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I have been employed on a project at a German University for over a year and a half and got a half-time working contract.

Even though I am getting paid, I have not been required from my supervisor to do much besides working on my own project. I did spend some time preparing questionnaires for our data collection, entering our responses in a data analysis program and preparing a couple of conferences. I also went on fieldwork with my professor for 3 months and took a language course for the fielwork as well, but besides that I really feel I have not done much work to cover my 30 hours contract with the university. There are entire weeks in which I really do not do anything for her, and just work on my project at my own path.

I know my situation is different with other PhD students, who are constantly busy teaching courses and fulfilling other tasks assigned to them by their supervisors. In comparison to most of the experiences I have heard from PhD candidates, I have a very relaxed life and work at my pace.

I am starting to worry a little and to wonder if my situation is normal for a PhD student in Germany, or if I am doing something wrong. Should I assign search for my own tasks or ask my supervisor to assign me more work? I have not taught any courses yet, but that is also because I am new to the discipline and was hoping to widen my knowledge before doing it, but I still want to do it in one semester or two.

Is this normal? Can I expect it to continue?

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    Normal in US and UK, especially in social science and humanity fields or pure math. What field are you in?
    – dodo
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 18:42
  • I am in Sociolinguistics Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 18:49
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    Please clarify your specific problem or provide additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it's hard to tell exactly what you're asking.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 19:13

5 Answers 5

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Yes in Germany it is quite common.

Enjoy the freedom, do not limit yourself to doing menial tasks like collecting data, but dig deep in the assumptions behind your study and question them (at least with yourself).

Spend your time in deep theoretical questions, ignore teaching courses. it is mostly a bureaucratic thing to perform, especially at later stage in your career if you end up in the anglo-saxon world (they officially require experience in teaching courses, seemingly because they value a lot this skill, in practice because they cannot afford to pay the time needed to prepare the courses, so they want someone ready to work 40 hours per week and additionally teach courses).

In three years from now, you will be either someone that did their PhD under supervision of prof. xyz, or you will be someone with a solid knowledge on field abc, that did a PhD with prof. xyz.

The difference in term of career will be probably minimal, positions in research are extremely difficult to get, the difference in effort will be quite large (detrimental if you question the basic analytic assumption), the but your peers will definitely smell the difference between "another pawn of professor xyz" and "a researcher on the field abc".

You can do both paths by staying in good relation with your advisor abc, but one will be much more rewarding.

Final note: now you have the most stable contract in research you can dream of (yes, even if it just a scolarship of 3 years), so take your time to dig the topics you like. It is an unique chance. Enjoy the impostor syndrome and the path full of doubts about yourself you will undertake: it is normal, and being a researcher you have the freedom of answering "I don't know" to questions, it is not like when you were a student having to pass exams ;) , and you can take the time to look for the answers.

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Though I can't say much about Germany (or know what your specific field is), here is the normal way things work for students in the biological sciences in the US for someone paid as a research assistant, which seems similar to your position:

Professors write grants for research projects. Though applications for these grants are typically very specific, the work done may not be, because it is known and understood that science is messy and the productive avenues for a project are expected to shift over the 3-5 year span of a grant. Portions of these grants are expected to be used to pay graduate students who will work on the proposed projects.

Graduate students are expected to do research, publish papers, etc, on the way toward finishing their thesis. The topic they work on is within the general scope of the grant they are paid on, but there is nothing material that distinguishes between "work for the professor" and "work on the thesis".

In this system, as long as a student is "doing research" in the sense that they are working on some aspect of scientific projects that will result in publishable work, including data collection, data analysis, and writing, as well as reading papers/conducting literature reviews, attending conferences, participating in lab discussions, they are "doing work" on the grant that pays for their position.

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Nothing wrong with your current situation.

I am a postdoctoral researcher now, and I have a similar situation to you for both Ph.D. and postdoctoral work (both are in Japan).

My supervisors on both Ph.D. and postdoctoral (different persons) never specifically assign me tasks. I just did my own Ph.D. research theme and now postdoctoral research theme. For my Ph.D., I was granted a scholarship, not a research grant.

