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I have been following threads on this website for a few months now. However it's my first time posting. I am a postdoctoral researcher from a Western European country who has done reasonably well since my PhD a few years ago in terms of attracting funding, publishing, teaching etc. My professional situation for the next 2-3 years is secure (I have won a competitive European grant) and I am very happy with what I am doing research-wise. To be clear, this is not a rant & it isn't about me specifically.

I have recently completed a three-year postdoc in Austria in a humanities subject. What I have witnessed there has greatly upset me: I saw careers being shattered, research being stifled or appropriated, young researchers being exploited with promises of jobs that never came or work conditions that were so bad that they never finished their degrees, students 'bound' to their supervisors in ways that I would not have imagined possible in the 21st century, etc. In short, an incredible waste of talent and resources...

Now I am moving to another European country but I still feel very strongly about my experience in Austria and I wish I could do something about it. I know that what I have witnessed isn't unique to Austria, although things are perhaps worse there than anywhere else in Europe. In Austria I felt a sense of hopelessness I had never experienced before - people were just afraid to speak out and lose their jobs; in fact it was so bad that several co-workers turned to me for advice and support, despite my own situation being precarious.

At the time I realized that we had no-one to turn to for help. Works' committees were mostly for people with permanent jobs in the institute - not for students or people like me on short-term contracts. So here is my question: do you know any young researchers' professional associations or unions, perhaps at European level, with whom I could share my concerns? Surely the sort of problems described here are common in academia and there must be structures to represent us?

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    As a fellow Austrian with a PhD from TU Vienna, I wonder what makes you feel that Austria is "worse than anywhere else in Europe"? I don't doubt that the issues you mention exist, but my impression was that the situation is really not worse (actually: better) than in many other countries. Not trying to discount your experience, just trying to understand better. – xLeitix May 6 '18 at 16:59
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    I don't really want to go into specifics. The situation may be different from department to department and from discipline to discipline. If you think that Austria is unfairly singled out, I am sorry - that is my experience, and I have studied/worked in several EU countries. Anyway the point is: what can we do as young researchers/academics against an oppressive system when we are not even being represented in works' councils? Who to turn to for help and support? Are there pan-European research associations that we can become involved in to take up these issues? – Xam1968 May 6 '18 at 17:13
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    It's not clear what your question is. It is about how to improve or associations and unions? – Herman Toothrot May 7 '18 at 13:18
  • I understand your desire to avoid specifics but, to be honest, I find it hard to give constructive help without any specifics. I’m also confused by your assertion that you had “no-one to turn to for help”. I’d expect all institutes in Europe to have appropriate support structures in place (though these may of course fail, and I’ve witnessed that). – Konrad Rudolph May 7 '18 at 16:03
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    As I said my question wasn't about Austria specifically. xLeitix has pretty much summed up the problem with the chair structure in Austria, which is also what I was referring to (students 'belonging' to their supervisors, forced into subordinate or unwanted roles or deliberately blocked in their academic progress because it is cheaper to hire and dismiss them at this level - I am talking about 800 EU/month contracts for 'students' in their early to mid-30s!). Work councils would be the obvious place to turn to for help, but student assistants are not always considered part of the workforce. – Xam1968 May 7 '18 at 17:50
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In Europe there is Eurodoc http://eurodoc.net/

Eurodoc is the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers. It is an international federation of 32 national organisations of PhD candidates, and more generally of young researchers from 32 countries of the European Union and the Council of Europe.

Eurodoc’s objectives are:

  • To represent doctoral candidates and junior researchers at the European level in matters of education, research, and professional development of their careers.

  • To advance the quality of doctoral programmes and the standards of research activity in Europe.

  • To promote the circulation of information on issues regarding young researchers; organize events, take part in debates and assist in the elaboration of policies about Higher Education and Research in Europe>

  • To establish and promote co-operation between national associations representing doctoral candidates and junior researchers within Europe.

and EuroScience https://www.euroscience.org/

EuroScience is the non-profit grassroots association of researchers in Europe.

