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Advice for PhD candidates

Have you recently become a PhD candidate, or do you have questions about your rights regarding salaries, compulsory duties, or extension of your employment period? Here, we have gathered some general advice for you to keep in mind as a PhD candidate.

The Norwegian Association of Researchers (NAR) arranges courses and webinars on Norwegian work culture, working conditions and salaries for PhD candidates and researchers from abroad. We have also written a Handbook for PhD Candidates. If you have questions specific to your institution or workplace, we recommend that you contact your local union representative.

Conditions of employment

Most PhD candidates work at universities or university colleges and are therefore state employees. The PhD candidate position is defined as a teaching grade, and pursuant to the Act relating to Universities and University Colleges. In addition, PhD candidates share a specified regulation for employment with postdocs and research assistants. This means that terms of employment are different for PhDs and postdocs than for other temporary positions in the Norwegian work force. If you are not employed by a university or university college, other conditions apply, and you should make sure that the appointment is legal, that it is pursuant to the regulations, and that a collective agreement regulates your salary and working conditions. Contact your local union representative or NAR’s main offices if you need assistance.

Like other employees, PhD candidates are entitled to a written contract of employment, which states their grade code and title, salary level and other special terms for the position. The contract should also specify the period of employment, the location of the work palace, the work tasks and the conditions and obligations of the position. Make sure that your contract of employment is adequate and take good care of it – it is a legally binding document, and it can be important if disputes should arise.

The organized doctoral education consists of the research work (thesis) and the training component (mandatory and elective courses). According to the regulations, it is required that the period of appointment should include three years of pure doctoral education. The normal employment period for a PhD candidate is four years in a full position, including 25 % (or one year) compulsory duties. NAR recommends that compulsory duties are specified in the employment contract, and that you have a clear idea of the scope of tasks that are expected of you (see also ‘compulsory duties and additional work’ below).

Salary negotiations

The salary level for state employed PhD candidates is adjusted through the central collective bargaining, in which the Confederation of Unions for Professionals (Unio) represents NAR. In the collective bargaining for state employees in 2022, Unio State agreed to a joint collective agreement with Akademikerne (The Federation of Norwegian Professional Associations), and consequently, all PhD candidates who are members of NAR receive an automatic 3 % yearly increase in salary for up to four years.

Generally, PhD candidates receive a low minimum starting salary, compared to other professions with a high education. However, as other workers, PhD candidates can negotiate their starting salary when accepting their position. We recommend that you ask for a higher pay grade than the minimum, especially if you have any additional qualifications beyond your master’s degree, or if your specific qualifications are in demand outside academia. Your employer is also required to consider your salary in the first 12 months of employment, so if you think that your salary is too low, ask your leader for such a consideration before the end of your first year. 

Local salary negotiations are conducted yearly in the autumn, and the local union representative will usually inform all members of what they need to do to set forward a pay claim. PhD candidates are regular employees, and they have the right to be considered for individual salary increases just like every other employee. However, as they are already secured a yearly salary increase, it is harder for PhD candidates to succeed in the local negotiations. We still encourage you to use the opportunities available to you for increasing your salary. Researchers tend to lose the local negotiations, also because they rarely put forward claims. Also, remember that each new contract is an opportunity to negotiate your salary.

Compulsory duties and additional work

PhD candidates are usually offered a four-year contract, including 25 % (or one year) of compulsory duties. Many PhD candidates are also asked to do additional tasks, on top of compulsory duties. Compulsory duties and additional tasks can be both useful and exciting for the PhD candidate, but in our experience, many find that the work takes more time than expected, and that other tasks delay the research work. Both the PhD candidate and the employing institution benefit from the doctoral education being completed within the scheduled period. Therefore, you should not feel pressured to take on additional tasks that you do not want to do, or which you will not benefit from. If you take on extra work, we recommend asking for an extension of your employment period rather than money. This way you receive a full salary, and you keep your rights as an employee for a longer time. If you are not sure whether you should take on additional duties, it could be helpful to talk with your supervisor or your local union representative.

Extension of the employment period

You are entitled to an extension of the employment period because of sick and maternity leave, leave to carry out care work, leave in connection with military service or organizational work, as long as the absence amounts to at least two continuous weeks. This means that leave due to sickness (your own or children’s) does not give grounds for extension unless you have documentation from your doctor that the sick leave amounts to at least 14 days. If you are delayed because of special care burdens or unforeseen obstacles of a work nature (like a pandemic), your employer may grant an extension of the employment period.

We recommend that you document all your leave of absence. If your employer does not want to give you an extension, use the opportunity to ask your local trade union to try to persuade the institution to change their practice. Make sure that your leave of absence us distributed proportionately between you research work and your compulsory duties (if you have any).

As a rule, the employment period as a PhD candidate cannot be broken up, but it is possible to take up short-term (up to six months) temporary teaching and research posts, overseas fellowships, and the like. The period of employment may be extended correspondingly. 

Unemployment benefits after the period of employment is over

After the thesis is submitted, you qualify for the same unemployment benefits as other workers who have lost earned income because of unemployment. To qualify for unemployment benefits, you have to be a genuine job seeker, meaning that you may not pursue any activities during regular working hours that make you unavailable to the job market. PhD candidates are not considered job seekers in the two weeks before their defence and are thus not entitled to unemployment benefits in this period.

If you have not submitted your thesis when your period of employment is over, you are not entitled to unemployment benefits if you continue working on the thesis. This means that, in order to receive unemployment benefits from NAV, applicants must stop all work on their thesis and get a written confirmation from their supervisor that all supervision has ceased. We find it unacceptable that applicants are excluded from working on their thesis on their own spare time, outside regular working hours, and we are pursuing this topic with the authorities.

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