At the beginning there was bureaucracy

Bureaucracy can be frustrating, picture AI generated by 橋茗旭 on Pixabay.

Last year in summer I finished my Master’s degree. I was, and still am, very much in love with science, and enjoyed my research-focussed program a lot. No surprise that I wanted to pursue a scientific career, and that I was very happy I had managed to secure a PhD position as the next step down the academic road. I was on top of my game, I knew what I wanted, I was bursting with excitement, couldn’t wait to get started, I felt intelligent and capable and well-qualified for the job.

And then bureaucracy happened. And it made me question everything – first and foremost my own intelligence and capability to complete the most basic tasks. I knew a PhD comes with all sorts of challenges, frustrations and tests, but this one I was not prepared for. PhD bureaucracy starts very innocently, when, ahead of the beginning of your position, you need to figure out the work contract. Challenges here include to provide the paperwork ofyou’re your degrees and certificates (fingers crossed my mom kept my high school degree in her basement?!), or to list all contracts and employments you had in the past with German research institutes or universities. For those of you who are familiar with the Hiwi-System in Germany, you get how much fun that can be. For those who aren’t: Hiwis are often employed short-term, and each new employment means a new contract and, hence, must be listed. In my case I ended up with 15+ individual contracts that I needed to dig out from a pile of dust and old paperwork behind my desk to list all the starting dates, weekly working hours etc… What a task (If you would like to know more about life as a Hiwi I recommend THIS blog post).

Once the contract was secured and signed, I was relived – worst part done. Right. Right??

Little did I know. Starting a new position in a new university (/institute/company/…) means a lot of organizational tasks and bureaucracy. Seemingly simple things like getting your university email address. Doesn’t sound too complicated, but here’s what I didn’t see coming: To get an email address, you need to get an ID from the university’s IT department. The ID you can only get if your supervisor/ superior applies for it in your name (not a given- remind them!). IT then takes a while to come up with a nice, arbitrary number-letter-code that is your ID: Whoohoo! Now take that address, locate the appropriate form (forms for everything, but rarely provided somewhere accessible), fill out the form, get your supervisors signature again (no, digital won’t do – this is Germany!). I scanned the form and emailed it to IT – using my old universities email address, obviously. After not hearing back from IT for a week I rang the helpdesk, only to find out they’d need the original, printed out form. So, I printed and posted the form, and another 10 days later became the proud owner of a new email address. In theory that should serve as a login to my new computer, all sorts of online services such as the cloud etc. Since that would be too easy, none of that worked out – obviously. More forms, more calls, more finding out of information that can’t be found online or anywhere… You get my point.

Getting started doing a PhD is a big, bureaucratic nightmare. The stage of my nightmare was set at the university, but other institutes are very similar. And the list seemingly never ends, with forms to apply for business travel services, printing services, the universities canteen payment card… Asking more senior colleagues for help usually gets you the well-deserved pity, but not help really. “Oh yeah I remember that was complicated”, “Hmm I don’t quite remember it’s too long ago” and “I think this procedure was changed since I had to do it” are among the most frequent answers. But they are not to blame, since it is not their task to get my bureaucracy done, and they really did their best to help out wherever possible, which I am genuinely thankful for.

Oh, how I wish there was someone or something to make this whole process less painful, but I guess that would be too expensive… Or would it? While spending the first 6 weeks of my PhD doing bureaucracy (and essentially losing a month of time to do my PhD research) I just couldn’t stop thinking about this, and finally did the maths: If I spend one month worth of working time trying to complete all bureaucracy (and that’s on the conservative side), that would mean 1 month of salary goes entirely towards tasks that I wasn’t meant to be paid for (remember, I get paid to do research not forms and files!). That is more than 3000€ before tax (in my case, I have a 75% position). That’s a lot of money to just go ‘to waste’! We live in the era of optimization, and I’m shocked that nobody saw a need to optimize a little here!

Now, imagine, that I am not the only PhD student starting a new position in this university that year. Actually, there must be hundreds of us (nobody actually knows the numbers again… bureaucratic issues. Different, but similarly interesting story…). For the sake of this quick & dirty calculation, let’s say we have 100 new PhD’s in a year. All of them need to go through the bureaucracy, and each of them spends one month doing so. For the sake of easy maths, lets assume all of them have a 75% E13 position – the same as mine, and round the salary to 3000€ so it’s easier to calculate. 100 students, times 1 month each, times the monthly pay: That adds up to 300.000€ that are spent each year to have PhD students get email addresses and printing permissions! For reference, with this amount of money you could fund almost three PhD students’ salary (3 year contract, 75% E13). What if, instead of losing precious worktime and money, universities and institutes had someone hired to assist new employees with all these administrative processes and help them get started quickly? Obviously, this is a theoretical idea that will not work out in reality. Funding for PhD positions is tied to projects, and administrative staff is funded from other resources. Universities can’t just create additional funds or positions. I still find this comparison very indicative of the faults in the system, and how universities and institutes are indirectly losing money and workforce every year that could be easily avoided.

What I previously described focuses on the technical ridiculousness of the issue, the financial or material side of things. What can’t be neglected, though, is the mental impact of starting a new, challenging position and degree in such a manner. Just a few weeks into my PhD I was seriously questioning whether I was fit for the job, was convinced that I just wasn’t clever enough to navigate the university structures and my new working environment. That is, despite having spent the previously seven years in university as a student! The administrative nightmare also prevented me from starting to work on my research project well into my PhD time, which really subdued my initial excitement and passion that I had felt when I graduated from Master’s. I felt left alone, the ‘job as a researcher’ that I had envisioned turned out to be something very different. I was frustrated about the fact that it wasn’t even down to my own capability but that I was so reliant on other people’s work and help and the slow and sluggish administration that I was fighting. Luckily, I am a member of a very welcoming and supportive working group that did their best to support me wherever they could, and reminded me of what I had started the position for. And as soon as I got hands on my dataset, and had plotted the first map of my future study area, the whole excitement and pride came back to me in a glimpse, and finally I was able to dive head-first into my first research project.

Looking ahead, I am enough of a realist to know that we will likely not get to the point where employers in academia will fund staff to assist with administrative processes – at least not for PhD’s and Post-Docs. But maybe providing comprehensive check-lists, overviews of helpful links, a detailed FAQ, or collections of forms and paperwork would be a realistic starting point that would already cut down so much of the time spent on getting started. GEOMAR offers monthly onboarding events for new employees, CAU offers “Getting started with your PhD” courses through the graduate centre. I attended one of the latter, but was rather disappointed with the outcome: All attendees had the same bunch of questions – many related to administration and bureaucracy – but the course was run through external speakers instead of CAU employees. Thus, they couldn’t help with any of these questions at all (they did a nice job answering questions and providing tips how to structure your research, talk to your supervisor etc.). For everyone out there about to start their PhD in the near or far future, all that I can say is: Don’t be shy to ask! Ask your colleagues, your supervisors, ask your HR manager, ask the secretary, ask the lab cat. Whoever you can get hold of, and don’t be afraid to bother the people around you. Quite certainly they went through the same and remember well the struggle, and may be able to point you the right direction. Most importantly, don’t forget you’re not out there alone. This whole issue comes down to systemic faults, and not your own effort or capability. And once you’ve survived your personal bureaucratic nightmare: Try and be of help to those who follow. Take notes of links, forms, phone numbers, maybe start a document to keep track of the steps you had to take in which order – make some future PhD’s first few weeks a little bit less annoying. Do it for science!


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