Belgian PhD students face an uncertain future

  • In Flanders, an action group has criticized the effects of the “machine” producing a surplus of would-be researchers.
  • There is no organized protest in French-speaking areas, but job insecurity still exists, especially in social sciences.


In Flanders, an impressive 5,300 people have signed a petition, in the form of an open letter, calling for more consideration to be given to PhD students and post-doctoral fellows. It appears that, upon closer analysis of universities, which have doubled the number of PhD students, too many researchers can spoil the research. In 2002, the academic world bestowed the title of “doctor” on 862 individuals; in 2012, there were 1,670. Could a sudden acceleration in brain power be behind this increase? The real reason is much simpler: on the other side of the Belgian language barrier, universities are partially funded in accordance with the number of scientific publications they put out, hence their tendency to augment research contracts. Unfortunately, this causes a host of related adverse effects.


“Previously, publications were a way of announcing the results of research, whereas today they’ve become an end in itself,” say the figures from the Actiegroep Hoger Onderwijs (Higher Education Action Group). The aforementioned adverse effects include an increase in the number of researchers, a reduction in supervisory staff (as changes are rarely made to management), pressure to publish more quickly, severe tension caused by the work-life imbalance, a drop in research quality, and an exacerbation in competition between grant applicants. “In extreme cases, it can lead to fraud,” they state. The least that can be said is that the system is creating a lot of disappointed young people: while a number of them dive headlong into research and hope to succeed their professors, very few actually get there in the end, because only 7.5% of Flemish PhD students eventually teach at university level.


Between the extreme issues faced by Jean-Claude (see Le Soir’s front page), a French speaker, and the disillusionment that reigns in Flanders, what is the real situation in the French Community? In the absence of actual figures, one thing is clear: the funding of Francophone universities is not linked to the total number of publications, although certain university presidents favor a move in that direction. However, they still cannot escape the pressure of global competition or of the infamous university rankings that do take publications into account. “With one particular caveat, however,” notes a social sciences researcher. “English dominates everywhere. The most respected scientific reviews are from English-speaking countries, which poses a real problem: one of universities’ missions is to be of service to society, but by publishing in another language from that spoken in our region, there’s a risk of a disconnect between the research and its own social environment.”


What is certain is that the majority of researchers are looking for a normal salary rather than a way to make a fortune. “The prime motivation is the beauty of it all, the desire to give their time to science and to do something for society – they’re all very idealistic,” admits a bio-medical science professor. “One year, 100% of my students wanted to go into research! The problem is that jobs and grants – and therefore, positions in research centers – are rare.”


And that is without taking into account the post-doctoral fellows, working on fixed-term contracts which enable new research to be initiated. “You really have to fight to get a spot. And sometimes indulge in nepotism!” says Jean-Claude. “There are jobs where we know it’s pointless to apply. There are others where we’re not aware of all the criteria. And then, as there’s competition between universities, the current trend is to inflate the results of the best students so as to increase their chances of securing a funded position.”


And after that? The most important factor these days is not getting into a university but knowing when to get out in time. This is because, as far as academic careers are concerned, the situation is hardly any rosier in the French Community than it is in the Flemish Community. At the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL), for example, the hiring of 26 researchers is projected for 2014, but nearly 300 “doctors” have just graduated.


“We need to be mindful of this job insecurity; you need to be ready to shift professions in time. I often say to my students that the longer they wait, the more they run the risk of private employers turning their noses up because they’ve gone too far down a specialized university career path,” says René Rezsohazy, a professor at the UCL’s Institute of Life Sciences. Changing paths often means opting for secondary education or a (rare) – research-based role in the public or private sectors. “There are 120,000 posts available across Europe in the medical-technical sectors,” he adds reassuringly.


There appears to be little worry for engineers in all categories and for doctors of chemistry and biology, among others. On the other hand, for historical, sociological and philosophical researchers, the chances of getting a job within the same sector grow slimmer as time passes. Which makes the caricature-like bitterness demonstrated by Jean-Claude somewhat understandable: “Cutting to the chase, I haven’t sacrificed all these years to end up as a secondary school teacher with unbearable students. I would like the Belgian state, which invested in my doctoral path and that of my peers, to give some value to our competence and years of research. Failing that, I view it as a total waste of public money.”



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