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Old 29.11.2015, 13:09
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Employment rights of PhD research assistants

Hi there, one of my friend is finishing his PhD soon and have some concerns regarding employment rights.

I can tell that he has been through a hard life, saving a lot basic living stuff, lunch etc., because his family here are living on his tiny income. He has been working quite hard for five years, almost working on all weekends and earning 80%. The work quality is regarded good and satisfied his community, with several high-profile publications. However he has been very depressed, because his advisor has been taking advantage of him, delaying various graduation procedures, while "sharing" his work (letting him do the hard work alone and put both names on, asking for more without helping, relying on him while being unfriendly, etc.) This is hard to prove, although I trust him, because his working environment is quite isolated with his advisor.

Now that it is approaching the end, his advisor is *repeatedly* proposing him to stay to continue. He is wondering whether it is his right to graduate and reject such offers. It is very likely his advisor will use his graduation as a leverage to ask for more including future collaborations, while delaying the process to obtain the diploma (I can tell that the old man is quite sneaky and abusing his right within the line) The system, unfortunately, allows this, because the advisor is basically the manager and administrator of him.

I wonder if there is any way to help him to get out (graduate and obtain the diploma in time) from this horror without costing an arm and a leg? Any suggestions are welcome.
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Old 29.11.2015, 13:44
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Re: Employment rights of PhD research assistants

What does he want to do afterward? Has he got a job lined up, or is he in a field (I admit I don't know of one, but perhaps there are) where jobs for new PhDs are plentiful and easy to find?

I knew quite a few PhDs whose advisors kept urging them to stay longer, do more... some found it exploitative, others a win-win. It's a delay but it also means (or should mean) a stronger CV when you finally do graduate.

If your friend is being asked to turn down concrete opportunities, or to stay on and do work that won't improve his CV or afford useful networking opportunities, then sure, his best move is to insist on graduating as soon as possible. He needs to frame it positively ("I need to stay focused on my dissertation right now") when rejecting unwanted "opportunities", and he will have to make sure that his work/life balance really does reflect that focus.
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Old 01.12.2015, 23:05
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Re: Employment rights of PhD research assistants

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What does he want to do afterward?
I don't know for sure. I am not worried, though, as he is quite talented and should be able to find a good job finally.

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If your friend is being asked to turn down concrete opportunities, or to stay on and do work that won't improve his CV or afford useful networking opportunities, then sure, his best move is to insist on graduating as soon as possible
His defence is already scheduled. His main problem is to get things right, e.g. get the diploma on time and leave without further "opportunities only for himself". However it seems hard based on his description of the hierarchy. They just keep asking for more whenever they get the opportunity, abusing the rules with good reasons, and verbally being unfriendly. He is also depressed because the treatment he received for his hard working, and is questioning whether he will be able to get rid of the bad effect mentally...

As a friend I am confused why an academia institution can be corrupted like such, without any regulations regarding what a professor can do to his student, and without any respect to the working rights of research assistants! They are also equal employees, aren't they?
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Old 02.12.2015, 00:12
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Re: Employment rights of PhD research assistants

bumpyhead, the specific employment rights/regulations depends on the contract and the University/institution. There are several types of PhD research assistantship, so a bit more clarity of the educational institution might help, should I be familiar with it.
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Old 02.12.2015, 13:58
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Re: Employment rights of PhD research assistants

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the specific employment rights/regulations depends on the contract and the University/institution
Let's say, for example, major universities in the French-speaking region like in Geneva. What are the general rights of a research assistant against unfair conditions, e.g., making more publications after graduation in the name of "finalizing", imposed from above, and unfair treatments, e.g., intentionally delaying administrative procedures, being irresponsible regarding reasonable requests regarding student's rights, being sticky up to the point of harassment proposing to stay?

