Today we host a post from Tatyana Dubich, head of the Communication Team.
Helmholtz association (HA) consists of 18 different research centers, conducting excellent research in variety of topics from cancer research to energy technology. This research would not be possible without the most talented and motivated scientists performing it. Therefore talent management and recruiting more gifted scientists is crucial for the association’s wellbeing. And to attract the best minds, one has to provide the best working conditions.
Almost half of the scientists of Helmholtz Association are doctoral researchers and significant part of studies are performed and published by them. Independent of the field of study, most of the doctoral researchers work de facto full time, dedicating their work and passion to science, notwithstanding that working- and contract conditions, as well as even monthly salary differ from center to center, sometimes even in precarious ways.
(But) How come, that performing the same work we have different income? The main difference is coming from the fact, that not all of doctoral researcher have a working contract, but rather a stipend. Monthly income, social security, health insurance policy and amount of vacant days per year differ for doctoral researchers depending on center and contract situation. According to the Helmholtz Juniors’ survey 2014 and 2016, monthly net-income can differ up to 1.5 times between contract- and stipend-holders in different centers (900€ for stipends up to 2400€ for full 100% positions). Besides, not all researchers are paid till the completion (submission) of their PhD thesis. In some cases, they have to finish writing being de facto unemployed and unpaid, working towards their title without getting any income. It should be noticed that these stages of life, some doctoral researches already have family and children.
Based on the survey data, former Helmholtz Juniors speakers Dagmara and Elias together with working conditions group formulated a statement urging Helmholtz association administration to equalize the working conditions for doctoral researchers. Among their demands were general rejecting of stipends, fixing contracts to a minimum of 65% of TVöD E13, increased amount of holidays and providing a contract for all the PhD time till submission. The statement we put together and sent to head of HA Otmar Wiestler as well as to the directors/Human resources of the individual Helmholtz Centers in fall 2016 and in winter 2016 to the state secretary Thomas Rachel from the BMBF.
The statements were thoroughly discussed during Helmholtz Association annual meeting and on 7th of December 2016 HeJu received an official answer to the statements with the comments for every requirement.
The burning question was if the stipends would be rejected in the Association. Unfortunately, Helmholtz association and BMBF do not see that the total abolishment of stipends is possible in the near future and refer to the guidelines of the Helmholtz association. Therefore, it is impossible to standardize the monthly income for all doctoral researchers. Generally, all the centres offering 65% TVöD E13 to contract-holders. However, the association can not influence the wage for stipend holders, especially if the stipend is not provided by Helmholtz itself.
Increase in amount of vacant days per year cannot be expected soon as well for legal reasons. According to federal law, doctoral researchers with grant agreement can not have the same amount of holidays as TVöD-employees (30 days).
As mentioned above, some of the topics were already addressed by the association while creating the ‘Guidelines for the completion of PhD projects within the Helmholtz Association’ issued in 2015. If you are a Doctoral researcher within Helmholtz Association and still have not seen the guidelines, contact your local HeJus or visit https://www.helmholtz.de/fileadmin/Guidelines-for-the-completion-of-PhD-projects-within-the-Helmholtz-Association.pdf.
The Guidelines address all aspects of PhD thesis completion, including the goals, the process itself, supervision, framework conditions and quality assurance. In particular, they recommend, that the promotion should be the main goal of PhD agreement and that ‘in consultation with the supervisory committee funding is to be sought until the submission of the dissertation to the university.’ Regulations of the supervision agreement and support to participate in graduate schools are also already a part of the Guidelines.
So, are all the issues already fixed with the Guidelines issued? One should keep in mind that unfortunately they are not written in stone and it is more of a recommendation than a real law, obliging to treat doctoral researchers in a certain way. Besides, almost every research center has it’s own guidelines concerning PhD completion.
However the statements did initiate a change. Thus, Prof. Herzig, director of GEOMAR (Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, Kiel), approved the statement and showed full support for Doctoral researchers. Working conditions for contract holders of the center had already fulfilled all the requirements of Helmholtz Juniors. Moved by the statement, administration of GEOMAR offered 75% FVöD contract to all internal stipend holders.
What’s next? Are we done now?
Of course, HeJu will not stop with this achievement. Representatives from GEOMAR were able initiate the change in their centre. Now it is up to HeJu in other 17 centres to make the administration aware of the statements and convince them, that improvement of working conditions is necessary and use the example of GEOMAR to prove that it’s possible.
The guidelines appeared in 2015, right after previous survey took place. With the survey 2017 we would like to evaluate whether or not they have brought a real change into doctoral researcher’s life and improved working conditions.
We are looking forward to the survey result and based on it we are going to identify the remaining issues and address them. The results are going to be presented to Prof. O. Wiestler and critically discussed to further improve working conditions.
Besides, we are in dialog with the Federal Ministry of Education and Research raising the awareness of the problems.
Hopefully with all the effort we will achieve perfect and comparable working conditions for doctoral researchers in all the centers, which will not only improve our wellbeing, but also allow us to attract best minds from all over the world, pushing research of our centres to a new level of excellence and help us bringing back our focus to the thing we are here for – science.