Free work, coercion and labor abuse: the irregularities suffered by doctoral students from their thesis supervisors

Free work, coercion and labor abuse: the irregularities suffered by doctoral students from their thesis supervisors

When Iñigo read in this newspaper Jacobo's victory over his thesis supervisor, felt so identified that he had the need to tell his case. Like Jacobo, this predoctoral researcher – his name has been changed to protect his anonymity – had a contract with a research center in Donostia through the University of the Basque Country. But the tasks that fell to him exceeded his contract: unpaid overtime, including weekends, humiliation of his thesis supervisors and high pressure. He did not accept it and filed a complaint with a Social Court.

Iñigo's problems are not limited to the fact that he has been working for free. His situation has caused a diagnosed depression that has had him low. The psychiatric service diagnosed a "mixed anxious-depressive disorder" and explained in the medical report that his "lack of motivation to carry out activities is related to his work situation."

Iñigo may not have known it, but his situation is the strange normality of Spanish doctoral students: those who embark on the task of writing a thesis in this country are six times more likely to have mental problems than the general population. Getting a doctorate is detrimental to mental health.

In the research career, the thesis directors or the project manager accumulate a lot of power. They obtain the financing and total control of the decisions on their work team and there are many doctoral students who denounce that these practices have been taking place habitually and for years, but that "it is a world in which nobody wants to denounce for fear of reprisals ". Thriving in the closed academic environment sometimes depends on having a sponsor, and doctoral students tend to accept workloads that do not correspond to them. After publishing the case of Jacobo a few weeks ago, several of them have contacted to tell their stories.

Iñigo's case illustrates this situation well step by step. After joining his leave, "the directors asked him for tasks for which he had no knowledge," says his lawyer, Irati Aizpurua Alkezar, and they even kicked him out of work groups "without any legitimacy."

In December 2020, his directors prevented him from continuing to work and gave him until February to find a new director. Iñigo decided to also file a complaint before Aldezle, institution in charge of ensuring the rights of the University Community. She received a call indicating that his situation was difficult, "because of the charges of those who were involved in this conflict," she says. His lawyer points out that before she had already requested the opening of the Harassment Protocol in the workplace, but it did not exist in terms of occupational health and safety. She also wrote to the UPV doctoral school and to the State Research Agency asking for "assistance in a situation of workplace harassment". She did not get a response from the first agency and the second "claimed not being able to intervene."

Finally, the research center decided to terminate the contract in August 2021, with a negative grade in the evaluation of his thesis. Iñigo has filed a lawsuit with the agency, but it is still in the process of deciding.

Sandra —pseudonym— began her doctoral thesis three years ago. After a year and a half working for free, she got financing. She went to the University of Huelva with an FPI contract (Training of Research Personnel, from the Ministry of Science) for an R+D+i project in which she is still continuing. But work normality did not last long: "My director asked me to correct TFM projects (Master's Thesis carried out by university graduates) from private universities for which he charges 350 euros." "If he didn't do it, he threatened to take away my salary from my contract," she says.

The situation reached the limit for Sandra when she contracted COVID: "I was very sick and I was required to work on weekends." The researcher maintains that her workplace harassment reached the point that the director insisted on WhatsApp if she did not respond to emails after hours. She has ended up affecting her mental health: "I've had tremendous anxiety and stress for weeks. They make you feel worthless." She tells that she is in the process with the university to denounce her situation. However, she claims to suffer "institutional violence." She needs the signature of her current guardian to start a new one from scratch. Now, she is considering going to the Labor Inspection, "although it is not easy either."

This type of situation is not limited to Spain or to predoctoral students without a contract or with lower category grants. Neuroscience researcher Celia Arroyo-López knows this. In 2008, she was teaching at the university and the opportunity arose for her to take out a Marie Curie grant, one of the most outstanding international programs for researchers dedicated to innovation, at the National Veterinary School of Toulouse, in France. Within a few months, she began to suffer workplace abuse from her thesis supervisors.

"They undervalued my work, they messed with my physique, they insulted me and pressured me. I went to work in a panic," he says. "He bullied the whole team and even forbade us to have children so as not to take leave. We have even covered up a colleague so that she would not kick her out," she laments. In a journey between "black" and temporary contracts, she managed to finish her thesis. Still the director of it did not want to publish it. "What interests the Academy is published, not society," says Arroyo-López.

