50/65: A note on the discrepancy between PhD working contracts

A significant portion of PhD students in Germany are funded by signing a working contract (TarifVertrag) with their host institute. The TarifVertrags are public servant contracts with a standard salary and regulated working conditions (for more details on TarifVertrags see this post).

If you’re funded by a contract with your working group, you probably know that what determines your salary is the percentage of your contract. Doctoral researchers in the life sciences/biology typically receive 50% of a TV-L/öD. Under these conditions, you’re required to work for the lab half-time (approximately 20 hours a week), and in return you receive half a full TarifVertrag salary.

You may have wondered at some point (as have all of us), why we don’t receive a full contract, since the majority of us spend far more than 20 hours a week in the lab (and very often more than the full 40).

The formal reasoning behind this is that officially, the contract doesn’t fund the actual PhD thesis. During paid working hours we should be working on anything that our boss assigns us to do for the project specified in our contract*. During our remaining time, we are free to work on our own PhD thesis (or anything else unrelated to our contract).

*Note: in some fields, the contract might not even be for research work. For example, some PhD students are formally hired as teaching assistants. In this case, their contracted hours would officially be dedicated to teaching or tutoring, with the remainder going towards research and thesis work.

In practice, for many of us the PhD thesis largely falls under the contracted project, and even if it doesn’t it’s normally what our boss assigns us to work on anyhow (other than a few collaborations here and there, and maybe some teaching).

So, we’re not funded to work full time and that way we can have sufficient hours to work on our PhD thesis. Makes sense, right? And there’s no legal issue with the 50% contract being the standard for PhD students since it is above the minimum wage (and similar to what would be provided by most stipends).

If we just accept 50% as the standard contract for PhDs, we shouldn’t have any reason to feel underpaid.

The problem is, that 50% is not the standard. In fact, while everything from working hours to salary is regulated in a TarifVertrag, the percentage of the contract that a student receives is entirely unregulated.

For example, Computer Science PhDs often receive a full 100% contract. Yes, it is true that programmers and data analysts are in high demand in the job market, and could quite easily get high paying positions outside of academia, but academia isn’t really akin to the private sector (not to mention the fact that getting a doctoral degree can actually make the student more desirable once they go out and search for a job later on)…

In contrast, in the life sciences, where there’s a large number of recently-graduated students searching for PhD positions (and biologists aren’t exactly a huge asset in the private sector), professors have their pick, which results in little motivation to increase salaries.

But the difference between the appeal of different degrees still doesn’t explain the fact that even within the life sciences, some PhDs get a 50% contract with their group while others get 65%. It even happens that two PhDs working in the same lab have two different contracts! The reason for these discrepancies is that the height of the salary is entirely up to the PI (again, as long as it is not below minimum wage).

There is, however, some effort being made towards improving the salaries of doctoral students in Germany. The DFG (German Research Foundation) has taken the opinion that a 65% contract is ‘standard’ for doctoral researchers in the field of life sciences[1]. Unfortunately, at the present time this standard isn’t legally enforced.

In recent years, a number of student-run organizations have been campaigning to improve the working conditions of doctoral researchers in Germany. Long-term changes in contracts for all PhD students requires political lobbying and collaborations between multiple groups representing student rights.

For this reason, a collaborative platform called N(‘the Network of Networks’) was established. The Nis a collaboration between three PhD student organizations in Germany: The Max Planck PhDnet, the Helmholtz Juniors and the Leibniz PhD Network. The goal is to align the needs of the PhD students represented by each individual organization and make a combined effort to improve working conditions nationally[2].

If you’re interested in getting involved with these efforts, I would recommend that you speak to your PhD representatives, become a PhD representative yourself, or contact one of these organizations directly (depending on which institute you work in). If you’re working at the university, however, you might not be represented by one of these organizations directly, but this definitely shouldn’t stop you from getting involved. Volunteers are normally welcomed wholeheartedly, and spending time within these groups would be a good starting point to learn about their structure and the efforts that they’re already making for us.

But despite all of these efforts, for the time being there still isn’t an official regulation of PhD contracts.

What does that mean for us? For now, the only practical option we have to control the percentage of our contract is by negotiating it with our boss from the start. Until research positions become more standardized, we just need to treat the position like we would any other job in the private sector.

We’d be happy to hear if you have any more thoughts on the topic.


[1] http://www.dfg.de/foerderung/faq/lebenswissenschaften_faq/index.html

[2] https://www.phdnet.mpg.de/N2

Linda Olsthoorn

PhD candidate, Neuroscience, MPI for biophysical chemistry

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