Sonntag, 16. Mai 2010

first draft for supervision guidelines

The directorate of the graduate school wants to prepare a guideline for supervision in the HGSFP. We thought it best to come forward with our own draft. This is a first version where we collected ideas and tried to find a structure. Please comment and/or write a second draft such that we will be able to approach the directorate with a sound, developed, and concise version created by the students.

Here we go.

supervision guidelines for the

Heidelberg Graduate School of Fundamental Physics



The planning and implementation of research projects involving students at PhD level should be characterised by intense cooperation between supervisors and PhD students in a manner that will ensure a high quality of planning and implementation within the typically allocated time frame of three years. These guidelines should give a framework to secure that adequate planning and comprehensive advice and supervision is ensured.

The student, the advisor, and the thesis committee oblige themselves to an efficient and successful work on and completion of the PhD project. This includes a creative, open and fair collaboration based on partnership and impersonal reasoning. They all agree on acting according to the rules of good scientific practise.

Project and Schedule

  • the scientific project is defined by the supervisor and the student jointly
  • the project must be feasible to be finished within the allocated time of the PhD
  • the supervisor and the thesis committee assess the labor, expertise, materials and the time necessary for the work and make sure they are available
  • an initial project plan is defined and written by the supervisor and the student to be provided to the HGSFP administration according to the rules of the faculty within the first six months of the admission
  • if the time originally allocated for completion of the project is expected to be exceeded by more than one year, the student, advisor and thesis committee agree on a plan for a timely completion of the project which is to be reported to the HGSFP
  • comprehensive administrative and organisational duties do not belong to the students scope of work and all parties ensure that this is avoided

The Student ...

  • is committed to finish the PhD project he/she has undertaken, by the time given designated by the rules of the faculty and the HGSFP
  • invests time and effort for continued and concentrated work on his scientific project
  • is expected to participate in the course program offered by the faculty of physics and the HGSFP
  • is expected to communicate progress and advances regularly to the supervisor. The student informs the supervisor and the thesis committee timely about serious problems in order to resolve them together
  • produces original research abiding to the rules of academic good conduct

The Supervisor...

  • is the scientific mentor and advisor of the accepted student for the whole period of the PhD project until its successful completion.
  • is expected to provide and guarantee funding for the whole project for at least three years
  • giving advice on the formulation and definition of the subject and research issues
  • discussing and evaluating hypotheses and methods, being of help in the acquisition of technical literature and materials, giving advice on arrangement and execution of presentation
  • by being up to date on the technical progress of the PhD student, also with regard to the work schedule
  • discussing results and their interpretation, giving advice for methods and directions of the scientific work for the whole period of the PhD
  • introducing him/her to the relevant scientific environment of the institute/working group, and depending on financial circumstances, enabling participation at scientific conferences
  • at an appropriate time, possibly in the final year of studies, the supervisor commits to advising on the PhD student’s future career planning.
  • reads a complete version of the PhD thesis before official submission and gives comments concerning content and style
  • has the initial responsibility in making sure the research being undertaken throughout the PhD, is according to the rules of academic good conduct

The Thesis Committee...

  • is to be chosen carefully and independently by the student six months after admission
  • is expected to contribute to the planning and the concept of the PhD project,
  • exists as an independent third party advisory mechanism (for advice and support) for the supervisor and the student (this includes to be available for meetings in person within a reasonable period of time, e.g. one/two months)
  • assesses the scientific progress of the student and the feasibility of the future plans
  • should be admissible in  the case of arbitration concerning disagreements between the student and the supervisor
  • is interested in and committed to the scientific content of the project and the progress made by the student
  • independent from the supervisor and the associated group of the student

Conflict Resolution

Differences in opinion which may place a lasting strain on efficient cooperation shall be settled by the help of the HGSFP.

Freitag, 9. April 2010

supervision agreement: background and examples

The possibilty of a supervision agreement or supervision guidelines has been mentioned several times in our discussions. A recent post suggested to come up with our own proposal for supervision guidelines. Before writing a proposal, I thought it best to gather some information on the subject.

As mentioned already, the German Research Society (DFG) recommends the installation of supervision agreements. The corresponding document is here. Furthermore, the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers (DHV) takes the same position and recommends clear rules on supervision. The DHV and a German network of PhD students (THESIS) wrote a best-practice paper on PhD studies (here). It includes a number of remarkable points, including the explicit recommendation of a supervision agreement between students and advisor, fixing the baiscs of the PhD studies.