Open to European researchers across disciplines and countries, EuroScience undertakes to advance science and innovation in Europe, thereby promoting the interests of its thousands of members.

In Italy there is the Associazione dottorandi e dottori di ricerca italiani https://dottorato.it/

  • Thank you! I think that's what I was looking for. Any other suggestion welcome – Xam1968 May 7 '18 at 14:22
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As mentioned in my comment, I am in full agreement that working conditions for young scientists tend to be somewhere between precarious to downright terrible, but I do not share your impression that this is an Austrian, or even a European, problem. Still, I agree that the situation is dire and needs improvement, independently of whether it is the same or worse than elsewhere.

I have by now moved to Sweden and my impression is that working conditions for young scientists here are quite good, much better than in most countries. What seems to help are the following:

  • Flat management structures and a fairly consequent implementation of the "many eyes" principle. Unlike in Austria, where people tend to be at the mercy of a single chair or full professor, a young scientist in Sweden tends to work with many different faculty members, both in research and teaching. PhD committees have multiple internal members, all of which meet regularly with the student, providing realistic ways to escalate issues with the main supervisor.
  • Part of this are also yearly one-on-one meetings of all students with the head of the PhD school as well as with the head of the division, where problems can be raised (really, it is expected that issues are raised here, and this is not seen as an attack against the main supervisor, as it may be in Austria).
  • Fairly generous paid vacations on all levels, and an expectation that this vacation is indeed taken yearly.
  • Clear rules for hiring. There are no vague promises of jobs - all positions need to be announced and run through a hiring process in which HR is involved. This is quite transparent, and internal hires are rare to start with.
  • Explicit support for mental health. Our university has a contract with a mental healthcare provider, which all employees can consult if they feel stressed or depressed. Usage of this provider is anonymous and encouraged by senior faculty.

It helps that the faculty/student ratio here is much lower than what I have seen in Austria (about 1:2 in my division, versus about 1:20 in the group where I did my PhD), and that the Scandinavian culture tends to de-emphasize hierarchy to begin with.

what can we do as young researchers/academics against an oppressive system when we are not even being represented in works' councils? Who to turn to for help and support? Are there pan-European research associations that we can become involved in to take up these issues?

Realistically, what will be needed to substantially improve working conditions will be to break up the chair structure. As long as a single professor is the sole authority over a student or postdoc, mistreatment will happen and continue to happen.

I am afraid, neither external associations nor students can do much to make this change happen - it will need to come from within. Short-term, the only thing that students and employees can and should do is vote with their feet - don't go to universities and groups that have a history of treating their employees badly, and warn others from going there if you feel you have been mistreated.

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    @Xam1968 I leave in a country (Italy) where there have been similar complaints for many years, but I've never heard of unions at national or European level protesting for this. I don't know the situation in Austria, but I have to say that in my country there is a large gap between STEM fields (richer) and the humanities (poorer). Generally speaking, researchers in the humanities may not have enough funds to buy a few computers. – Massimo Ortolano May 6 '18 at 18:34
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    @Xam1968 How much influence could such a "pressure group" really have? At least at TU Vienna, even deans have only limited influence over their own professors. I think this is not the right place to put your hopes for change. The only entity I can imagine putting significant pressure on the universities to enact change is the government, and I would not get my hopes up too much there either, at least not right now. – xLeitix May 6 '18 at 18:55
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    Ok - so basically the situation is hopeless? You say vote with your feet: I already have. I left Austria and I placed my funding elsewhere. Still it's sad for all the students and colleagues involved. What will become of them? A pressure group would allow us at least to be represented and to raise some of the issues at higher level without fear of retribution. There are genuine issues here: decent wages and work conditions, research freedom, academic independence, intellectual property etc. I don't see why early career researchers shouldn't be represented like any other workers' category. – Xam1968 May 6 '18 at 19:05
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    @Xam1968 There is a Universities and Colleges Union in the UK (which afaik any researcher from Master's students to department heads can join), but whether there are equivalent unions in other countries or at the EU level I don't know. – astronat May 6 '18 at 20:44
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    @Xam1968 I've heard of departments in Vienna where it is customary for students to work as unpayed assistents for several years with the carrot being a payed assistentship as soon as one opens up. And people thought they were given a treat to be unpayed assistents. The only solution is to leave such an abusive system - how can you represent workers that don't even have a contract? – sgf May 6 '18 at 22:22
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It is (and probably always will be) a very group-local cultural thing. So in the end vote with your feet remains the only option.

