Non-Professorial Academic Staff

“Address problems early on”

The Association of the Non-Professorial Academic Staff of the University of Zurich (VAUZ) has carried out a survey about the job satisfaction and student-to-instructor ratio of doctoral candidates and postdocs at UZH. Vice President Gabriele Siegert discusses the results of the survey below.

Interview: David Werner

“We’re always in contact with members of the VAUZ,” says Vice President Gabriele Siegert. (Picture: Frank Brüderli)


Ms. Siegert, do you welcome the fact that the VAUZ carried out this survey?

Gabriele Siegert: It’s always good to have an empirically grounded analysis of a situation, so yes, I do welcome that the VAUZ carried out this survey. But surveys always also depend on how results are interpreted, and here I have a slightly different perspective than the VAUZ.

According to the survey, 69 percent of respondents are happy with their work and supervision, while 15.6 percent stated that they aren’t. Are you more pleased or concerned about these results?

Siegert: More than two thirds of participants are either happy or very happy with their situation at work – this is very pleasing! But is this number high, very high, or rather low? There’s no absolute benchmark for determining this. The only thing that could give us a better idea here is if we compared institutions of higher learning or other organizations, but we don’t have this kind of information. In addition, job satisfaction is a construct that has more than one dimension. People tend to compare their own expectations and requirements with what they experience on a daily basis. Nevertheless, the Executive Board of the University looks at the 15.6 percent of respondents who aren’t happy, and we see potential for improvement.

Many non-professorial academic employees don’t know who to contact in conflict situations. Can this be improved?

Siegert: There’s no doubt that this has to be improved, but UZH hasn’t been inactive here. The situation of non-professorial academic staff is complex: The traditional circumstances of being a teaching/research assistant and working towards obtaining a qualification are often closely intertwined. For doctoral candidates and postdocs in particular, there is comprehensive information available on the Graduate Campus section of UZH’s website about advisory services and also specific information about who to contact if they’re having trouble with earning their doctoral degree or with their further academic qualification. For example, there’s a list of academic integrity officers for each faculty. If a conflict arises, there’s also always the option of going up the hierarchy for help, from the head of institute/department to the Office of Student Affairs, Dean’s Office, Office of the Vice President, or even the President. We’re also planning to establish a counseling and mediation office for employees who experience conflict in the workplace.

According to the survey, 55 percent of doctoral candidates and postdocs would like clearer regulations regarding the time that they can spend on researching their own projects. Do you agree with this?

Siegert: Absolutely, I completely understand that. All employment relationships need to be clearly regulated. Here the general outline of rights and responsibilities for junior academic positions – the Rahmenpflichtheft für Qualifikationsstellen – provides key guidance. The VAUZ is absolutely right to include a link to this general outline as well as the relevant faculty regulations on its homepage. Paragraph 4 clearly states that separate outlines of rights and responsibilities have to be signed for each person employed in a junior academic position. And paragraph 6 explains how to proceed if an agreement can’t be reached. The general outline also governs how many working hours may be used for teaching and how many hours have to be available to spend on one’s own research. The faculties’ general outlines further specify this on a case-by-case basis.  In other words, the statutory framework is in place.

25 percent of those surveyed believe that their supervisor is abusing their position at least in part. Some feel like they’re treated unfairly, not taken seriously, or underpaid. Do you believe that UZH needs to take action based on these results?

Siegert: The general outline of rights and responsibilities for junior academic positions I just mentioned includes mandatory annual career discussions. We expect that for the most part these discussions also take place. If there are topics of conflict, they must absolutely be covered in these discussions. But it’s also clear that student-instructor relationships are hierarchical. Also, work and academic qualification are closely connected – and this certainly doesn’t make it less difficult for doctoral candidates or teaching and research assistants to assert their rights. All I can do is urge non-professorial academic employees to seek and demand these discussions and then address any difficult topics in an objective manner. Problems need to be addressed early on. To those 5.4 percent of doctoral candidates who, according to the survey,  are afraid to do so, I recommend that they first seek support from their peers. If however there are cases where power is being abused, then we need to investigate. But this will include informing the relevant line managers. There’s therefore no way for those affected to avoid getting in touch with their superiors or an academic integrity officer.

About half of respondents believe that they receive enough feedback from their supervisors, whereas one third would like to receive feedback more frequently. Do professors have too little time to fulfil their tasks as supervisors?

