Receiving a spot as a student in the MDC’s PhD program is a little bit like finding a match on Tinder. Only when both parties – head researchers and students – have sat down and discussed a potential collaboration and indicated that the other would be a “good match” are students offered a spot in the program, and thus given the opportunity to write their PhD thesis at the MDC.
And that is how it was for Vasiliki Anastasopoulou and the tumor immunologist Matthias Leisegang, her supervisor. Her doctoral adviser is Thomas Blankenstein. “I have been very fortunate,” says Vasiliki, who is investigating how T cells can be used in cancer treatment. From the very beginning it was clear which project she would be working on, what the objectives were, and what the time schedule looked like. She also received an employment contract at Charité in its capacity as third-party funder.
Not every one of the some 350 PhD students at the MDC has such conditions, and Vasiliki wants to change that. “My aim is to ensure that all students have fair and equal working conditions – in terms of pay and treatment,” she says. In 2017, in her third year as a PhD student, she spontaneously decided to run for student representative because she had been impressed with the work being done by the then incumbent student representatives – known as “PhD Reps” – and thought she could take something away from the experience if she got involved.
Students with grants should not earn less
The MDC has a total of nine PhD Reps, who share numerous tasks: They look after new students, support the Center’s PhD Office, conduct an annual survey of MDC students, and make sure the students’ concerns are heard. They also sit on numerous committees at the research institute, organize their own events, and maintain office hours. In addition, two of the PhD Reps represent the MDC in Helmholtz Juniors, a body composed of student representatives from all of the Helmholtz Association’s research centers.
Vasiliki coordinates events such as the monthly Coffee Hours at which the PhD Reps provide advice and assistance. Common topics discussed include employment contracts and working conditions. Students enrolled at the MDC through a grant funded by another institution usually earn significantly less than students with MDC contracts, which include provisions regulating healthcare, vacation, pension contributions, and similar matters. “It is important to me that this unequal treatment is rectified as much as possible,” says Vasiliki. The PhD Reps have worked with the MDC’s administration to develop two solutions. One possibility is to offer an additional contract that covers healthcare. Another is to convert the grant into an MDC contract if the funding institution is willing to disburse the amount of the grant to the MDC for this purpose.
Another issue that concerns many students at the MDC is the working conditions in the lab. “Typical problems include students feeling that head researchers are too demanding or that they aren’t allowed to make any decisions on their own,” reports Vasiliki. Credit for authorship of papers is also an issue that often leads to disputes.
“Students are usually dependent on a single person”
Vasiliki believes the underlying reason for this is an outdated scientific culture that is no longer appropriate for this day and age. “The hierarchies are very rigid. There is a head researcher who supervises his or her employees. Students are usually dependent on a single person,” says Vasiliki, adding, “That has to change.” And some things have already been done: For example, the MDC is now offering training opportunities to management staff that deal, among other things, with how to create a good working environment for everyone. She says that this involves admitting that failures are a routine part of scientific work and that all the possible things that could go wrong need to be discussed at the beginning and taken into consideration when preparing the schedule. Vasiliki wants to see more input and discussion from group leaders as well as more engagement with PhD students’ ideas.
The annual PhD Survey identifies what students want and what changes they would like to see. There is generally a high degree of satisfaction at the MDC, says Vasiliki, but it is slightly under the average in the Helmholtz Association as a whole. She says this is mainly because of the widespread dissatisfaction with the supervision among MDC students. But overall, she adds, satisfaction at the Center has been rising because issues such as employment contracts and pay practices have been dealt with better.
The PhD Reps have, according to Vasiliki, benefited from exchange with other Helmholtz Juniors – for there are problems with different kinds of employment contracts at the other research centers, too. “We want to learn what works well,” says Vasiliki. “Other centers, for example, provide excellent psychological support; the fact that the MDC has since April 2019 been offering a quick and unbureaucratic way to get psychological help is due to the work of the PhD Reps.”
Close collaboration with the PhD Office is especially important
Vasiliki is happy with many aspects of student life at the MDC. “We have a great infrastructure here,” she says. Along with the outstanding research facilities, she means by that the Center’s wide breadth of disciplines and the regular lectures. These give students the opportunity to learn about the latest advances in other fields. The student representative also praises the workshops and trainings which allow participants to further their technical and methodological knowledge and to hone their soft skills. “In addition, the MDC provides really excellent guidance and advice for scientific careers as well as for career paths outside of science,” she says.
She considers it especially important for the PhD Reps to collaborate closely with the PhD Office. By collaboration, Vasiliki means that she and her team can suggest and initiate improvements. An example of this is the revision of the PhD guidelines, which provide the PhD candidates at the MDC with a framework of sorts. These guidelines include a description of the PhD track – that is, the path to a successful dissertation. It begins with the project presentation, which also defines key components such as the time frames and milestones. Once a year the students present their work to the PhD committee, which provides an external perspective on the dissertation and gives feedback. “Everyone knows that these guidelines exist, but hardly anyone follows them,” points out Vasiliki, adding that it is important to work with the supervisor to prepare a plan that provides orientation and direction for the upcoming year. “That reduces the time needed to complete the PhD work,” says the student representative.
“We want to be visible and show that PhD students are an important part of the overall structure,” says Vasiliki. She believes that PhD students are generally well served at the MDC: “But there is lots of room for improvement and we want to be a part of that.”
Author: Wiebke Peters