Should I assign search for my own tasks or ask my supervisor to assign me more work?

You should search for your own tasks but consult with your supervisor. In my case, I do my own theme with my own path. My Ph.D. supervisor at that time just gave me suggestions about what I did and monitored my research once a month via meeting. He mostly revised my manuscript draft for conferences and journals. Being a Ph.D. candidate, you should publish as early as and as often as possible. That is enough to satisfy 30h working hours per week (If I were your supervisor, I would expect one publication draft from you every 3-4 months after the first year).

Is this normal? Can I expect it to continue?

Yes, it is normal, and you can continue. But remember, you have limited time (3 years). The research project is also limited by amount and time, and other Ph.D. candidates cannot fulfill the graduation requirements (number of published papers, etc.) at the time the project ends.

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    I like that you put the different spin on the 3 years, and I agree, however to me it looks like "the longest and safest contract I had" ... but I have also a ~25 years distance from the moment I started mine :)
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 6:22
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As paid a PhD student (in Germany), working towards your thesis is your primary job. So your feeling that you haven't done any work covering your 30 hour contract is completely misplaced. There is no reason to feel guilty about primarily working on your own research, this is simply your job.

That being said. There might be a minimum amount of teaching that you are expected to do over the course of your contract (or not depending on the university/contract). The fact that you haven't been assigned any teaching tasks would not necessarily mean that you won't be, and not having done your teaching obligations might prevent you from getting your PhD. So to prevent having to doing all your teaching while also finishing your thesis, it would be advisable to be proactive about this. Find out if any teaching obligations exist for you. If so, talk to however coordinates teaching assignments in your department and ask to be assigned your teaching duties. Of course, do this while also talking to your advisor and keep them in the loop.

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Maybe I can give some insight of how the German system works, I'm currently a post-doc in the system having done my PhD elsewhere, but I know enough to explain teaching loads.

Often the PhD (or postdoc) is funded directly by the university, this comes with some assumptions that the staff member will perform a certain amount of teaching in addition to their other duties. This is probably what is happening with the other PhD students you mentioned, they are assigned teaching duties along with their regular duties of producing high quality PhD work and thesis.

In addition to this method, if the supervisor has an alternative source of funding (say from the ERC) or the student has acquired their own funding, then things are a bit different. Since the funding is now no longer coming from the university there are no teaching duties attached to it and the only duties of the PhD student is to produce high quality PhD work. Perhaps this is the case with you, if your supervisor has said your funding comes from a grant then this may explain the difference between you and your peers. The lack of teaching duties may then just be your supervisor giving you freedom from what is seen as a distraction by many in academia, or they may have found a way to shift your teaching duties to later in your PhD.

As others have said take advantage of the freedom you have, if you want to make the most of your PhD try to learn your field deeply, sit in on courses that are related to your project (even if you won't be able to directly use them), or perhaps start/organise a reading group on a topic that may be relevant for you, and many others in the group. Even if these don't directly relate to your research topic, if you pick the right things to learn about (not too close to your field, not too far away, and having some reason to expect this knowledge might be useful in the future) then the time invested in them now will pay for itself later in your PhD and future academic career as you can apply tools and make leaps which give much more interesting research results.

Regarding teaching, this isn't me saying there is no benefit to you to teach a course or run a tutorial. I found (coming from physics) that running tutorials led me to have a deeper understanding of the subjects you were tutoring since you were confronted with having to understand everything in the course and had to find multiple ways to explain an idea to people who understand things very differently to how you understand them, giving you a more wholistic and deeper view of the subject. Though the benefits to you do depend on what kind of tutorial you run, just completing the assignment sheet in front of the students gives a lot less insight then actively guiding them as they try to understand the subject (and is probably not quite as useful for the students either). So I'd recommend that at some point during your PhD you engage in some tutoring and you can speak to your supervisor about that, but the fact that you aren't doing it right now isn't something that indicates you are a lower quality student or doing something wrong.

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