A doctoral researchers guide to contracts and salaries

Discussions about the salary of doctoral researchers (DRs) have been going on for a long time, but with rising living costs, they are becoming more and more urgent for many of us. The payment of DRs is usually decided by their institute and supervisor. DRs are usually classified in E13 TVL, but the working hours vary hugely depending on the institution and subject, leading to different net incomes for the same work.

The 2019 survey “Being a Doctoral Researcher in the Leibniz Association: 2019 Leibniz DR Network Survey Report” shows that only 12.5% of doctoral researchers receive payment for 76-100 %, 20% receive 66-75%, 41% receive 65% and, 26% receive 50%. In contrast to the contract situation, only 5% of doctoral researchers work less than 30 hours; the majority (49%) is working 40-50 hours, with another 15% even exceeding these hours.

This situation is often reasoned using the DFG “Hinweis zur Bezahlung von Promovierenden” and the Besserstellungsverbot, arguing that Leibniz cannot pay more than the usual salary at universities. However, the DFG does not offer an explanation for the difference in salary. This leads to a situation in which DR with the same actual working hours and tasks (research, supervision, equipment supervision, teaching, tutoring etc.) are paid differently allowing a huge variation in living standards and social security, which is correlated to mental health.

In our opinion, having a stable contract, healthy working conditions, and fair payment across all our sections would lead to an increase in mental health as well as a higher scientific output, since our DRs can focus purely on research without existential worries. In addition, it would make Leibniz more appealing as an employer, leading to more applications and better candidates as well as a higher motivation to continue work within the Leibniz network, again resulting in higher quality research and therefore more funding opportunities. In addition, power abuse could be reduced by having a clear contract situation for all DRs and therefore no influence of the supervisor on the financial stability of a DR’s life.

In addition, current decisions of the EuGH and BAG have clarified that every employee has to have a working time tracking system. This is established to prevent exploitation at the workplace and ensure mental and physical health of all employees. The current contract situation does not allow for DRs to follow this law, since working hours are exceeded in nearly all cases and only in some institutes DRs are asked to time track their working hours. Leibniz could open itself to lawsuits or recurring legal problems under these conditions. One solution to this problem would also be a full-time contract for our doctoral researcher which would go along with the goal of Good Science Needs Good Working Conditions”.

We are advocating for:

  1. 100% contracts for all DRs in all subjects and institutes across Leibniz.
  2. A contract length of at least 4 years, since the average duration of a doctoral degree in Germany, is 5.7 years.
  3. Stipends and contract holders should have the same benefits, full salary, and full social security coverage.
  4. Trust working hours (tracked by the DR) and flexible working time (taking overtime as free time later) – Allowing for experiments and field trips to continue without legal problems, but still ensuring mental and physical health under working law conditions.

How can the budget management be improved and lead to better working conditions? 

It is a norm within an academic institution to have PIs, and lab supervisors with control over expenditures in the lab. This includes paying for the lab staff, publication costs, travel to conferences costs, field research costs, equipment costs, computers, and other supplies. The biggest one of these funding “sinks” is human resources. Having a highly skilled research assistant is expensive, and often PIs find it hard to designate a large sum of their starter money/ grant money to hiring a skilled RA. If the funds are insufficient, or due to other reasons doctoral researchers (DRs) are often hired as a low-cost option to carry out research. 

Budget management directly impacts doctoral researchers, as the ability of the PI to fund their research depends on it. We know from our surveys that unstable financial conditions harm the mental health of the DRs and act as a Power Abuse tool, thereby negatively affecting DRs productivity. In the worst case, in a poorly managed lab, there are not often enough funds to pay doctoral researchers to finish their work after handing over the dissertation, or they might find themselves relying on third-party stipends, which have a fixed term contract period. Regarding the funding situation, DRs do not make high on many agendas.

PI, at the time of their employment as a lab head, has already secured several streams of funding (grants, starting funds, prizes etc.). Stretching some of these funds are often perceived as necessary to launch a successful research program. Managing a budget is integral, and more importantly, knowing how to manage the budget is very important. A PI rarely learns about this as a postdoctoral researcher. 

Here we suggest how this can be avoided so that a better system can be built where the PI and the DR feel motivated and satisfied to conduct meaningful research.

  • Guideline 1: budget management strategies and guidelines must be shared with early career PIs. And these guidelines can engrave a realistic expectation about the proportion of the budget being utilized in one place or another. This also should include a safety net payment system for doctoral researchers, which could be accessed during extensions on dissertations. 
  • Guideline 2: Increase communication within the department among PIs. Talking and exchanging knowledge about budget sharing must be integrated into the work environment. 



Our voices listened! – N2 participation on the expert exchange in a public commission meeting – German Federal Parliament.

On October 19th 2022, the N2 representation presented a statement in front of the parliament’s commission to express the interests of the Doctoral Researchers Network of non-university organizations in the improvement of the “basic working conditions in order to ensure scientific excellence and diversity in a sustainable manner”.

Here you can find the complete text of the speech.

A pact for diversity in science

What future do you wish to have for your own PhD? And is there anything you would like to change for the next generation of doctoral researchers? N2 – Network of Networks currently deals with those questions and aims to initiate a dialogue about the future of doctoral researchers in Germany. In a joint political statement of N2, the PhD networks of Leibniz, Max Planck and Helmholtz demand a national pact for diversity and a cultural change in science.

In early 2017, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research claimed that a scientific career is getting more and more attractive. N2 does not share this overly optimistic perspective and identified several systemic flaws that need to be addressed with appropriate measures:

  • Enabling national and international mobility by securing the financial coverage.
  • A new and innovative scientific management separating the professional supervision and disciplinary leadership.
  • Fully paid full-time positions for four years as a realistic time-frame for a PhD and positions subject to social insurance contributions especially for those doctoral researchers who work on stipends.

On top of that, N2 makes a case for a phase of

intersectoral mobility. A very large majority of doctoral researchers does not stay in academia and leaves science after finishing the PhD. During their PhD, doctoral researchers should have the opportunity to test alternative career paths in non-scientific organizations, such as foundations, private companies, and public institutions. Such a measure would also foster dialogue and exchanges between science and the non-scientific sphere. However, this does not imply that a scientific career should be less appealing than a career outside academia. A pact for diversity would help science to attract and keep the best minds.

You can read more about this in the comment published on the ZEIT Chancen Brief newsletter on October 16th.