The reason I'm asking is because my PhD supervisor "collects" - for lack of a better word - PhD candidates. She has at least 15 PhD candidates. None of them is being hired, except for one - as her private secretary. She also does not mind stringing out PhD duration by giving no input whatsoever but insisting that the research is still "weak" (without explaining how), and would let them go only after >5 years have passed. This makes me wonder whether the department receives money for each PhD candidate to finance the department, so that the PhD candidates' number and years spent there are of essence. I'm in Germany. We find the situation not ideal, but we are afraid to take this matters higher up, as we don't know if this might backfire. Is there anything to be done to get out of such situation?

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    What do you mean by "She has at least 15 PhD candidates. None of them is being hired"? If she has PhD candidates, surely they were hired? Or are they working on their own dime? — And what do you mean by "private secretary"? Apr 15, 2021 at 7:45
  • @KonradRudolph They are working on their own dime. Moreover, the professor herself doesn't have any research, so there is nothing to be done in the department. The only PhD candidate hired as (officially) "research assistant" is given the task of typing the professor's attendance lists and such.
    – Schildi
    Apr 15, 2021 at 8:10
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    😲 Who does this voluntarily?! Apr 15, 2021 at 8:26
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    What OP describes is common in the humanities in Germany (well, maybe not always to the extreme of having 15 candidates) -- not so much in STEM fields. Apr 15, 2021 at 12:00
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    Is this PhD supervisor the same as in your previous post: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/107485/…? Apr 15, 2021 at 17:32

5 Answers 5


This makes me wonder whether the department receives money for each PhD candidate to finance the department, so that the PhD candidates number and years spent there are of essence.

(Context: I'm familiar and have first-hand experience with the German system.) There is no direct flow of money for each PhD candidate. However, the number of graduated PhD students is seen as a performance metric for both departments and professors, and professors might receive a certain salary bonus for scoring well on that metric.

A rational reason for keeping around the candidates longer than necessary might be that she wants to squeeze more work out of them, including papers. There might also be other, non-rational reasons.

Is there anything to be done to get out of such situation?

Walk away. The advisor seems to have little to offer except for the dangling carrot of an eventual PhD degree; however, for a person that values their time as an asset that could be used for other things, that's probably not worth it.

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    Just a small addition to the "Walk away" part: most universities have processes for switching supervisor or even filing official complaints (shouldn't be your first option). You have very little to lose and a lot to gain from doing this. As to "as we don't know if this might backfire" - I appreciate this is a concern, but the you have to weigh the benefits too. If as you say there are 15 PhDs in the same boat, it stands to reason you collectively bring this up as a problem which is unlikely to incur personal repercussions.
    – Yellow
    Apr 15, 2021 at 12:36
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    @Yellow In principles yes, but in Germany things tend to be a bit different. To my knowledge, processes for switching supervisors mostly do not exist -- the departments don't play a role in the "supervisor to PI" matching. PhD students might still be able to switch, but they usually need to find new supervisors on their own (which can be tricky, especially if a supervisor at the same department is desired). Apr 15, 2021 at 14:16
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    @Yellow I estimate that a complaints about this professor would be unlikely to have any positive effect. Professors in German enjoy a great deal of freedom in managing their PhD students. Unless they clearly violate some laws or ethical standards, there would normally not be much the department can do. Apr 15, 2021 at 14:22
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    @Yellow Traditionally there is no official such notion as "having a supervisor" - you need to have someone who acts as a supervisor when you hand in the thesis, but how you get to that point is up to you. So "switching supervisors" means basically that you have to find someone who is willing to act as the official supervisor for the purpose of the defense. Depending on the department (topics, but also social aspects) this might be tricky. Things are different if there is a graduate school structure, but this seems not so likely given the circumstances.
    – user151413
    Apr 15, 2021 at 17:52
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    If you are already to a reasonable point of graduation anyway, it might be possible to get out by convincing the advisor that you will (have to) quit without graduating if you don't gradate in a specific time frame. Since you will be gone from the advisor either way and having a graduated student is usually preferable to a non-graduated student. This is more likely to work if the advisor's motivation is, say, free labor, rather than if she sincerely believes that you aren't ready yet. Apr 15, 2021 at 19:14

There is nothing wrong with asking the question in a neutral manner to your administration or student representative.

