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I am a PhD student directly employed by a German university, this means my salary is paid directly by the federal government.

In Germany, the salary of PhD students is (often and in my case, definitely) determined by the TVöD. This is the tariff negotiated between public sector workers and the state. The tariff contract deals not only with salary levels, but also on salary increments. These take place automatically after a fixed amount of years (one, three, six years, etc). Everything is practically set in stone.

It appears my advisor forgot to take into account the TVöD and the automatic salary increments when making the personnel budget for the grant for my research project (which is kind of funny since he is also subjected to them, and they are a big deal in Germany).

I will be shortly starting my third year. The matter came up after he reviewed the project finances and noticed the automatic and mandatory (please correct me if I am wrong) salary increment after the first year. In his own words: “you are earning too much money”. Just to be clear, all PhD students at our chair have the same salary level (E13, 100%) and are subjected to the same TVöD. This is in no way a surprise or something unexpected. The personnel budget was calculated as if my salary remained unchanged for the entire project duration.

This miscalculation means that the funds obtained form the research grant for personnel costs will not cover my salary until the end of my third year.

I have a contract directly with the German government up to the end of my third year, and I am outside my probation period (Probezeit). I have had no problems at all, and the chairing professor of my committee (not my advisor, these are two different persons) seems pleased with my progress.

I am looking for any legal and practical advice:

  • Is it possible for them to “demote” me to a lower level, part time, or similar?

  • This was an error from my advisor. I can imagine that eventually I will have a meeting with the chairing professor and my advisor to discuss this. What can they ask from me? What can they legally ask/demand from me?

  • If I have learned something in the past two years is that just as in companies, academia is a boy’s club (not in the sexist sense) in which you do not want to rock the boat. I do not want to burn bridges or have unnecessary legal confrontations. But I also refuse to being taken advantage of, specially since PhD students already work a lot of unpaid overtime, and this would set a terrible precedent for future colleagues. How should I go about dealing with this?

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    You have nothing to worry about. This is nothing you need to be concerned with, in fact, I'd be surprised if you even need to participate in any discussions. It's the department's/institut's problem and they will organize the missing funds (possibly from overheads money). They won't and can't deduct from your payment. Some issue might occur if you don't have a contract over the whole three years and need an extension, but that doesn't seem to be the case. – Roland Jan 25 '18 at 11:18
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    @arboviral yes, it is a fixed end date contract. As far as I know, all PhD students in Germany that are employed by the state have a fixed-term contract. – Keine Jan 25 '18 at 11:37
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    Just a remark: If you are employed by a university your salary isn't payed by the federal government and you are not payed according to TVöD. You are payed according to TVL. Universities are financed by their respective federal state. – Roland Jan 25 '18 at 14:58
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    I did not anticipate "gross miscalculation" to mean "neglected to account for a pay raise of a few percent". Surely this error is a tiny fraction of the overall budget? – Nuclear Wang Jan 25 '18 at 15:27
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    @Stephan Kolassa - as an EU based research funder (though not in Germany) we would not pay more than the contracted value of a project unless a variation to contract was pre-agreed. If a contractor goes over budget without agreeing with us first it’s completely their problem. We won’t be making up the shortfall. I know other funders in the EU who take a similar view... assuming the funder wouldn’t “bat an eye” might be taking a bit of a risk. – rhialto Jan 25 '18 at 19:30
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Is it possible for them to “demote” me to a lower level, part time, or similar?

In my experience, it is much less complicated (legally and bureaucratically) to transfer the required money from other sections of the grant such as travel or publication costs.

How should I go about dealing with this?

There are usually many culprits in such a situation (and you are not amongst them):

  • The funding organisation should have noticed that the alloted personal costs do not suffice for a PhD student (assuming that 100 % is the standard for PhDs in your field).

    In fact, I have heard that some funding agencies explicitly fund a PhD position with a certain part-time level or full-time (depending on the field) for a certain period of time – as opposed to funding a certain amount of money that exactly suffices for this. This way, the detailed sums (which not only depend on your level, but on many other factors such as location and similar) are left to the bureaucrats to determine and to move and scientific personnel (such as your supervisor) should never have to worry about this.

  • When issuing your contract, your university’s administration should have checked that they have the required funds to pay your salary for the duration of your contract.

  • Your supervisor may or may not have had the responsibility to check this.

So, even if your supervisor made a mistake, so did the others. However in contrast to your supervisor, those are trained bureaucrats whose job only exist to do things like these and who do this on a daily basis. Hence, I suggest to try to unite against these with your supervisor. Not only do they have no real power over you (not being members of your “boys’ club”), but they also have access to general funds to cover for such mistakes¹.