I can speak only for German universities, which in recent years have established quite a number of structural components to prevent misconduct and exploitation of young researchers. From mandatory letter-of-intents regarding supervision over formal documentation of the process. From stronger regulation regarding contract periods up to PhD assemblies on the university level.

With very limited success.

  • Most measures first and foremost just increase bureaucracy. The Professors who have always treated their PhD students and post docs well, lose flexibility and have to spend a lot of additional time in dealing with administrative regulations. Those who have always behaved like a*holes, still do so. They stress the regulations as far as possible and find creative ways to weasel around them – despite the additional paper work, the actual situation for their subordinates has only marginally improved, if at all.
  • PhD assemblies / unions are a nice idea, but also a hopeless attempt for many reasons. Because the situation and environment is extremely different among disciplines and groups already at the university level, there is little to fight for that realistically can improve the situation for a majority of young researchers. Furthermore, it turned out to be extremely difficult to find representatives who want to do the job: During the 3 to 6 years of a PhD, you have lots of other things to do. It would take at least 3 years to be able to understand university politics and even longer to influence it – and then you are already out. How should that possibly work better on a nation-wide or even european level?
  • The only measure I personally consider as partly successful is the establishment of formal ombudspeople for young researchers that have difficulties with their supervisors. I have seen several times that consulting the ombudsperson helps to find individual solutions in cases of misconduct (and sometimes the solution is to quit). But it is a measure for individual solutions and not general regulations – and, honestly, I think that is the reason for its success.

So while I strongly sympathise with your intent, the only advice I have: As you progress with your career, establish and live your own positive culture of treating your subordinates well. Tell you colleagues about it, fight for it as a criterion in hiring committees, and show the world that such culture does not harm the success of a research group.

  • I'm also somewhat ambivalent about the PhD employee contracts. While it is certainly nice to be paid for the PhD, it increases the dependence as the professor now gets all the rights an employer has. And it limits the possibility to vote with your feet: if you do (PhD) research as employee, this work stays at your old institution. Whereas, if you hold a scholarship or earn your living by working somewhere else, you may not need to start from zero at the new institute. – cbeleites May 7 '18 at 18:34
  • BTW: in most German Länder, the students are always unionized. So if you are PhD student and signed up as student (which is not necessarily the case), talk to the StuRa/AStA. – cbeleites May 7 '18 at 18:36
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I can answer

do you know any young researchers' professional associations or unions, perhaps at European level, with whom I could share my concerns?

not at European level, but for France. There exist at least:

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    Is the "guilde" still active? The website is almost empty and all the links are dead. Also it's my understanding that PrecairESR is not really structured like a permanent union, it's more a list of demands (that word sounds stronger than the "revendications" I have in mind but I can't find a better translation) that people can sign off to show their agreement, no? Namely the repeal of the "loi travail" and more recently the ORE law. – user9646 May 7 '18 at 11:17
  • @NajibIdrissi I am not sure how active the guilde is, and my link might not be the most recent one. As far as I know, there is no permanent union for young and precarious HE+R staff. – Benoît Kloeckner May 8 '18 at 18:44
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A few thoughts in addition to the existing answers (German perspective, I believe very similar to the situation in Austria).

Unions etc.

  • PhD students (enrolled as such) in Germany are unionized via StuRa/AStA although (as students are not employees) they are not unions in the sense of wage negotiations etc. But they do offer legal consulting and know all the structures and rules of your university.