Additionally, there are a number of German universities and graduate schools that have installed supervision agreements. Among them are:
  1. The Bremen International Graduate School for Marine Sciences "Global Change in the Marine Realm" (GLOMAR): supervision agreement (english).
  2. The Graduate School of Politics (GraSP-Münster): supervision agreement, pdf or doc (german).
  3. The faculty of humanities at the university of Duisburg/Essen (homepage): supervision agreement here
  4. Frankfurt Graduate School for the Humanities and Social Sciences (FGS): supervision agreement (here) , and also in Frankfurt, The International Postgraduate Center Social Sciences (homepage), supervision agreement (here).
  5. The Graduate School of Sociology Münster (GRASS): supervision agreement (here)
  6. The Faculty for Architecture and Landscape Sciences (hompage) at the University of Hanover: supervision agreement (here)
All these documents, specifically the ones from the DFG and DHV should provide a good background for writing our own proposal of a supervision agreement / supervision guidelines.

Dienstag, 30. März 2010

Discussion with director

I had an interesting discussion with the Executive Director on a couple of issues that are related to the comments from the survey. The most important outcome -as I see it- is that she really sees the need for guidelines for the PhD advisors. Maybe we can work out a couple of points that we find important and send it to her for further discussion.
Another thing that I was not fully aware of is that the dean of the faculty can be seen as a godlike entity with supernatural powers... okay, maybe not supernatural powers but with a very strong position regarding more or less any aspect of faculty regulations or administration. This means that we somehow have to try to involve him in a constructive way if we want to change anything within a reasonable period.

Montag, 29. März 2010

teaching: legal status

I had a long discussion with a lawyer about the teaching business and want to disucss the outvome here.

I will try to answer the following questions:
  1. Can the faculty force PhD students to teach?
  2. Do all teaching students have an insurance?
  3. How could one argue on legal terms against the faculty/university?
  4. What can we do?
I hope these give us more clarity about the status and possible ways to proceed. Additionally, my friend advised my consult other lawyers, too.

1. Can the faculty force PhD students to teach?
The university could take §6(3) of the Promotionsordnung to justify teaching, saying that students being part of a PhD program need to follow its rules. But actually this is not necessary, since the students agreed volontarily by signingg the application form, that they "will perform the required teaching, as listed in the Attachment “Teaching Requirements for Doctoral Students”."
This has the positive effect that every teaching students has an automatic insurance (legally, signing this is an automatic contract). But on the other hand the faculty does not need any justification or reason for the students' teaching anymore, since they agreed volontarily. In addition, the university is not forcing the students to teach. The argument that we are forced implicitly, since without signing it we could not get a PhD was also rejected, since we do not need to persue a PhD here.

2. Do all teaching students have an insurance?
Since all teaching student signed this application form, they are (according to my lawyer) automatically insured the teaching requirements as stated in the application form include an automatic (unwritten) contract.

3. How could one argue on legal terms against the faculty/university?
It appears very difficult to argue that PhD students are forced to teach (which would might be contradictory art. 12 of the german constitution: no forced labour) since applicants signed the application form volontarily. And students do not need to go for their PhD here, i.e. they are not hindered to obtain any PhD, only they cannot do it here, if they do not accept the terms.

One might also argue that the distribution of teaching duties is distributed unevenly. Is this violating the right of equal treatment (art. 3 of the german basic law)? Well, one could take two students, with similar background and equal teaching experiences who have to do different amounts of teaching (e.g. 3 semesters vs. 1 semester). First of all, it seems that this human right is very difficult to persue in court since it is usually only taken as a very last resort by lawyers (and accepted by court only in heavy mistreatments). Anyway, it would be difficult to get very far with this argument, since a court might accept that it is an unequal treatment, but the difference would be considered minimal, and sufficient to accept it as an instance of unequal treatment as meant by art. 3 of the basic law.

I asked finally, whether students had any rights at all. And the lawyer's answer is: certainly, but there is no severe mistreatment going on that would stand in court.