¹ I witnessed a case where a PhD student got paid too much over a year due to being assigned to the wrong level (i.e., a situation similar to yours) and they did not have to pay back more than legally required (the past few months) nor was this money deduced from the grant that paid them.

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    I'm sure there's more to the existence of a bureaucrat - or in fact anyone - than their work. Maybe you mean "trained bureaucrats whose only role is (...)"? – Cimbali Jan 26 '18 at 2:19
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    "I have heard that some funding agencies explicitly fund a PhD position with a certain part-time level or full-time (depending on the field) for a certain period of time – as opposed to funding a certain amount of money that exactly suffices for this" - seeing how dynamically this kind of money was shifted around between employees at vastly different stages of their TV-L E13, split up to include some student research assistants, month by month, by my institute, in the projects I've been part of, the model you describe apparently cannot be taken for granted. – O. R. Mapper Jan 26 '18 at 7:44
  • @O.R.Mapper: the model you describe apparently cannot be taken for granted. – No, but it illustrates that at least some funding organisations consider it their (and not the PI’s) responsibility to care about such things. Moreover, there are efforts towards longer contracts for PhD students and similar that at least managed to reduce these cases. – Wrzlprmft Jan 26 '18 at 9:28
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Let me summarize the key points of your situation:

  • You have an employment contract over the full period of the project at a German university.
  • The tariff you're employed under (which should be defined in your contract) stipulates a salary increase after a certain number of years in the same position.

In that case neither you nor your advisor can prevent that you get the salary rise that the tariff agreement stipulates here. The contract can not be changed against your will, and the salary increase can not be ignored. The staff administration of your institution will automatically adjust your salary when it's time to do this, and it will be up to the financial department of your institution, potentially in coordination with your advisor, to find additional money to pay your increased salary. Remember, it's not your advisor who pays you, it's the institution that is employing you.

In fact, while you interpret this to be your advisors fault, the final responsibility is with the financial / personnel department of your institution. They should have verified that the project has enough budget before giving you the contract they have given you. In my experience, all universities I've worked at in Germany were very careful (sometimes overly careful) in getting these things right. Apart from this department having made an error, another reason I can think of is that your advisor might have proposed also another budget for this at the time your employment contract was being prepared, and then they will just make use of that.

My advice for further action would be to do nothing at the moment and to not worry about this. When it's time for your salary increase to come into effect, check that this is indeed adjusted. If this should not be the case, communicate to the staff administration, and ask them why they didn't adjust it. There's no need to get into a discussion with your advisor about this - it's not an issue between him and you.

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I think this issue should not be solved on the legal layer, thus, this is no legal advice here.

Is it possible for them to “demote” me to a lower level, part time, or similar?

As far as I know: NO. However, you should have a look into the contract between you and your employer. Usually, it says something like payment according to TVÖD and full-time employment. So they cannot change this simply without your agreement, as far as I know.

This was an error from my advisor. I can imagine that eventually I will have a meeting with the chairing professor and my advisor to discuss this. What can they ask from me? What can they legally ask/demand from me?

It's not about "who made an error". The error has happened and you should try to solve it together. How it can be solved depends largely on your institute's financial situation.

[...] But I also refuse to being taken advantage of, specially since PhD students already work a lot of unpaid overtime, and this would set a terrible precedent for future colleagues. How should I go about dealing with this?

You should not have to bear large disadvantages, that should be your goal. However, you could end up with something like: You work on your project as long as funding is available. After the money has run out, you are (forcefully) shifted to another project that is not even barely related to your research (e.g., some industry project). If that is the only option due to financial shorts in your institute, there might not be much you could do against it.

BUT: Talk to your advisor, talk to your professor, etc. etc. Try to find a solution together. Your main goal must always be to advance in your research and to finish your PhD. In many cases, there may be additional funds available. In some cases this might not be possible, unfortunately. So if your advisor is very satisfied with your research and money is available, he might continue funding your work with other money. If have seen these cases, where the original funding has run out but the professor and/or advisor made it possible for the PhD student to continue and finish the topic. Be prepared to present good results of your work and show that investing additional money is a good idea!

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Your advisor will surely acknowledge fault; there seems to be no other option. Money will surely be found (begged, borrowed, ...) to pay you; again there seems to be no other option (there's a legal obligation to pay you). There is no need for you to act and the situation should be resolved without your input.

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    Academia.SE is not the place for legal advice. – user2768 Jan 25 '18 at 10:52
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    It's not a substitute for personal advice from a qualified legal practitioner (and FWIW neither is Law.SE) but as long as that's clear I see no problem with this question, and it's a sensible place to ask it. – arboviral Jan 25 '18 at 11:16
  • @arboviral I don't dispute that (nor do I object to the question), I'm merely reiterating – user2768 Jan 25 '18 at 11:44

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