I am not sure about Germany, but in France for instance, having doctoral students graduate on time (3 years) is considered a positive indicator for the department/university, and it is complicated for students to be funded beyond that - which has its own drawbacks. Some information can be found in HCERES reports, eg p7 of https://www.hceres.fr/sites/default/files/media/downloads/e2020-ev-0772710c-def-ped200021039-rd.pdf.


This is something that happens everywhere, and the extent of this depends goes beyond the funding model to cultural differences across disciplines and the personal style of the supervisor. Getting additional data points - is this a generic features in other groups around you or something specific to this supervisor ? - is important.

Beyond metrics valuable to the supervisor mentioned in another post, good students should be able to finish early and - if they have a constructive relation with their supervisor - will likely continue to work with the supervisor (at least in the short term) to finish papers. As a result, my experience is that it is rarely sign of a healthy group when students routinely overextend their degree.

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    "good students should be able to finish early" Indeed, but from the perspective of a formal assessment of the professor/department, the trouble is that there might not be any information about the actual time taken to finish. At many departments, it's possible to register the PhD candidate just in time before they hand in their thesis. Apr 14, 2021 at 14:18
  • @lighthousekeeper agreed it's often possible to play the system. In North America it is harder to do what you suggest as universities collect tuition and there is usually a residency period to avoid precisely the situation you describe. Apr 14, 2021 at 17:23
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    @ZeroTheHero It is not playing the system, in Germany you do not always need to be enrolled/registered as a Doctoral student, in many Unis you can just hand your thesis (if supervisor approves), defend, and get your degree, without being enrolled at all. It is very different compared to other educational systems.
    – Dr. Snoopy
    Apr 15, 2021 at 7:39
  • @Dr.Snoopy Exactly. Fourteen out of the 15 PhD candidates she has are the so-called external PhD candidates. They can't be hired, as the professor isn't doing any research, i.e. there's nothing to do in the department. They would come for consultations, told to improve the grammar and such, and it would go on and on for years. PhD candidates are in a weak position and are often trapped in a situation like this.
    – Schildi
    Apr 15, 2021 at 8:14
  • "good students should be able to finish early" - I think this is a very simplistic view. Unless you strictly define "good" as "being the winner in a race for time" (which IMHO a PhD is not), good students may easily finish later exactly because they are good. They may become involved in more endeavours, dig into their questions in greater depth and in more aspects, play a key role in more projects, and overall may also feel more "at home" in their academia environment than "not so good" students who may strictly follow the easiest/quickest path to their degree. Apr 15, 2021 at 9:25

I work at a German university and I assure you that profs do not get money for every PhD candidate. And to be honest, I have never heard of a prof having 14 PhD students doing unpaid work for them. Where I work, a prof usually gets the money for one or two young researchers - either a PhD student or a postdoc, or both. (This is why she is able to pay one of you.) If they want to have more, they themselves have to apply for third-party funded projects, e.g. from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

As competition is very high here, getting a third-party funded project is always a success, so profs that have a lot of PhD students are considered successful.

I think your prof does this to push her own career. If she has many PhD candidates, she can publish a lot with her name on it without having to do too much herself, and at the same time she at least pretends to be successful in getting funds. This is why she does not want to let you go.

If I were you, I would leave this prof as soon as possible.


Although I am not familiar with German system, I suppose this is the same as the other countries. Usually, not the departments nor the professors receive straight money per the time the Ph.D. candidates are there. (Although based on the rule of some universities the candidates are penalized after passing a certain time, this money usually is not paid to departments, it is mostly paid as university private revenue).

Anyway, Ph.D. candidates may have different indirect benefits: If they write more papers or receive more research grants from organizations it is beneficial; additionally, they may assist the professors to help other students; their longer education may show the professors' colleagues their seriousness and hardwork.

Another important reason can be the score that professors receive after educating each Ph.D. candidate. He may want to save this working score for his next year.

Or some professors just pass the times to get retired. They don't like to have more students and don't like to spend more time for their job. If their older students got educated, they might have to struggle with a new student.

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