Siegert: Here too personal expectations and requirements influence perception, and it also depends on the discipline. There are no absolute guidelines here. A good balance between support and freedom is important. It’s also essential that mutual expectations and the frequency of feedback be discussed and agreed in advance. That’s exactly what doctoral agreements are for. I’m surprised that this tool wasn’t perceived to be helpful in the survey. However, the fact that professors have little time to fulfil their tasks as supervisors is hardly surprising. Their tasks are diverse and extensive, and supervision only makes up a small part of their activities. This is another reason why managing mutual expectations is so important. If problems arise and for example a doctoral thesis hits a critical point, however, supervision should be stepped up beyond the level that was agreed.

Non-professorial academic staff make significant contributions to teaching and research at UZH. (Picture:


The VAUZ has come up with various recommendations based on the results of the survey. For example, it recommends that doctoral candidates’ dependency on individual supervisors be decreased.  Doctoral candidates should no longer be employed at professorial chairs, but at graduate schools or directly at the departments/institutes. Is this a good suggestion?

Siegert: If the department or institute is big enough, then dependencies can be decreased. On the other hand, this would make employment relationships very formalized and thus less personal. I’m not sure that the 69 percent of respondents who are happy with their work situation would support this idea.

Another recommendation of the VAUZ is to provide more management and teaching skills courses to supervising staff. What’s your opinion on this?

Siegert: UZH is already active here and is stepping up its efforts in the area of university-level continuing education. The Extended Executive Board of the University will soon also discuss UZH’s revised management principles, which will then be communicated accordingly.

Is the Executive Board of the University in contact with representatives of the non-professorial academic staff regarding the VAUZ’s recommendations?

Siegert: We’re always in contact with the VAUZ. Some of the things that have been requested either already exist or are being increased. However, the suggestion to include permanent positions doesn’t make much sense to me, as only few people would benefit from such positions. What is important, though, is that there’s no way to abuse power at UZH. And we must achieve this without turning into a “controlling” university. Our past successes have often been based on mutual trust, and this should continue to be the case in the future.

Doctoral candidates and postdocs have now contributed to the discussion through this survey. Will professors also be able to give their views?

Siegert: That’s a great idea! There will be surveys in the near future to collect data about the situation of non-professorial academic staff compared with those at partner universities of UZH. A survey among professors isn’t currently in the works, but it’s definitely something we should discuss.


VAUZ Survey on Job Satisfaction of Doctoral Candidates and Postdocs

Oriana Schällibaum, Co-President of the VAUZ

At the end of 2017, the Association of the Non-Professorial Academic Staff of the University of Zurich (VAUZ) carried out a survey about job satisfaction and student-to-instructor ratio among doctoral candidates and postdocs.  The survey included questions on working environment, quality of mentoring provided by supervisors, as well as opportunities for career discussions and conference travel. About 5,600 people received the survey, and more than 750 members of the non-professorial academic staff occupying junior academic positions took part. The most significant results are presented below:

Work situation One of the positives is that non-professorial academic employees are by and large happy with their situation at work (69 percent). 15.6 percent aren’t happy, with the remainder indifferent on the matter. Many people stated that they found it difficult to manage a workload of 100 percent or more while only being paid for a 60 percent workload. Work-life balance continues to be an important topic. More than half of respondents (55 percent) voiced their desire for clearer regulations regarding time spent researching their own projects.

Pay   Around half of respondents are happy with the pay they receive for their work, with 28 percent stating that they are displeased while the rest are indifferent.

Supervision   A majority of survey respondents are either satisfied (30 percent) or very satisfied (25 percent) with their supervisors, whereas 24 percent are not or not at all satisfied with their supervisors; the rest are indifferent. 32 percent are unhappy about the frequency with which feedback is given, and some criticize micromanaging by their supervisors. The main problem according to respondents, however, is that supervisors lack the time to give feedback. Inconsistent feedback, short-term and unrealistic changes of plan, and unclearly phrased requirements were also criticized.

Virtually all participants in the survey believe that career discussions with supervisors, but in particular also with a mentor, are useful, but only 15 percent actually get the opportunity to discuss their careers on a regular basis. Moreover, there were many requests for mentoring provided by a third party. When comparing the responses given by doctoral candidates with those of postdocs and habilitation candidates, it’s striking that the latter are more content with their supervisors’ advice on career decisions. It’s also noteworthy that 32 percent of respondents said they didn’t know who to contact in cases of conflict with a superior or supervisor.

Next steps   The VAUZ has presented the results of the survey along with follow-up recommendations to the Extended Executive Board of the University. The VAUZ is hopeful to be able to draw up measures together with those in charge that will improve the working conditions of non-professorial academic staff. The contact point for those seeking counseling or mediation, which is being created by UZH, is a welcome development and an important step in the right direction.

David Werner, Head Storytelling & Inhouse Media. English translation by Philip Isler, UZH Communications

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