Stipends are good

In contrast to contract holders, stipend holders do not benefit from social insurances. However, most of the social insurances that contract holding doctoral researchers have, are really not required by them: What do you need a pension scheme for when you are under 30 and when it is very likely that you will earn a lot more money in a few years? What do you need an unemployment insurance for when most academics only know unemployment as a short period of a few months while waiting until they start their next job (as confirmed by a recent HIS study [German])? In effect, the research organisations save a lot of money by giving you a stipend rather than a contract: They can hire three Ph.D. students with a stipend but only two with a contract.

Since doing a Ph.D. at an excellent institution, like a Max-Planck-Institute or a Helmholtz Institute, will boost your career (and in the end hopefully society will also benefit from that) no matter if you stay in science or not, this opportunity should be given to as large a number of people as possible, shouldn’t it?

And since more people can be ‘hired’ with a stipend than with a contract, it might be you who would not be doing your Ph.D. or doctorate studies if everyone else had a contract…


17 Responses to Stipends are good

  1. phd student says:

    I completely disagree with you!
    I am against stipends!
    Firstly because it is unfair to have one students on a contract, who has more money in a month and a regulary salary raise, are protected against accidents (which can be extremly expensive) and most importantly, they have real rights and can fight for them in case of a unfair dissmissal as seen many times. Additionally, almost all PhD students finish their writing time on unemployment payment, which is hartz 4 for stipend holders, which makes a difference!!!! I could keep counting disadvantages of a stipend. In fact there are different opinions but I just want everybody to know before! starting the PhD what he/ She can expect!

  2. Leonard says:

    The points that you mention are all true, *but* since very often the money for research projects is fixed and not the number of e.g. Ph.D. students, the question is “it is better to all Ph.D. students with contracts or twice as many with stipends?”.

    Please note that I also think that contracts are better in principle (in the PhDnet most of the administrative problems we’ve been dealing with this year wouldn’t exist if there were no stipends!), but at the moment (pragmatically) there is no other way to dramatically increase the number of Ph.D. students than to offer them stipends.

    And then the question is: Do we want to increase the number of Ph.D. students?


  3. Irene says:

    A short remark under time pressure: Doing a Ph.D. at an excellent institution will boost my career indeed. “This opportunity should be given to as large a number of people as possible” sounds fair, but increasing the number of excellent Ph.D. students does not boost *my* career. So why should I do my Ph.D. without social insurance? It is a matter of competition which is not bad at all basically. Yet, we should clarify what we are talking about!

  4. PhD student says:

    1. The success of a PhD thesis is measured by publications and results. Doing a PhD at an excellent institute doesn’t guarantee a boost of one’s career.
    2. Isn’t it better to have 10 motivated skilled and well supervised PhD students plus 2 Postdocs instead of 100 students muddling along because their professors can’t supervise all of them properly and there are no Postdocs?
    3. The Mathematicians, Physics and Engineer PhD students get full salary. How do they do it? Research must more efficient! Collaborations with companies, supervision, graduate schools etc.
    4. Pragmatism is always the “Totschlagargument” but it’s about appreciating the studen’s work value and the responsibility of the student’s future.

  5. Leonard says:

    @Irene: Playing the ‘advocatus diaboli’, I would answer: “You want to do your Ph.D. without social insurance because otherwise you might not have gotten a Ph.D. position at all”.
    @PhD student (1): True, but being at an excellent institute makes it normally easier to publish interesting things and write good papers since you have more good people around you who can guide you.
    (2) Sure, but isn’t it even better to have 20 motivated skilled and well supervised Ph.D. students plus 4 Postdocs on a stipend?
    (3) I don’t understand your point here.
    (4) I agree that the value of the student’s work is also expressed in the remuneration (including insurances etc). But after all it comes back to (1): the best remuneration you can get is to increase the ‘stock value’ of you (as one of our directors once said) and in this respect the best you can do (not just for you but for society in general) is to maximize the number of (successful, happy) Ph.D. students.

  6. Leonard says:

    One more thing: I am absolutely in favor of full social insurance coverage for stipend holders and within the PhDnet we’ve been researching, talking and discussing about this a lot. However, most times we were confronted with exactly the arguments that I’ve outlined in this article. This article is therefore not my personal opinion, but the attempt to find good counter-arguments.
    Thanks for all your comments and ideas!

  7. felix says:

    If it is still possible I want to add a comment on adequate payment of the ones who in fact do the scientific work:
    The discussion is on a way so that it will be only a matter of time until it is suggested that PhD students should pay the PostDocs for their supervision.

