Reader’s View: Stop ‘academic slavery’ in sandwich PhD programmes

A sandwich PhD has benefits, but also downsides
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Researcher Mark Zwart sees the benefits of PhD programmes for foreigners that are partly performed at WUR and partly in their home country. But he also sees the downside: some talented researchers work under unacceptable conditions. ‘Do we want be involved in programmes that lead to the exploitation of people?’ he asks.

Sandwich PhD programmes might seem like the best invention since sliced bread. They provide a unique opportunity for junior researchers from abroad – typically from developing or newly industrialized countries – to participate in cutting-edge research and high-quality postgraduate education in the Netherlands.

At the same time, they are an inexpensive way of appointing researchers because most salary and research costs are covered by the host institute abroad, making these programmes appealing to research groups in the Netherlands. It seems like a match made in heaven: foreign PhD students received a first-rate education and Dutch research groups are strengthened by their talent and research.

 Moreover, she had to continue working for the same institute for 10 years after finishing her PhD. 

Let me say right off the bat that I personally think that sandwich PhDs are a valuable instrument that can provide mutual benefits for PhD candidates and the hosting institutes. I have been involved in various sandwich PhD programmes and I have seen how they can cultivate talented people. However, there is a sinister side to sandwich PhD programmes that only becomes apparent when we dig a little deeper. A downside that sandwich PhD students would perhaps never bring up themselves.

Horrible conditions

Let’s describe the case with an example in my group. I do not want to mention her name, but she was the most talented PhD candidate we had seen so far in her field: knowledgeable, bright, independent, hard-working and totally committed to her research. It was only after she had started her PhD programme that I became fully aware of her employment conditions at her home institute, and only because I pried.

Like so many people with a different cultural background, she would never dream of complaining to a supervisor. Her home institute was very pleased to allow her to enrol in a sandwich PhD programme, but the fine print was anything but pleasing. Her salary was halved, she was expected to continue with most of her normal duties and had to perform her research in her own time. Moreover, she had to continue working for the same institute for 10 years after finishing her PhD. If she did not do so, she would receive a fine. Calling it contemporary academic slavery would not be an exaggeration.

© Marte Hofsteenge

From the conversations I have had with other sandwich PhDs, I can only conclude that her story is in no way exceptional. Many sandwich PhDs work under employment conditions that we would consider unacceptable in the Netherlands. The scientist’s Achilles heel is often the love of science. Our motivation to understand the natural world is so strong that we will do so at a great personal cost, making us vulnerable to working under unacceptable conditions and to exploitation.

Do we really want to be involved in exploitation?

I think it is time that in the Netherlands we ask ourselves the question: do we want to be involved in programmes that lead to exploitation? The exploitative and inhumane contracts may not fall under Dutch law, but if we fund and participate in programmes that lead to exploitation, surely we are part of the problem.

I would like to continue with sandwich PhD programmes, but in a responsible and ethical manner. Thankfully, there are also many good examples of sandwich PhD programmes in which candidates work under acceptable conditions at all times. What lessons do they teach us?

 Supervisors need to be prepared to take steps to support and protect their PhD candidates 

More awareness

First, supervisors at the Dutch institute must be completely aware of the real circumstances under which their PhD students will be working at the home institute. This requires open communication with the PhD candidate and the supervisors at the home institute. Dutch supervisors should know how things work at the home institute, both on paper and in practice. It is therefore crucial to have a relationship in which the home-institute supervisor can be candid or to pay a long visit to the home institute.

Second, supervisors at Dutch institutes need to fully accept a responsibility for the candidate throughout their PhD trajectory. It is not enough to be responsible only for what happens during their stays in the Netherlands; the work that happens at their home institutes – and the conditions under which it happens – are an integral part of the process. Supervisors need to be prepared to take steps, including strong and decisive action, to support and protect their PhD candidates.

Opportunity for graduate schools?

How can we ensure systematic improvements for sandwich PhDs? Graduate research schools exist to ensure the quality and breadth of PhD education, and have a major impact on candidates throughout their entire PhD trajectory. It would be a major step forward if research schools were to encourage and enforce the evaluation of all of the employment conditions of PhD students as part of their admission requirements.

Mark Zwart is a microbial researcher at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). He used to work in the Quantitative Veterinary Epidemiology Group of WUR. © Lydia Zwart
Mark Zwart is a microbial researcher at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). He used to work in the Quantitative Veterinary Epidemiology Group of WUR. © Lydia Zwart

It would create a greater awareness of the difficult employment conditions suffered by some PhD students, and foster open discussions on all employment conditions between PhD candidates and their supervisors.

Moreover, if there is a code for PhD student employment, this will give supervisors leverage and non-negotiable standards when discussing terms of employment with the home institute. I think there might be a crucial role for graduate research schools because they are small and dynamic organizations, allowing for short-term solutions and changes unimpeded by red tape.

Better quality

Sandwich PhDs are valuable for developing junior scientists, bolstering international collaboration and gaining scientific knowledge. By ensuring that sandwich PhD candidates are treated fairly and employed under acceptable conditions throughout their PhD programmes, we will not only align them with ethical values that are beyond discussion; I am convinced we will be increasing the scientific and educational merits of these programmes as well.

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