Extra time for PhD researchers helps, but not enough

WUR is compensating PhD students and postdocs for delays caused by the Covid crisis.
Illustration: Studio Geniek

A gallant gesture but not always enough. And the question arises: will there be a new round this year or was this a one-off measure?

Last year, 148 PhD students and 17 postdocs received compensation from WUR because their work had suffered delays due to the coronavirus crisis. One of the PhD students was Anna Bohnenkamp from Germany, who does research at Bioprocess Engineering on the sustainable production of bulk chemicals using E.coli bacteria.

There’s no question of taking a holiday

Anna Bohnenkamp

During the first lockdown last year, the lab closed for two months, which meant Bohnenkamp could not start any new experiments. In the months that followed, Bohnenkamp had limited access to the lab due to the Covid restrictions. ‘That made the experiments less efficient.’ She has been granted an extension of two months, so her PhD contract now runs until 1 June this year. ‘I’m behind by far more than that, but I’m happy with every month’s extension I can get. I have published two articles and I need to write one more. After that, I can write the other chapters of my thesis. I did have plans to do more research in my last year, but now I’m concentrating on what is strictly necessary. I am sacrificing a bit of quality and leeway, but I have accepted that. For now, the big source of stress is finishing my thesis on time. There’s no question of taking a holiday. All the PhD students are working as hard as they can.’

Same rights

The university soon realized that PhD students were being held up by the coronavirus restrictions and set up a fund for compensating them for that. For PhD students on contract, about 650,000 euros was available from the budget for PhD salaries. On top of that, the Wageningen graduate schools earmarked 300,000 euros from their own budgets for compensation for PhD students on grants.

In doing this, the graduate schools observed a principle important to the Wageningen PhD Council, that PhD students on grants should enjoy the same rights as those on contracts. The PhD Council therefore appreciates the support package for PhD students on grants, says Robin Barten, a PhD student in Bioprocess Engineering. The decision to consistently award PhD students with children the maximum possible extension of three months meets with the PhD Council’s approval too. The Council played its part in this, as several of its members were on the committee that assessed the applications. Almost all the applications by PhD students were approved, says Janneke van Seters, head of the PhD Office at WUR. The few applications that were turned down were by PhD students whose contracts only end in 2022.

Some of the applicants were so hampered by the coronavirus crisis that the contract extension was nowhere near enough to enable them to catch up. One example is Rayner Gonzalez, a Cuban postdoc in Breeding & Genomics. In a two-year project, Gonzalez is studying the DNA variation among African and European indigenous cattle breeds in relation to their ecosystems, looking at things like climate, altitude, production and disease. Gonzales seeks to identify the genes and the performance of various indigenous breeds, and the hypothesis is that the African breeds are more resilient to stress than the European ones.

Due to the coronavirus restrictions, Gonzales has been sent DNA from the African breeds but only a fraction of the phenotypic data on the different breeds that he needs. So the African side of his research is at a standstill. He is now working with cattle breeds from Finland, Portugal and the Netherlands. At the end of February, additional information from South Africa arrived at last, but he is still waiting for information about the cattle from Egypt and Uganda. He estimates that his project has been delayed by a year.

In addition to the financial compensation provided by the university, the chair groups have a responsibility to find solutions within the PhD projects

The Executive Board

His two-month contract extension helps, says Gonzalez, ‘but is not enough.’ He can write one or two articles about variation in the Dutch cattle breeds, but he cannot compare African and European breeds, which was the idea. Sadly, there is no chance of a year’s extension of his contract.

Lingering effect

The big question is: will there be a Covid fund next year for PhD students whose contract ends in 2022? The PhD Council calls the funding ‘a good start’ and notes that most of the compensation awarded is for time lost in the lockdown of March and April 2020, and is therefore no more than two months. Yet the Covid restrictions such as limited laboratory time and little or no opportunity for fieldwork have gone on longer than that. The lack of laboratory or office space limits fieldwork and travel bans are still hampering PhD students, including those who aim to complete their research in 2022 and 2023. These PhD students have not received compensation yet, while their research too has suffered serious delays, says the PhD Council.

But according to Van Seters, it is uncertain whether the university’s budget stretches to compensating PhD students for delays after 2021. The lockdown last year meant that research had to be abandoned abruptly, but by now the chair groups and PhD students have had time to make their research plans more Covid-proof. ‘The Executive Board take the view that, in addition to the financial compensation provided by the university, the chair groups have a responsibility to find solutions within the PhD projects,’ says Van Seters, ‘by planning less lab work, for example, and more literature research. That might mean the PhD students produce fewer or different publications, but their learning goals must come first.’

You may also like:

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to write a comment.