    It is important to realize that PhD students do work. Of course there are reasons why they are easily negotiated into contracts without full payment or in other ways cheap. On the other hand in order to get bright students continue doing science it is our common interest to make it attractive for them. It is not attractive to be sponsored by companies or even after their academic degree sponsored by their parents and that is for the lucky ones who have families that can help or topics that are commerically interesting.

    What we should prevent is questions like: “You seem to be pretty bright: so why on earth do you work as PhD student?”

    PhD studies are education and work. The work part should be appreachiated as such.

  8. Alex says:

    “maximize the number of (successful, happy) Ph.D. students” means increasing the number of “failed”, “unhappy” people with a PhD degree. The oportunities are limitted.

  9. PostDoc says:

    I would like to add my thoughts on why contracts are better from the point of view of foreign (non-EU) postdoc in Germany:
    1) the whole status of a foreign postdoc on a stipend is somehow not well defined in German laws. Every time people in Auslaenderbehoerde have troubles to comprehend who am I exactly (you are not a student, you are getting money, but not working..), and many other official places have the same problem as well, what leads to headache and frustration when having conversations with them. The contract with a state-owned organization would give one the rock-solid ground in all these questions.
    2) the medical insurance is also a problem – if you just came to Germany, there is no way to enter the statutory health insurance, and your only option is a private one – either too expensive or with very little coverage. The latter is bearable if you are overall healthy and single. But if you have a wife and/or kids (which is more or less the case for postdocs), then the prices for private insurance for the whole family with benefits comparable to the statutory one (pregnancy for example) are way higher.

  10. Nick says:

    First of all I see no point in discussing this: there is no good reason for which we PhD students should be considered different than any others: an engineer or economist that starts his first job also will learn while working. Who will start knowing it all already??
    So why should we get stipends instead of regular salaries?
    Ok, sure it would be nice to have more research staff as I strongly believe that research is what promotes progress and prosperity!
    But it is not my fault if the governments think they can achieve progress with little money!
    They should instead realize that our work is as important as that of people that bild bridges or cars. Especially when we work to solve health-related issues!!

    So no, I don’t want a stipend and I don’t wish it to anyone. Not to give the right for parental leave or insurance in the case of accidents is criminal!
    People that invent such a thing are mean, knowing that they instead get all those benefits.
    And pension?? We PhD students are in the late 20s, so if not now when should we start sparing for our pensions?? Should we get less now and also as old age pensioners??
    People complain that our generation is student for ever and that we don’t want to work. Hell, give us a damn regular contract instead of stupid perennial apprenticeship contracts where the job is qualified but UNDERpaid!

    I want (and I have) a contrat. I wouldn’t have taken this position otherwise.
    Nevertheless I am still not satisfied: mine is a contract for 20 hours a week!!
    Why?? I don’t work 20 hours but 40 or more! Everyone that has a project knows that there is no 9-to-5 working hours. If your experiment is running or you have a deadline well then you just work, be it 50 or 60 hours in a week.
    I’ll try to be reasonable: I don’t expect to be paid extra for overtime. But I do want a normal full-time contract like every other professional figure.
    I know for a fact also that PhD student from non-biological faculties do sometimes have full-time contract while this unheard of in biology/biochemistry etc… Why this??
    Do the politicians want their medicines when they’re gonna be old and ill?? Do they want an effective medicine??
    Then they should start paying us properly!

  11. Leonard says:

    Hi all,

    Thanks for your comments!!

    @PostDoc: Thanks for mentioning the visa issue. I am not aware of any problems non-EU stipendholders had due to having a stipend instead of a contract but this is something we should check. The health insurance can definitely be a problem (i.e. very expensive) if you have a stipend and are not single and healthy.

    @Nick: First of all, your comparison to an engineer or economist is false. As Ph.D. *students* you still get some supervision and you are not yet ‘just’ working but spending a considerable amount of time for your own project, your thesis. Furthermore, you are still studying, i.e. listening to lectures, going to summerschools, learning elementary things for the first time. Of course we also do work at the same time (a lot actually) and of course people who are working fully should still learn new things. But, and this is the important point, you are only a fully qualified scientist (in many areas, certainly in my area, astronomy) once you have a Ph.D. Shouldn’t we compare ourselves then rather to apprentices than to workers (if we want to make a comparison to ‘jobs’ in the economy)?
    Second: The original idea of stipends was a good one, namely to give it to someone to do their research all by themselve. The classical example might be a Ph.D. student of literature, art, history or legal studies who works in libraries and archives and sees their professor only every once in a while. This can also be true for some students of e.g. theoretical physics or mathematics. Why should you then want to have a contract (which also *obliges* you to do what your boss tells you, to be present at some place for certain hours and to ask for vacations)? In these cases a stipend is clearly the more flexible and better way. This of course is only true for a subset of all Ph.D. students and shouldn’t be applied to all.
    Third: There are differences in the payment of Ph.D. students depending on the research area. I agree that this is not fair. But: The question is to what degree research institutes have to compete against industry jobs. To say it clearly: You can offer an astronomer almost any stipend, if they want to do astronomy they’ll have to accept. If you do the same for a semiconductor physicist, they might go to an industrial company instead and earn a lot more.

