholtz PhD guidelines are an agreement on minimum standards that have to be met for the completion of PhD projects under optimal conditions. They strive to provide a wide range of training and development opportunities in order to prepare PhD students for their future careers in academia or industry as well as outside of research positions. Their aim is to create a common quality to the PhD training at all Helmholtz Centres, facilitate quality assurance and give guidance to both PhD students and their supervisors.
The guidelines make several recommendations for best practice during PhD training with the aim to turn these best practice examples into the minimal standards of PhD training within the Helmholtz Association. They endorse Research Schools and Graduate Schools, which provide a structured training and educational programme according to the needs of the individual PhD student.
At least 9 out of the 18 Helmholtz centres award stipends, and according to the latest Helmholtz Juniors Survey, 22 % of the survey participants are funded by a stipend. While stipends allow for more independence than conventional contracts do, they do not include health and pension insurance or other social securities. A more detailed comparison between stipends and contracts as well as all their benefits and drawbacks was published by the Helmholtz Juniors Working Conditions Group. The text is available in both German and English and can be found here: Detailed information on stipends.
In order to further improve the working conditions and the social security of PhD students in particular, the guidelines are an important step in the right direction as they advocate paid contracted positions including social security contributions. Furthermore, the guidelines state that the contract period should equal the expected duration of the PhD, with an optional extension period and additional funding until the dissertation is submitted in case the project cannot be completed within the allotted time frame. However, stipends as such are not ruled out, and awarding them as a source of funding for PhD students remains a possibility, leaving an obvious loophole.
The guidelines promote a system where the doctoral students do not solely depend on the goodwill of their supervisor. Instead, a committee of at least three scientists (one of them the primary supervisor) is to be informed about and consulted on the progress of the PhD project. This committee may furthermore give advice on career options and strategic questions during the PhD.
PhD students are to be seen as “junior researchers undergoing preparation for their future careers through the process of completing a PhD”. The guidelines thus endorse support for career development, such as career advice and mentoring programmes for PhD students as well as career planning support after completion of the PhD.
The formation of student bodies – such as PhD representatives at the individual centres or the Helmholtz Juniors as an association-wide PhD student body – is encouraged. That way, PhD students can get involved in future decisions affecting them and the support they receive.
These guidelines are certainly a great basis for the completion of PhD projects within the Helmholtz Association. However, there is one big drawback. So far, the guidelines are only best practice examples and recommendations. Every Helmholtz centre is technically free to choose which ones to implement and which ones to ignore. Furthermore, the situation of postdocs has not been addressed so far, which is another potential issue.
Many of the Helmholtz centres have already set up conditions according to in accordance with parts of the guidelines, while still falling a short in other parts. In general, however, most PhD students enjoy good working conditions in the Helmholtz Association. The establishment of the PhD guidelines show that the necessity for changes has been recognised and that there is a willingness to improve the situation.