PhD researcher: employee or student?

Pranav S. Kulkarni
11 Nov ’22

PhD researchers all over the world fall into the gap between being formal students and full-time researchers/ professors. Depending on the system of academia followed by the country where you are pursuing your PhD, you can be regarded as a student or an employee. In the Netherlands, generally, PhD researchers are deemed as early-stage researchers and are usually regarded as employees rather than students. However, the story is not that simple. Here are the types of PhD programmes offered by most universities in the Netherlands:

1. Employed PhD

This is the most common form of PhD program in the Netherlands, where the applicant makes a contract with the hosting university for four years. This contract binds the applicant to all the employee and labour rights, duties and benefits. Here, the PhD researcher can be considered as a fixed term contractor with research as their main role followed by smaller roles and engagements. Generally, the daily supervisor and the promoter/ co-promoters are like a “boss” in a traditional corporate sense. View all PhD jobs in the Netherlands.

2. PhD scholarship or bursary award

This is the second most common form of PhD program, where the applicant does not have an employee contract with the university but is funded for a limited time duration by a scholarship provider. This provider can be an organisation, foundation or a science agency which has the power to fund the PhD applicant through a scholarship. Some examples might be NWO or EU or FAO who have regular scholarship programs in most European universities. Usually, the funds provider is not involved with the minutia of the work conducted by the PhD researcher. This role is fulfilled by the supervisors from the host university who are willing to work with the applicant. Most of the international PhDs who have funding from their home country in scholarship form will also fall under this category.

3. Externally funded PhD

This form of PhD program is generally a collaboration bond created by various interested organizations, industries or research institutes with the host university. In this form, the salary or the stipend of the applicant is paid from the provisions made by the contract between the interested partners. Depending on the type of contract, the applicant becomes an industrial PhD, sandwich PhD or an external PhD.

Industrial PhD researcher works for a collaboration of the host university with a commercial partner who funds their research. The PhD researcher can have additional duties along with research work. A sandwich PhD researcher generally works for a collaboration between two or more universities. Here the applicant spends a stipulated amount of time in each or some of the partner universities in the collaboration. A variation of sandwich PhD is when two different research groups in the same host university collaborate and create a PhD position. Self-funded PhDs are one of the rarer forms of PhD programs where the applicant does not receive any funding for their PhD work. They can either be self-funded or be funded by an external party which does not actively collaborate with the host university. In this PhD program, the PhD researcher usually works independently and is only connected to the host university by supervision. Also, the PhD researcher is generally not considered an employee and does not receive any employee benefits or rights.

4. External PhD

An external PhD researcher has a contract which is not covered by the industrial or a sandwich format. Their work and duties are specifically tailored to the collaboration. Depending on who are the partners in the collaboration, the PhD researcher may or may not be bound by Dutch labour agreements and hence may or may not be an actual employee.

There also exist a few special forms of arrangements to conduct external PhD programs. These can be as follows:

  • Guest PhD
    This is a special form of PhD program where two or more Dutch universities or research agencies form a collaborative contract. Guest PhDs are bound by Dutch labour agreements and law. The applicant in this program is paid for by the non-host university but performs their duties in the host university. The applicant may be obligated to also do some work in the non-host university depending on the nature of the contract.

    As it happens, this is the case in my own PhD program. I am a contractual employee of Utrecht University, but I will defend my PhD thesis at Wageningen University and Research. In my case, I spend equal amounts of time per week in both the partner universities although technically, Wageningen University and Research is my host university. Hence, I am a “Guest” PhD in my host university.
  • Research assistants
    This form of PhD program is not followed by all the Dutch universities. In this form, the applicant is employed by the host university for some other duties such as assistance in research lab or farm management or other technical services but during their contract, they are offered a chance to pursue their PhD by conducting their own research work. The distribution of duties varies on a case-by-case basis but generally, the research work is not more than 80% of the time. Here, the applicant is a full-time employee of the host university and has all the duties, rights and benefits granted to them based on Dutch labour agreements and laws.
  • Visiting PhD
    In this form of PhD program, the PhD researcher is not affiliated with a Dutch university in any formal sense. The PhD researcher is pursuing a PhD in another university which may or may not be in the Netherlands and during the course of their work, they visit the Dutch university for expertise, limited supervision or a course or a workshop. The difference between guest and sandwich PhD versus visiting PhD is that the visiting researcher does not typically stay and work at the host university for longer than 6 months.

In all the forms of PhD programs that I mentioned above, the PhD researcher must conduct research work, follow some courses where there are knowledge gaps and perform other minor duties such as student supervision or coursework assistance. A typical PhD program, regardless of the form, in the Netherlands is for four years. During this time, the PhD researcher needs to abide by the rules of Code of Conduct for research laid down by UNL (Dutch universities’ umbrella organization).

So, there you have it! A PhD researcher can be an employee who is sometimes also a student in Dutch academia.

Why should you consider doing a PhD in the Netherlands?

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