Confidential Advisor TU Delft: position of PhD candidates very vulnerable

PhD candidates often wait until they have their dissertation before reporting intimidation, discrimination and abuse of power for fear of reprisals.

The former PhD students who reported unwanted behaviour are no longer TU employees and cannot and do not want to make an official report. (Photo: Justyna Botor)

This is what TU Delft’s external Confidential Advisor, Sandra van der Hor, wrote in her Annual Report 2021 that was published recently. Just as in the Annual Report 2020, it states that she has received emails from former PhD candidates who did not dare report unwanted behaviour such as intimidation, discrimination and abuse of power during their doctoral dissertation process.

Both annual reports state that the former PhD candidates had not ‘dared enter into a dialogue and that they did not dare make their dissatisfaction open for discussion’ as they were in a ‘vulnerable and dependent position’. “They were anxious that this would have consequences for their future career at, or even outside, TU Delft,” says Van der Hor.

‘We are asking for attention to be paid to the position of PhD candidates’

The report does not state the exact number of emails Van der Hor received in both years from former PhD candidates. “It is less than five a year,” she says. She says that this a separate category of reports that she calls signals. In these cases the PhD candidates are no longer TU Delft staff members and can thus not lodge an official report and are not willing to do so.

Power balance
Less than five emails from ex-PhD candidates a year does not sound a lot. Van der Hor suspects that the real numbers are higher though. “I have contact with Confidential Advisors at other universities and we are asking for attention to be paid to the position of PhD candidates. The power balance in the relationships with their promotors is skewed. Many PhDs do not know that there are Confidential Advisors and what we do (see ‘Tasks of Confidential Advisors’ box). As many of them are internationals, they are also dealing with cultural differences.”

Van der Hor explains that she cannot do much with the signals that she receives from ex-PhD candidates apart from discussing them. In fact, this is exactly what the ex-PhD candidates want, she says. They want to make sure that their successors are in a better situation. “A change in culture is needed to improve the position of PhD candidates and that starts with a good dialogue,” says the Confidential Advisor.

She has already discussed her report with the Executive Board. They write that they are concerned about ‘these serious signals’, and ‘… that we abhor them. The organisation still needs to take big steps.’ “We regularly hear from students, deans, directors and staff about challenges in the areas of social safety and integrity. We will continue these conversations so that everyone working or studying at TU Delft can be even better supported with information and tools (such as training courses and roadmaps) […].”

Threatening statements
Van der Hor believes that promotors, the direct supervisors of PhD candidates, should be more aware of the position of their subordinates. She occasionally sees improvement. “Through #metoo and the scandal around The Voice (a Dutch television series), a new need emerged among supervisors who started to recognise that they are not always aware of how they come across to others. We applaud that.”

‘Something needs to change in the culture’

It is badly needed, as is clear from the ‘worrying and threatening’ statements made by supervisors that the people lodging reports to Van der Hor shared such as: ‘If you involve an ombudsperson or confidential advisor, you know that things will get worse for you. Just wait and see what happens’ and ‘It does not matter to me if you do not feel safe with me, you just have to do what I say’.

In her report, Van der Hor added up the number of confidential discussions she had in 2021: 75. These discussions can be divided in different ways:

  • 16 PhD candidates, 38 other staff members, 20 students and one person about whom this is not known.
  • 40 women, 31 men and 4 neutral persons.
  • 39 discussions in Dutch, 36 in English.
  • 24 official reports, 8 follow-up meetings, and 43 ‘general discussions’.
  • Official reports: 17 cases of intimidation, 4 bullying, 2 sexual intimidation, 1 discrimination.
  • The remaining 43 discussions were about issues such as study debts, work-related conflicts, or the need for psychological support.

Avoiding conflict
Apart from the external Confidential Advisor, for the last year there have also been three internal Confidential Advisors. In the six weeks that they took office in 2021, they carried out 19 confidential discussions which led to 11 official reports. These were five of discrimination, five of intimidation, and one of sexual intimidation. Eight cases involved internationals. In five cases the person lodging the report was a doctoral candidate.

To Van der Hor, the number of reports is low. “How can we make sure that people know that they can report an incident to us and that they dare do so? This is the big question.”

This question goes for all staff members, and thus for PhD candidates as well. According to Berend van Veldhuizen, Chair of UPC, the TU Delft PhD council, PhD candidates try to avoid ‘conflicts with their supervisors’ as their position is ‘not that strong’. “Something needs to change in the culture.”

We will publish a more detailed response from UPC in a follow-up article.

  • Confidential Advisors’ tasks
    Everyone who works or studies at TU Delft and who experiences undesirable behaviour can report it to the external or one of the three internal Confidential Advisors. A conversation will then follow. In general, the Confidential Advisors can help the people who approach them find out the possible next steps. These could be: having a discussion with the person behind the transgressive behaviour, the supervisor or the person responsible above the supervisor in the hierarchy; contacting the ombudsperson; and submitting a formal complaint. In 2021, formal complaints were submitted twice. If required, the Confidential Advisor can refer the person to other professionals such as TU Delft’s social workers, doctor, or student psychologists.
  • Students and staff
    In December 2021, TU Delft had 6,347 FTEs (full-time equivalents). The PhD candidates made up 1,600 FTEs. As not everyone works full-time, this equates to 2,190 people. Next to this, there were 486 grant students, 305 PhD candidates paid by companies, 69 external and 63 ‘other category’ PhD candidates.
    In December 2021, more than 27,000 students were registered at TU Delft. Almost half of them were master students and 23.5% came from outside the Netherlands.
  • The annual reports mentioned above and the Executive Board’s letter are available here (Dutch only).
Editor in chief Saskia Bonger

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