4. What can we do?
There is one further major point that came out of that discussion. If a student has external funding with a contract that explicitly forbids him to follow activities other than research, like teaching or using university facilities for work, he is breaking his funding contract when he signs that application form. Because he is then entering a contract with teaching where his funding contract explicitly forbids it.
Generally, it is not a crime to have two contradictory contracts, e.g. you can sell the same car to different people. But if you do so, people can come and demand their rights (e.g. that car) or ask for compensation. That means the external funding agency can claim its money back. To repeat: the university is not making these students break the law, but it forces them to break their funding contract. And this is not the universities fault, since the student signed the application form (with that important teaching paragraph) volontarily. My friend suggested that these students should not sign this form because they would break their funding contract. They should strike-through that paragraph or sign an application form not containing that paragraph. They could easily deny the signature because they would otherwise break their contract under these terms.

So here is a possible route for argumentation open for our discussion: The teaching requirements have a weak legal support as is clear from the way the faculty acts upon it. But, importantly, the teaching requirement paragraph in the application form is forcing students to break a contract. This paragraph should be erased for at least these students. If the faculty is insisting on this paragraph,
a) it invites some students to break their contract (which the faculty should not want), or
b) it cannot take some of the students since they cannot become PhD students under these terms.
The faculty might accept the second point of view and simply say: If they don't want to be our students, we don't need them. But still it should seem weird for the faculty to make (some of the) students break their contract. This is all under the assumption that the university shares my lawyer's account of the situation.
NB: If we follow this line of argument, we cannot ask for "one semester teaching for all and the rest is paid".

Want can we do? We should make this part of any leaflet, warning students about these legal issues. They should not sign the application form with that paragraph when their contract forbids teaching or non-research activities. They should be very careful, since they may break this contract otherwise. To sue the university seems very unlikely to be successful.

Samstag, 27. März 2010

a subjective historical account, introduction

universities go through certain transformations; from a teaching university to a research university and then an entrepreneurial one (see e.g. etzkowitz 2003*). they are caused by certain needs of the economy that drive the public services forcefully or collaboratively. the tearing down of the public institutions was one of the main themes of the past decade. as a part of this trend, the soft-money scheme was introduced to the universities, under the suggestion that it brings accountability to the research being done.

what 'soft' means is that rather than the 'hard' money of the university i.e. labor contracts with the university workers/researchers, every researcher (except a very small minority) needs to apply for money to non-governmental institutions of research or companies for support. this brings about the necessity of rationalisation of specific research project with the thorough checks by the funding institutions deciding on the success, necessity and the productivity of the project. the reason i am giving the historical account is to discuss the current situation of the graduate students in heidelberg (and hopefully in germany). the reason it is called subjective is that, it is written from the perspective of the graduate students.

although i have my own personal feelings on the topic, the reason i am giving the historical account is to discuss the current situation of the graduate students in heidelberg (and hopefully in germany). the reason it is called subjective is that, it is written from the perspective of the graduate students.

as i said, given the system itself the important part was not the properties of the soft-money scheme but rather the switch to it. as a new system is put into place it takes time for the concerning parties to adapt, which eventually the changes that are advantageous to the group in power will take place to the disadvantage of the others. this was precisely what happened to the graduate students of germany.

it is well known that graduate students consist most of the researcher positions in any institute or university, and the new funding scheme directly affected the labor contracts between the students and the institutes. in the former times, students were employed by the university in exchange of not only doing research but also providing certain services for the universities. this was in greater affect teaching.

with the transformation to a research university, the students started to support their studies either through fellowships or through soft-money which essentially money flows from funding institutions to the university but with certain strings, like to be spent only for the research related activities that the money is awarded for. i.e. the university can not use the money coming from private or public foundations for research simply to employ administration, or construction etc. this fact applies and should have applied to the employment of the graduate students for the case of research vs teaching.

as we know, in u.s. universities (where actually the soft-money system is based on) the payment schemes of the students are clearly separated as teaching assistantship and research assistantship. this clear separation simply does not exist in germany. teaching is simply defined as a learning activity for the students and since there can be no constraints on the university prerequisites towards receiving a degree.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy regards teaching as a vital component in the education of doctoral students, not only to reinforce their knowledge in a particular subject of physics, but also to aid in developing their communication skills. Teaching is also often simply a rewarding exercise for the doctoral student.**

so here is our dilemma, somewhere along the line the teaching activity has evolved from a university service that is a part of the labor contract to a learning activity. and the story does not end here, while the former diploma (now bachelor) students can be employed to tutor the same kind of class, the phd students are teaching without any form of contract. when we consider also the post-docs who participate with the teaching of the tutorials, we end up with a situation where a certain group of people are employable (undergraduates, post-docs), the graduate students are not.

