Spread of supervision agreements protects PhD students from abuse

Formal contracts guaranteeing regular meetings, money for conferences, and space to work in are seen as way to mitigate unbalanced power dynamic

April 1, 2021
Weightlifters holding a bar over their heads symbolising new powers granted to PhD students to combat bullying and overwork
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Growing numbers of sectors are introducing “supervision agreements” for PhD students, a tool that gives early career researchers more power in sometimes fraught relationships with academics.

The idea – which has been adopted most widely in Germany but has also caught on in Austria, New Zealand and Switzerland – is seen as part of the solution to the bullying, overwork and power imbalance that too often characterise the PhD process.

In Germany, more than half of PhD candidates at the country’s biggest research organisations – the Max Planck Society, Leibniz Association and Helmholtz Association – now have such agreements, and according to the latest survey data, these protected researchers are at least somewhat more likely to be satisfied with their supervision.

“It’s just more binding,” said Cornelia van Scherpenberg, an advisory board member of N², an umbrella organisation for PhD students at the three research bodies. “The researcher can say: ‘Hey, you were supposed to help me plan my career, it was stated in the agreement, can we please talk about that?’ – because it actually has some concrete things that are part of the PhD process.”

One model agreement drawn up by PhD students at the Leibniz Association, currently being adopted by some of the network’s institutes, sets out a number of specific rights. PhD candidates are guaranteed training on “soft skills” and “good scientific practice”; funding to attend conferences; annual career interviews; work space, a computer and software; and regular supervision at set periods.

“It’s things that should be included in any PhD supervision relationship,” said Ms van Scherpenberg, a doctoral researcher herself.

These agreements should also include a maximum number of papers a PhD candidate is expected to publish, she added, to stop supervisors using them as “cheap labour” to pump out co-authored publications.

Putting in black and white what PhD candidates can expect is seen as part of a long-overdue professionalisation of academic management. Leadership is not something an academic “just knows how to do”, Ms van Scherpenberg said. “They have to get some sort of training, and there have to be some sort of rules and regulations.”

Such agreements were now also “widespread” in New Zealand, said Rachel Spronken-Smith, dean of the Graduate Research School at the University of Otago, where contracts are mandatory for doctoral students and “highly recommended” for bachelor’s and master’s students.

At Otago, students and supervisors have to agree beforehand their expectations for workload – with students assured four to five weeks of holiday a year.

They also have to hammer out in advance the authorship rights for any papers published. Agreements set out a “normal expectation” that supervision meetings take place “weekly or fortnightly”.

In Switzerland, too, supervision agreements have become “quite common”, said Marco Hollenstein, who works in the University of Bern’s vice-rectorate for development. “It’s a simple thing, and quite useful,” he said. “In case of conflict, you have something written down.”

At Bern, these agreements typically mandate research and careers planning, and make clear to students that the number of publications expected from them is capped, he explained.

Such agreements have been mandatory at Bern for about eight years, Mr Hollenstein said, and university survey data showed that they led to more satisfied students – although data from other institutions had been more inconclusive.

But agreements are far from a magic bullet to solve PhD woes, campaigners said.

In Germany, the quality of agreements varied widely, with some providing little protection for students, while enforcing them against failing supervisors was also tricky, said Ms van Scherpenberg.

She saw the involvement of other academics in the supervision process as being just as important as an agreement. N² recommends a PhD committee of three scholars to reduce a student’s reliance on just one supervisor. The idea is that with supervision more spread out, the student has more people to turn to, and the supervisor less power to abuse their position.

Other countries have taken different approaches to driving up doctoral standards. The UK Council for Graduate Education has introduced a research supervision recognition programme, under which academics submit evidence of their performance to an expert panel in order to gain certification.

Still, even with supervision agreements taking off in Germany, more than one in 10 doctoral students are bullied by their supervisor, according to a 2019 survey by N². About a quarter were dissatisfied with their supervision, and a third considered giving up their PhD “often” or “occasionally”.

“Power differentials exist in many aspects of academia and doctoral researchers depend on their supervisors for their livelihood, reputation and future career,” N² warned in a recent analysis.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: PhD agreements protect students from bullying

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Reader's comments (1)

A timely intervention. However, in recent years PhD supervision have changed significantly with a profound impact on supervisors. Is this data and challenges of current student supervision collated somewhere?

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