Last edited by bumpyhead; 02.12.2015 at 14:22.
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Old 02.12.2015, 19:59
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Re: Employment rights of PhD research assistants

PhD RAs can be of several types:
  • Employed under a research grant: this usually means you are to work full-time on the research that may/may not have to do with your PhD research
  • Employed under a third party funding scheme: - see above-
  • Employed by a professor who is at least partially financed by either of the two options above: - see above
  • Employed by the university under a university or departmental budget: depending on the institution, this ranges from working 50% for the department/professor to working 100%

The rights would vary depending on the category your friend falls under. One thing your friend can always do is to consult the academic counsellor or Head of the doctoral school etc- but if and only if he is assured of 100% confidentiality. He could then get insights into what might be the best possible way. Most universities should have such an individual who is responsible for student welfare.

However, I would caution against doing any formal steps (e.g. approaching the HR directly- if they don't have such confidentiality options) as it is better not to burn bridges.

Now, about the specific conditions you mentioned:
1. making more publications after graduation in the name of "finalizing": if he is still has the contract, then there is nothing against insisting on writing more papers. If his contract ends up with graduation, he can come up with a 1001 excuses to get out of this, especially if he has no intention of remaining in academia. If he does intend to continue in academia, even elsewhere, then he could consider working on these papers (1. papers count for jobs 2. academia is a tightly-knit network)

2. intentionally delaying administrative procedures: request the admin to expedite this. If the defense date has been set, there really shouldn't be much problem.

3. They just keep asking for more whenever they get the opportunity: He can be firm and say no. Why is he agreeing to everything they ask?

4. "sharing" his work (letting him do the hard work alone and put both names on: In the sciences, it is very common (even the norm) to have plenty of names in the authorship list of papers. These would typically include the entire research group and technically staff.

5. his advisor is *repeatedly* proposing him to stay to continue: continue on a paid position as a post-doc? It is within his rights to say that he would like to take some time off and recuperate after the PhD and get back to him on his offer after that.

6. use his graduation as a leverage to ask for more including future collaborations: see my answer to 5 above.

If you or your friend would like to discuss this more, feel free to pm me.
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Old 02.12.2015, 23:14
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Re: Employment rights of PhD research assistants

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His defence is already scheduled. His main problem is to get things right, e.g. get the diploma on time and leave without further "opportunities only for himself".
Once defensed and passed, he will be given a grade by the thesis committee (usually at least 3 professors are required for attending the defence to give grades). The score will be passed to the faculty admin ON THE SAME DAY. So there will be no doubt for the graduation timing. He can defense any time in the year but his diploma will be sent out only semester-end (Feb, July, Oct) and the graduation ceremony will be held only once a year (usually Nov-Dec).

So his time line will be:
- Dec 2015: defence
- Feb 2016: receive diploma
- Nov 2016: ceremony (optional, not important)
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Old 03.12.2015, 00:24
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Re: Employment rights of PhD research assistants

Strained relationships (ego clashes?) between PhD students and their advisors do happen. The students stand to lose more in these "fights" than their advisors, even when the advisors are well-known for being difficult. If this friend is so close to graduation, he/she should do the best they can to finish and move on; and preferably move away from the sphere of influence of an advisor they didn't get along with. It is even possible that the advisor has absolutely no idea, nor the interest to learn, how to handle the bureaucratic hoops pertaining to the lives of his/her students, in which case the friend must approach the advisor's secretary (or bureau of secretaries) who will provide the answers.

The friend should think long term, should they want to continue in the academia, on this continent or any other (it is a small world at some point in one's academic research career), because at any step in their career ladder they will need a letter of recommendation from their advisor. Unless, again, it's a well-known and accepted fact that the advisor is completely cuckoo (that even the community isn't in speaking terms with) then there will be some leniency.

At the end of the day (the PhD day), there will be hurt feelings stemming from:
- the time invested in this project - 5 years of their life and their family's life living like poor students can take a toll on both partners in a marriage; was it really worth it;
- the dashed high hopes and expectations (hello, maturity!)
- the perceived or actual misappropriation of intellectual property of research findings;
- the potential papers that might be written on the particular topic started with their advisor and who gets to be the author on them. (As far as I know both of them must be included, until the topic is done with or they continue in different directions.)

Soooo, the best course of action is to finish, since the friend is so close to finishing. For a beginner, the best course of action would be to change advisors. Very difficult, but it can be done.

Good luck!
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