by Stephan Körner, Julian Gethmann and Juliane Hafermann
Last week, we reported about the changes in the way PhD students are to be treated in the Helmholtz Association. As could be read in the German news in March and April 2015, the Max Planck Society has meanwhile not been inactive: On March 23rd, the Max Planck Society published a press release presenting a plan to spend “50 million Euro for junior scientists”.
Basically, one can split the attempts to improve the situation of PhD students and postdocs into two parts: give every doctoral student and every PostDoc a contract and improve the supervision by providing at least a second Professor as supervisor and mentor.
== The two-class society of stipend holders and contract holders==
With more than 3400 stipend funded PhD students, the Max Planck Society is one of the biggest providers of PhD positions in Germany. Many PhD students come from abroad, and until now most of them have been provided with a stipend instead of a regular contract. But what is the problem with stipends? Although stipends offer benefits like more independence, they have some major disadvantages like lack of social securities, health and unemployment insurance, parental leave and pension, to name just a few. A more detailed description of the pros and cons of stipends can be found here.
To eliminate this funding-based difference between PhD students, the Max Planck Society will spend 50 million Euro per year to provide contracts instead of stipends to all of their doctoral students and postdocs. Furthermore, these contracts are granted for three years with an opportunity to extend for another year, so that students can focus on their work instead of worrying about follow-up funding.
One of the drawbacks of conventional staff contracts, however, is that PhD students also have to work on projects not related to their PhD topic (as it is e. g. still usual in engineering), such as giving lectures, supervising practical courses or performing routine tasks for their institute. Similar to the independence of these tasks granted by a stipend and unlike conventional contracts, these new PhD contracts are designed to ensure that you are not working on unrelated topics, but only on your own project. However, some drawbacks remain: there are exceptions to the no-stipend rule for guests working “on a particular project and for a limited time” who can still be funded by stipends without social security. These new guidelines do not affect any existing contracts or stipends and it is still unclear what the actual contracts encompass with regards to salary and benefits.
== Supervision ==
The second big issue addressed is the situation of supervision of doctoral students and their perspectives after finishing the PhD. The Max Planck Society is aware of the situation that less than 10 % of PhDs stay in science. Therefore more than 90 % of the PhD students would benefit from courses and programs preparing them for jobs in industry or economy.
Another more challenging approach for improving this situation is setting up contracts between the candidate, the supervising professor and another third person at a university. In the case of conflict between candidate and supervisor the third person mediates between the supervisor and the PhD student. The President of the Max Planck Society, Martin Statmann, hopes that each Professor supervising a student recognises and clearly communicates if a doctoral student is well suited for a career in research or if other branches seem to be more promising for the student.
In summary, this new development at the Max Planck Society is a big step in the right direction with still some minor flaws.