  • ver.di is the labor union where university employees belong.
    (young researchers are obviously only a tiny fraction of their clientele, and I'd suspect very few young researchers are members - but it's definitively worth trying to talk to them)

  • My professional society (or rather the field-specific division I'm member at) has a "young professional" subgroup. While they are probably not very powerful in terms of changing things, they'd be very useful in terms of networking as in finding out how things are in other places, possibly finding a new university/group where one could move, and in developing a concise set of ideas how things should change.

  • There are ombudspersons at universities for various kinds of conflicts. StuRa/ASta/Fachschaft should be able to locate the right one.


What can OP do

  • Strive to be a good supervisor. In particular, being aware where your students are vulnerable in order not to (accidentally) hit there.

  • Educate your students also about this aspect of being a researcher. Openly discuss these weak spots and possible remedies with them.

  • Depending on your position: as a post-doc, do stand up for your rights and be an example for other post-docs and students.
    As a professor, strive to have an atmosphere where open discussions are possible. I.e. it happens that people contradict you.

  • As professor/group leader you may even be able to provide a bit of a safety net to young researchers who move on (see far below) by clearly communicating your intention to have them back in case their next move fails.

  • The position of the young researchers is only half as precarious if you communicate your intentions openly and clearly, e.g. "I'd like you to stay in my group - Would you like to? - If you agree I'll see where I can find money."
    There's sometimes fear that if you let people know early they cannot stay they won't work well (but then IMHO if they did work well, you'd not want them to leave or if it's purely because you don't have money, you'd want to help them find another position) - but in my experience, an atmosphere of uncertainty may cause pretty much the whole group to not work that well, and of course, the good people will leave.


  • I've also seen and agree that we have severe problems due to abuse of power.
  • Personally, I think the now typical employment contracts (50 % or 65 % part time in my field) for PhD can considerably increase these problems.

    • The advantage is obviously that the PhD "student" receives wages
    • However, in the context of this question, some disadvantages that make leaving for another university much more costly/difficult become important.
    • If the PhD student isn't employed for doing the research work, they own their results. And in Germany, you can hand in your thesis pretty much at any university where you find a professor that considers the thesis an appropriate piece of reasearch work. There is usually no obligation that the research must be done at a university at all, and also coursework is typically not required and/or can be transferred by some burocratic procedure.
      I think this used to be an offset against the abuse of power discussed here. But:

    • A fixed-term employment contract cannot easily be cancelled by the student.

    • If the research is done by an employee, basically the employer owns the results. I.e. employed PhD students probably cannot take their results or already acquired data with them, nor any software or inventions. Not even their lab book or notes related to the project.
    • Then, leaving for a new position means to start again from zero.
    • In contrast to the employment contract, a research scholarship leaves the PhD student as owner (and scholarship funding agencies often have mentors/ombudsprofessors with whom one can discuss trouble with the supervisor - they may even help to find a new professor)
    • But I've seen constructions where a so-called scholarship was given not as a personal scholarship to the student but the money was paid to the university who then employed the student.
      (Students were told that this is better for them as they get full social insurance as employees which they wouldn't have with the scholarship - however, while the social insurance is paid before the employed student ever sees any wages, the scholarship holder could also get similar social insurance coverage with a scholarship equaling the gross amount the university pays without much difference in the net wage [some insurance fees somewhat higher, some volountary and adjustable to personal need, but no income tax due].)
  • One aspect of the power abuse difficulties I have not seen mentioned so far where I do have ethical doubts/difficulties is: I'm OK with a 100 % work contract meaning that the employer pretty much can do as they like with results such as inventions (we do have laws dealing with extra payments that become due for this). But if students are pretty much forced to enter employment contracts where these rights to the results of their research (we do sign that our thesis is exclusively the work of the PhD student...) are signed over for a fraction of comparable industry wages puts them again in a precarious position: there is the danger of the student getting their PhD and then the professor starting a spin-off on the basis of the research. Or, because the professor wants to think about commercialization, the student is not allowed to publish (again a right that comes from the employment contract).
    I may add that up to masters exams and thesis, the legal point of view in Germany is that contracts "in the vicinity" of exams are easily either void (because of undue pressure/ abuse of power) or even corruption of the professor - e.g. possible patent rights can be transferred only after the Master student received their final marks. Not so for PhD students, apparently.


