Postdocs and doctoral candidates warn about delays

TU Delft postdocs and doctoral candidates are getting into difficulties. The corona measures are causing delays which they say they cannot always make up.

As a result of the corona crisis, PhD students run into delays. (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

“Productivity during corona is a huge problem for doctoral candidates,” says Vittorio Nespeca, Chair of the TU Delft University PhD Council (UPC) and himself a PhD student. On behalf of the UPC, he has contact with faculties and national doctoral candidate networks and sees that many postdocs and doctoral candidates are facing similar problems. “One issue is that they have to revise their research plans, and that brings much stress with it,” he says. “And some labs may be open again, but are minimally accessible. Making mistakes while running experiments is part of your work as a researcher, but if you make a mistaken now, it takes a lot more time to put it right.”

Delta spoke to several postdocs and doctoral candidates about the corona crisis and asked them about other problems that they encountered. The offices at home where it is hard to concentrate – try writing a scientific publication with young children running around. They also point to their teaching. Converting physical lessons into online lessons took a lot of time, and, in some subjects, checking online exams is more time consuming than checking physical exams.

Last month TU Delft announced that it expected postdocs and doctoral candidates to finish their research within the appointed time. “These are exceptional circumstances, but you often have exceptional circumstances in research,” said Jan Dirk Jansen, Dean of Civil Engineering and Geosciences and Chair of the Covid-19 Working Group that looks at financing in a video. However, according to Nespeca, is it not always possible to catch up on delays. “And certainly not if you are in the last few months of your contract. You cannot then change the planning just like that.”

Fear for ‘lost generation’
The PhD Network Netherlands (PNN) and KNAW (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences) Chair Ineke Sluiter shares Nespeca’s concerns. She fears that the corona crisis will cause a ‘lost generation’ of scientists. The PNN co-authored a guide for doctoral candidates, postdocs and tenure trackers on handling delays.

This document contains a questionnaire and examples to help researchers enter into discussion with their institutions. It looks at questions such as had the research just started or was it in the completion phase when Covid-19 broke out? Was it possible to gather data over the last few months? Did research at home have to be combined with looking after children? “There are no hard and fast rules,” says PNN Chair Lucille Mattijssen, “we mostly hope that the universities get a better understanding of doctoral candidates, postdocs and tenure trackers’ situations and adjust their time compensation accordingly.”

That compensation is usually a challenge given that Dutch law sets a limit on the number of temporary contracts given to one individual. Last month, doctoral candidates from four faculties at TU Delft petitioned the Minister of Education Ingrid van Engelshoven to free up more money for postdocs and doctoral candidates who were facing problems. PNN Chair Matthijssen also emphasised that the sector would not make it without more money. “It would be good if the Government released more funds for the research whose deadlines really need to be extended.”

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Whether more money really will be released is still to be seen. The Minister is in discussion but has not yet committed to anything. At the very least, the Senate wants her to find a solution for postdocs that are unable to get an extension on their contracts.

Even if there would be more money, it would not help every single doctoral candidate and postdoc, says Nespeca. “We understand that it would be impossible to extend the contract of every PhD student or postdoc. Hopefully the Government will at least release monies for researchers that were really unable to avoid delays.”

News editor Annebelle de Bruijn

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