our demand is very simple; equal pay for equal work

* Etzkowitz, H. ''Research groups as ‘quasi-firms’: the invention of the entrepreneurial university'' Research Policy, 2003, 32, 109
** from Teaching requirements for graduate students

Teaching: statement of the current situation

PhD students have  to teach in order to obtain their degree. I want to outline the background to this here and discuss possible issues. I will discuss possible steps in a later post.

Clearly, the university needs teaching.This is done by employees of the university, being professors, graduate students or undergarduate students. These have contracts that state their teaching duties and the salary they receive for their important work. But PhD students are also routinely used for teaching, often without contracts, clear rules and even without payment. I do not want to discuss the reasons here, but the rules according to which this takes place.

The faculty homepage mentions for applicants to PhD studies:
These candidates are requested in addition to print out the excerpt from the faculty regulations for doctoral studies and the teaching requirements for graduate students, and to submit these documents, signed, together with their application. (faculty page)
Whatever the homepage says, relevant are the documents signed by applicants and the implications of these. Applicants sign an application form (here) where, among others, they declare to do their PhD studies according to the faculty redulations, specify their dissertation topic and their advisor. Concerning teaching, the document states:

I declare that I will perform the required teaching, as listed in the Attachment “Teaching Requirements for Doctoral Students” which I have received with this form and will provide proof of this as part of the admission to my final doctoral examinations. (here)
What does this tell us about teaching? 
1. The faculty regualtions for doctoral students ("Promotionsordnung") do not state teaching explicitly. The only relevant paragraph for making students teach is §6(3):
Sofern ein Doktorandenprogramm in dem betreffenden Promotionsfach existiert, sind die Doktoranden bzw. Doktorandinnen aufgerufen, zu ihrer fachlichen Fortbildung an diesem teilzunehmen. Durch Regelungen der einzelnen Fakultäten wird festgelegt, in welchem Umfang der Kandidat bzw. die Kandidatin zur Teilnahme verpflichtet ist. Den Verpflichtungen der Doktoranden bzw. Doktorandinnen in interdisziplinären Doktorandenprogrammen und Graduiertenkollegs ist hierbei Rechnung zu tragen.  
Saying that students being part of a PhD program or graduate school need to follow its regulations.

2. But the applicant signed that he/she will perform the required teaching as explained in the attachment
“Teaching Requirements for Doctoral Students” (
Now this document is much more explicit. It states:
1) It is assumed that every student, during the course of his/her doctoral studies, will participate in teaching. This teaching requirement is independent of the mode of financing that has been made available for the doctoral study.
3) The Department of Physics and Astronomy expects that, independent of the internal regulations of each Institute for the required duties of the student with regard to teaching, each student performs at least one teaching activity of one “Semester Unit*” during the course of his/her doctoral studies and provides proof of this in order to register successfully for the final examination.
Wow. Everybody has to teach at least one semester, the rest is decided by the institutes. This seems to settle the issue and put the faculty on the safe side.

But, looking at the specific situation of various students raises several important questions:
  1. Insurance: Is a student without any contract with the university protected by an insurance while teaching. This can definitely by an issue in lab courses. 
  2. Legal status. Can the university force students to work for the university (by teaching) without any contract? 
  3. Contradicting funding contract. Many students have external funding (DFG, EU, or other scholarships) that forbid explicitly a) other activites than research and/or b) using university facilities. How can these students teach when their funding explicitly forbids it?

Note that these points concern many students. About half the students of the HGSFP do not have contracts but scholarships. This means at least about 100 students in Heidelberg.

The legal situation and the reasons for these teaching requirements given by the faculty will be discussed in other posts.

What is this?

Hello everybody. We were discussing tools and ways to improve the graduate students situation at the the faculty of Physics and Astronomy in Heidelberg. This blog should serve as tool to collect and share information on this subject, as well as to discuss. I hope it will make discussions easier and allow us to gather information at one place only.