Personal Anecdata

  • When I started my PhD it was still in the "old" scheme: PhD research is your private fun (but I had much more freedom in choosing my topic than any of the employed PhD students I know now), but I got fixed term contracts for teaching (my professors policy was that the available positions which came at different wages were rotated so everyone should over the years get roughly the same, I started with low paid short term contracts, and was later upgraded to a longer-term fixed contract with better wage).

  • When I had a 50 % industry offer the professor would not let me out of my teaching contract. Said, they cannot forbid this, but the consequence would be that I'd be working 100 % for money and would need to see where to find time for my PhD research... Fortunately, the industry boss was very understanding, and I worked ≈ 10 % in that company for a while.

  • I have to say that I very keenly felt the disadvantage in my negotiation position. In consequence I put very high priority on having a plan B ready (started freelancing a bit as a side line) and building up a safety fund (this was helped by the luck of my university being in the east, so we shared a cheap flat with coal furnace, and by the luck of having cheap hobbies: hiking and wild camping in the beautiful hills nearby, drinking at your own BBQ/camp fire as opposed to pub going; from a global perspective of course also by the luck that we basically don't have tuition fees here). Both helped considerably in taking independent positions in negotiations or discussions/disputes.
    I do realize that a number of lucky circumstances helped my savings. But some lucky circumstances are available to most PhD students, e.g. that it is socially acceptable to go on living like a student when earning a half wage. This is something that I consider a very personal decision, but I like to spread the word that something is possible here. Obviously not full financial independence, but enough to buffer, say, several months which should allow for quite some scouting for a better position in case things turn out to be bad.

  • I later got a scholarship, so the teaching contract became dormant for that time (still had to help with the teaching - everyone had to as we were drowning in students)

  • I did leave that university without finishing my PhD (because I got a position abroad), and much later after I returned to Germany handed in the thesis at a different university.

  • I've been working for a couple of years in Italy basically as a post-doc on 1-year-contracts (that was an administrative limit to contract duration). However, the professor there was very open about this and always asked me 6 - 9 months before the contract ended whether I'd like to stay for another year and that they'd like to keep me. Even though the situation there was objectively more predictable with longer term project contracts in Germany, there noone bothered to talk about prolongation sometimes until a few days before the old contract expired. Just this difference in communication did make a huge difference in working atmosphere.

  • My experience with such autocratic professors (yes, plural) is, however, that it pays to stand up for your rights and negotiate at eye level. My experience is that these autocrats are not at all used to anyone contradicting them, but when I did (contradiction was well founded, not trouble making) and stood up for my rights I ultimately climbed considerably in their esteem (after some time for cooling down).

  • I also met very good supervisors, and learned a lot from what they explained to me. One of them even said when I was about to leave their group (for private reasons) that if for some reason the new position doesn't work out, I should let them know and they'd look for money so I could return there. I still very much appreciate this: such a safety net adds considerably to the young researcher's negotiation position in the new place (it turned out to be a place where I did clash with, let's say, local culture - and did gain by standing up for my rights - and I do hope that my example may also have been encouraging others there). I didn't need this safety net, but it was good to know it is there.

  • Thanks for sharing your story with its various zigs and zags; glad things worked out for you. One thing I found missing from your story: what was happening with your peers. But I suppose that might make the story too long.... – aparente001 May 9 '18 at 4:54
  • @aparente001: well, some left because they found the situation unbearable (one did their PhD somewhere else later on), some got industry jobs (for chemists it is completely normal to do a PhD if you want to work in industry) before handing in their PhD thesis: this may be due to a good offer as well as due to bad situation at uni. There are some who always complain about the situation but don't actively work at changing neither the general nor their personal situation. Some worked very smoothly and rather unquestioningly with the "autocrat" and gained a smooth (though not independent) career. – cbeleites May 9 '18 at 12:34
  • Sounds like a bit of a minefield. Congratulations on making it through to the other end. – aparente001 May 9 '18 at 17:39

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