Sandwich pHD

Great opportunity or better than nothing?
Photo: Alfred Heikamp/Shutterstock

Text: Katrin Heidemeyer

A sandwich PhD is often the only opportunity candidates have to become researchers, but it comes at a cost: the pay is low, the contracts are not as favourable, and the time pressure is high. ‘My graduate school would have helped me, had I known to ask.’

2082 PhD candidates are currently working on their theses at Wageningen University and Research, and around 25 per cent of them are sandwich PhD candidates. These are mostly people from developing countries, who come to Wageningen for the first and the last stretches of their PhD, conducting the main research in their home country. This kind of training gives institutes the chance to transfer knowledge and candidates a better education and job prospects. For some, it is the only opportunity to become a researcher, but it comes at a cost: the pay is lower, the contracts are not bound by collective labour agreements, and the time pressure is higher compared with standard PhD contracts.  

Hiring sandwich PhDs was dubbed ‘academic slavery’ in a 2019 reader’s view article in Resource written by Mark Zwart, a microbial researcher at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). Zwart reported that sandwich PhDs often have MSc-level jobs in their home country and are still employed at these institutions while they do their research. ‘This often means more responsibilities, more work and less pay than before the PhD.’ According to Zwart: ‘Some talented researchers work under unacceptable conditions.’

Better than nothing

Daniel Marjani (name altered by Resource) develops computational models for plant breeding in Ethiopia. He spent the first nine months of his PhD in Wageningen, working on his proposal and attending courses. Initially he wanted to do all his research in Wageningen but he did not get the position he applied for. ‘The professor offered me the sandwich PhD, however. Better than nothing, I thought and took the job, only to work with the guy who got the full PhD and with it, higher payment, plus the benefits of the collective labour agreement.’

I would only recommend this programme to people who have no other chance to do research

During his stay in Wageningen, Marjani spent much of his time setting up his Training and Supervision Plan. All WUR PhD candidates must gain a total of 30 ECTS by attending courses and conferences. Marjani says: ‘I found it difficult to understand my duties, and to find courses that I could attend during my stay in Wageningen. Only later did I find out that my graduate school would have helped me, had I known to ask.’

Now back in Ethiopia, Marjani is conducting his research, but has many additional duties, putting him under pressure again. ‘It is still good training and my supervisors are great. But the conditions should be better, and the schedule more flexible.’

Support

Mahsina Syeda Akter, a Bangladeshi sandwich PhD in the field of human nutrition and health, is positive about her sandwich PhD in Wageningen. Akter is a mother of two and spent the first six months of her PhD in Wageningen. By the time she came, she had already figured out her Training and Supervision Plan with the help of her supervisor. ‘This gave me time to attend courses and write my proposal, also with great support.’ For her, the struggle was being away from her children. ‘That was a sacrifice I was willing to make, since I couldn’t find funding for a full PhD.’ Akter is pleased to have the opportunity and feels she received better training than she could have at other universities.

The experience depends a lot on the contract PhD candidates sign

‘In general, the experience depends a lot on the contract PhD candidates sign,’ reports Fennie van Straalen, PhD Programme Manager for the Wageningen School of Social Sciences. Only a small number of sandwich PhDs have contracts with WUR, while most get stipends from external agencies, and the conditions can vary greatly. ‘The critical cases,’ according to Van Straalen, ‘are those where people have unhealthy conditions in their contracts and no direct supervisor outside WUR. These PhDs often report feeling lost in their work. They only have the WUR supervisors to contact while they are abroad, and these supervisors are unaware of the local conditions and cannot always be of much help. I believe that WUR has a responsibility to create a healthy situation for sandwich PhD candidates,’ says Van Straalen. To ensure this, the Social Sciences department has created a liaisons office which helps future candidates to understand the terms and conditions of their contract and to negotiate these terms.

Equal

Another important factor is the ‘relationship between the supervisors at WUR and the other institution,’ says Claudius van de Vijver, head of the PhD Programme at the Graduate School Production Ecology and Resource Conservation. ‘Good collaboration often arises when supervisors have worked with each other before. This benefits the PhD candidate, as supervisors are more in line with what the PhD research should focus on and what can be expected. When supervisors do not know each other or do not communicate well, PhDs may have to deal with contradictory tasks, conflicting interests, and too many duties,’ says Van de Vijver.

Marjani and Akter will come back to Wageningen to finish their data analysis and write their theses. They both hope that there will be more online courses for sandwich PhD candidates in the future, as there are now due to the coronavirus pandemic. ‘This would give me the same time for my training as standard PhD candidates have,’ says Marjani. ‘For us the programme is a great chance to receive good quality training and boost our career prospects,’ says Akter. ‘But the good supervision was a big help.’ Marjani would like ‘future sandwich PhD candidates to have the same compensation, support and recognition that regular WUR PhDs receive, for example in the form of a collective labour agreement.’

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