During this impasse, another opportunity arose for him, which, he would find out later, would end up bringing more problems. It was at the University of California at Davis, in the United States. "They hired me for 2,000 dollars a month (1,846 euros), telling me that they would raise my salary when I had the thesis certificate," she says. The problem is that when the payrolls arrived they were smaller amounts; "About $1,200, depending on the month." Reviewing her contract, the researcher realized that she was receiving 65% of the payroll because, according to her director, her "capacity for research was not valid."

In 2015 his former thesis director finally agreed to sign it. So she could sign a postdoctoral contract, with a higher salary. The director of the United States offered him a six-month contract. She signed. Her surprise came when she had to renew her visa in the United States. Postdoctoral contracts, at a minimum, were for a year at that time and his was for half, as this newspaper has verified. "There was a one-year contract on the website without my signature. It was a fraud," she says.

Anticipating the complaint that she sensed was going to fall on her, her director reported Arroyo-López to the University for poor performance. Overnight they collected Celia's things and sent them to another building: "They isolated me. I couldn't even contact my colleagues." Her director ordered her to write two articles. "Out of pride I finished them," she says. However, her boss did not publish them and she even used data without acknowledging their authorship. The researcher complained to the magazine, which contacted the University, but "it did not take the pertinent measures," she denounces.

Arroyo-López returned to Spain. Since she had not published articles at that time, returning to work as a teacher "was impossible." She was unemployed for several years. Finally, she tells her, at a Marie Curie scholarship congress, in 2019 "I came out of the closet". She was not going to stay silent. Since then, she has filed up three petitions in the European Parliament for the creation of a European body for the prevention of harassment in academic circles. The first two were rejected. The last one, December 2020, it was presented and accepted in the European Parliament through Izquierda Unida, but in this case it was the European Commission who rejected it and has relegated it to "open to adhesions".

A situation of fraud has also suffered David —name changed— at the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) during his University Teacher Training contract (FPU) from the Ministry of Education. He still hadn't finished his thesis but, after finishing his FPU financing, the director told him that if he wanted to continue working, he had to do it collecting unemployment and "waiting for financing to arrive". "It was so that he could not denounce them for chaining temporary contracts," says David. Mireia Bazaga, a labor lawyer, maintains that this "is a breach of the Workers' Statute."

Maria has her own story. She studied a Master's degree and a professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) offered her a doctorate. She started without pay. Three years later, the teacher offered her a "more serious" doctorate: she earned 500 euros a month as a fake self-employed. "Paying the self-employed fee, it was just over 100 euros and transportation in Barcelona cost me 70," she says. "I never had a tutorial on her thesis. I organized her classes, worked on her projects or even answered her emails... I worked for her," she criticizes. In 2016, her director told María that she could not pay her more for the project and, motivated by the dismissal of a colleague who "taught classes for her", she abandoned her doctorate.

Like María, there are many who abandon the research career after walking part of the way. Isabel —pseudonym— began in 2009 working for free and in 2010 with a FPU contract at the University of Granada. She had two directors. "As soon as I read the thesis I didn't want to know anything more about them or about the research." "They insulted me in public and in private," she says. "I haven't had vacations because my director was in a hurry to publish the thesis," she says.

Laura —name changed— says that at Loyola University, private, with a project from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, ​​"we acted as assistants to the director." "It was a very sectarian. My director also had a lot of pressure from above", she explains and" she transferred those pressures to her investigative team "." It was difficult to denounce the Ethics Committee because she was one of its members ", she highlights.

Although many thesis directors reproduce these practices, not all of them defend it. For Fernando Maestre, Distinguished Researcher at the University of Alicante, the problem comes from "there is the possibility of doing the thesis at zero cost". "Free work should not be allowed", underlines who has directed up to 12 doctoral theses. "If in my department we can't pay someone, we don't hire them," he details about the Laboratory of Ecology of Arid Zones and Global Change who drives.

For Ermengol Gassiot, thesis director at the UAB, the situation stems from "underfunding in the Spanish scientific system". "The lack of resources means that doctoral students end up reproducing that treatment if they become thesis supervisors," he explains. "There are so few opportunities that these situations end up occurring," confirms Maestre.

Both for both thesis directors and for the doctoral students interviewed, those most responsible for bad practices are the public bodies that allow them. From the Ministry of Universities, consulted by, they delegate responsibility to each university, but according to researchers who have experienced labor abuses, they do not have clear roadmaps. "The universities must punish those who commit these actions. It does not harm them to exploit people," criticizes Maestre. "Doctoral students are not protected against labor abuses," laments Bazaga.

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