  12. Pazo says:

    I’ve heard all the arguments from the original posting before, and I find them outrageously ignorant. Why not apply the same reasoning to other kinds of work:

    – Why should anybody with a well-paid job need a pension scheme at all?

    – Why should anybody well-qualified need unemployment insurance?

    – There are 4 millions unemployed in Germany. Why not decrease everybody’s salary and drop social insurance, so that economy and society can afford to give a job to everybody?

    – Why should anybody working at a renowned company complain about low salary? After all, it’s an honour to work there and looks great on the CV.

    Obviously, taking all these arguments to their logical conclusion means negating the whole social system we have.

    I find it particularly concerning that of all employers, institutions funded from public money are cheating their way around their social responsibilities. Just imagine the public outcry if a random renowned company used the same arguments to underpay its employees!

    @Leonard: It is not true that PhD students all take lectures. In fact, the typical situation in my field is quite the opposite: nobody is taking lectures, but everybody is required to do time-consuming TA-ing or even giving lectures! Whether on stipend or not.

    There also is the fact that even Postdocs are increasingly often put on stipends.

  13. Leonard says:

    Pension schemes:
    The need of a pension scheme for a particular person obviously depends on the age of the person. So of course a pension scheme makes sense *in principle* and most certainly before you reach a certain age. But is it really a problem when Ph.D. students who will probably make an above-average income after their graduation start with their pension scheme only at ~ 30?

    Unemployment insurance:
    Did you have a look at the HIS study that I cited in the post? If yes, you know that most academics are not affected by unemployment. So why spend lots of money for an insurance you don’t need? I know that some Ph.D. students finish their thesis on unemployment insurance money, but: That’s not what this insurance is for! And, regarding the abuse of the social system: The federal ministry for work and social affairs (BMAS) received almost 13x the amount of money than the federal ministry for education and research (BMBF) in 2008. I don’t think the still sparse resources for science and research should be used to finance our social system.

    Low salary:
    Again, it obviously makes a difference whether you’re in your *first* qualification phase or whether you are contributing to the shareholders’ value of a big company.

    The whole situation is of course different for Post-Docs where stipends are in most cases not acceptable in my opinion.

  14. Pazo says:

    The statistics argument about unemployment is a red herring. Insurances are not intended for the average case, but for the worst case. It doesn’t help anybody to know how good the statistics are if s/he is not so lucky. With your argument you could refuse all kinds of insurances for all kinds of people.

    Low salary: I don’t see how the difference is “obvious”, nor why only a job contributing to some shareholders’ value is worth paying properly. Shall we no longer pay anybody in public service, to pick a random example? Most PhD students in the German system do actual work. As far as I can see, they are no longer in their first qualification phase, especially if they’ve got a master or diploma already.

  15. To all PhD candidates and Postdocs in academia,
    PhD candidates and Postdocs of all universities and Applied Universities (FH) in Saxony Anhalt united and formed a community.
    In a local newspaper article:,1126508141021&calledPageId=1013083806226&listid=1018881578460 we complain about the situation and claim a coordinator for Scientific Career Service (paid e.g. from the long term tuition fees (Langzeitstudiengebühren), which is already installed in many other universities (compare:;jsessionid=11ac5293f087dc0eb433cf56cecb). Additionally we claim a co-determination right in the senate. Both things are now underway.
    I feel that decades of anxious PhD candidates, who kept silent about injustices and arbitrary acts, enhanced the self-insurance of the leaders to treat their candidates as they wish. Where low wages/ stipends, unfinished theses and finishing up paid by Harz IV became normality in everybody’s mind – (even in the mind of many technician’s).
    It’s time to boost the ego of PhD candidates and Postdocs in terms of rights, information, money and most importantly networking.
    I can encourage everybody to do the same as we did – complain in public und unite with other PhD candidates/ Postdocs. We had only positive reactions – the institute leaders felt guilty and promised to improve the situation of PhD candidates – and hopefully will!
    PhD candidates fulfill core duties in academia as teaching, research, grant applications, PR etc. they should feel and must be treated as crucial for the institutes.
    Please act and inform your equal opportunity commissioner and dean if you hear or see injustice against any PhD candidate.
    Our blog:
    We are happy to share our experience with you!

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