Donders Wonders Blog

The dilemma young scientists face: Should I work without getting paid?

Only 7-15% of PhD candidates finish their doctorates on time, and, after that, many of them work unpaid to complete their degrees. Why is this the case, is it acceptable, and how can the situation be improved?

This post is also available in Dutch.

A PhD candidate in his final year, let’s call him John, enters his supervisor’s office for a meeting. He wants to discuss a somewhat unclear topic: What should be included in his PhD thesis? He proposes a plan for the data analysis that needs to be done and the chapters that need to be written. Excited by the prospects of this project, the supervisor, Jane, suggests a couple of extra things John can do to make his thesis even better and more interesting.

“I see how these additions would make my thesis better, but this extra work would probably take me another six months to complete,” shares John hesitantly. “My contract will expire before that, and I’ll end up working without getting paid for those extra six months.”

“Ah, that’s unpleasant,” replies Jane. “I know what that’s like, I also had to work without getting paid to finish my PhD. It’s not nice, but most young scientists do it—four years usually just aren’t enough to finish a PhD. It’s up to you, of course; you decide how good you want your thesis to be, but I strongly encourage you to add these things.”

PhD candidates don’t usually finish their doctorates on time

The dilemma of whether one should work without being paid is familiar to many young scientists. In the Netherlands, a PhD contract usually lasts for four years, but PhD candidates rarely finish within that time frame. Most candidates want to produce as good of a thesis as possible, but scientific work usually takes longer than expected. As a result, young scientists often end up achieving fewer outcomes (e.g., scientific articles) than they had hoped for by the time their contract is finished.

A staggering number of PhD candidates don’t finish their PhDs in time. According to data from VSNU about PhD completion between years 2001-2013, only 7-15% of PhD candidates completed their doctorates in four years. On average, young scientists needed 60 months (or 5 years) to complete their doctorates.

Is this a problem?

Many people consider it justified that PhD candidates take extra time to finish their doctorates. After all, a doctorate is a personal title and carries benefits for the recipient, so why should it be a problem that the person needs to work extra?

Other people argue that this logic is faulty because the work that goes into a PhD thesis carries additional value in terms of scientific articles and societal relevance to the candidate’s supervisor, the university, the scientific community, and society.

Some people even say that it is immoral to ask someone to work without paying them and that the system is functioning wrongly if PhD candidates are almost always required to work extra in addition to their contract and without payment in order to complete their doctorates.

Is there a solution?

There are two main types of solutions, the first one being contract extensions. Sometimes PhD candidates get their contracts extended, although this is relatively rare in the Netherlands. This solution may also be unfair because some young scientists’ contracts may be extended while others’ may not without a clear reason to justify the difference.

The other solution is to make sure the doctorate is completed within four years. This approach is applied more nowadays, and it seems promising. Universities as well as many supervisors are making it easier for PhD candidates to finish in time by setting clear and realistic expectations for what needs to go into a PhD thesis instead of requiring candidates to do more scientific work after their contract has expired.

This may effectively reduce the time needed to complete a doctorate, but it is still unlikely that PhD candidates will frequently finish in four years. Sometimes, young scientists manage to submit their theses before the end of their contracts, but afterwards there are still many additional steps (several rounds of revisions, booklet printing, thesis defense, etc.) that take up to a year, and this work is, of course, unpaid. It’s true that a PhD brings personal benefits, but the process of getting the degree is still considered a job.


Original language: English

Author: Marisha Manahova

Buddy: Julija Vaitonyte

Editor: Christienne Gonzales Damatac

Translator: Jill Naaijen

Editor Translation: Wessel Hieselaar

Photo by bruce mars from Pexels (Creative Commons license)

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