The Doctoral Convention of Heidelberg University was founded in 2015 after the state of Baden-Württemberg had established doctoral candidates as an independent status group with the right to vote in the university’s governing bodies, including the Senate. The task of the Doctoral Convention is to represent the interests of all doctoral candidates at Ruperto Carola, and to advise the faculties and university bodies on all matters pertaining to doctoral studies. In this interview, the members of the current Executive Committee, which is elected for a year at a time, discuss what it means to engage in university politics on behalf of Heidelberg University’s approx. 9,000 doctoral candidates.
What is the Doctoral Convention and what exactly does it do?
Alexandra Zakieva (Speaker of the “Workshop & Seminars” working group): The Doctoral Convention is a group that represents all doctoral candidates at Heidelberg University. Not only does it advocate for the interests of every doctoral candidate at the university, it also represents them at the regional and national level. The Doctoral Convention functions as an advisory board to the faculties and other university bodies, in all matters related to doctoral researchers. Furthermore, it collaborates with other university groups such as the constituted student body (Verfasste Studierendenschaft), professors and academic staff members, the Council for Graduate Studies or the departmental student committees (Fachschaften). The Doctoral Convention is cross-disciplinary, which means that it provides all doctoral candidates support as well as the opportunity to get involved, no matter what their faculty is. The Doctoral Convention is headed by the Executive Committee, which all doctoral candidates elect and which is consequently authorised to speak and make decisions on behalf of the entire Doctoral Convention. Another integral part of the Doctoral Convention is the working groups – they offer interested doctoral researchers the opportunity to get involved, to discuss current issues such as the faculty-specific doctoral regulations, and to develop possible solutions.
Why do doctoral candidates at Heidelberg University have their own representative body?
Franziska Grün (Speaker of the Executive Committee): Doctoral candidates are a separate status group at the university. We are no longer students, but not quite fully-fledged academics yet. The challenges we face differ greatly from those of other university groups, which is why it became necessary to establish a centralised representative body – as opposed to faculty-based ones. Legal recognition in 2015 as an independent status group as per the state law on higher education (Landeshochschulgesetz) led to the founding of the Doctoral Convention at Heidelberg University. Research is a fundamental part of any university – especially a research-intensive university like Heidelberg – and thus key to its reputation. Since research is driven significantly by doctoral candidates, our voices need to be heard.
Looking back on the past five or six years, what would you say are some of the Doctoral Convention’s greatest achievements?
Janathan Michael Juarez Altuzar (member of the 2019/2020 Executive Committee): The founding of the Doctoral Convention has been one of the big milestones for Heidelberg University in terms of promoting and supporting its doctoral candidates. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, we also made significant progress with promoting social interaction between doctoral students from different disciplines and facilitating exchange between German and international doctoral candidates.
Franziska Grün: We continually try to enhance the visibility of our status group. Therefore, we participated in changing the doctoral regulations – recently for the Dr sc. hum. (“Doktor der Humanwissenschaften”) – and advertised participation in other bodies like faculty councils and the Senate. Another aspect of what we do is working directly for doctoral candidates. For instance, we continually offered workshops, get-togethers and events.
What does working on behalf of the Doctoral Convention look like on a daily basis?
Martina Marzullo (Communications and Financial Officer): One of the main tasks of the Executive Committee is to maintain communication between the different university bodies and the doctoral candidates, which basically means writing and answering dozens of emails on a daily basis! There are also the online meetings, the phone calls, and the public relations work. It can be overwhelming at times, but it is also a very rewarding job. As communication officers tasked with outreach, Olga Ivanova and I spent a lot of weekends working on our website, and, as frustrating as the process was, it was amazing to see our newsletter come back to life and receive so much positive feedback!
Olga Ivanova (Communications and Financial Officer): For me, the Executive Committee is about connecting and communicating. I believe deeply that communication is a key to many doors. Kind and open communication, as challenging as it can be, can help to resolve a lot of issues and prevent others from arising. I feel that we, the approx. 9,000 doctoral candidates of Heidelberg University, simply don’t know each other because we don’t have a shared platform, online or offline, for socialising and getting to know one another outside our research duties to build a strong network of support, both in our professional and private lives. One task of the Executive Committee is to support all doctoral candidates in sharing and exchanging their professional interests. We have started and are continuing to build our online presence to reach our peers, to let them know that they are part of a large community of people with similar experiences founded on the successes – and setbacks – that characterise life as a doctoral candidate.
Alexandra Zakieva: As speaker of our “Workshops and Seminars” working group, I work with my colleagues to organise events geared specifically towards doctoral candidates. We focus on topics that are not covered by the university curriculum, such as careers outside academia, personal development, as well as artistic expression. We hire external trainers and encourage university members to share their skills and knowledge for free.
Marvin Möhler (representative of the electoral group of registered doctoral candidates in the Senate): Through the “4EU+” working group of the Doctoral Convention, we are also contributing to the 4EU+ European University Alliance that was formed as cooperation between six research-intensive universities in Europe, including – besides Heidelberg University – the universities in Prague, Sorbonne/Paris, Warsaw, Copenhagen and Milan. The alliance, which is funded in the context of the Erasmus+ pilot call for European Universities, is aimed at transnational collaboration between these universities, for instance in teaching and research. Recently, the alliance gave itself its own legal form, becoming a registered association headquartered in Heidelberg. The “4EU+” working group was established to enable doctoral candidates of Heidelberg University to get involved in bringing their ideas to the table, to help doctoral candidates gain a stronger voice in this Alliance, and of course to connect and exchange experiences with our peers from abroad at events hosted in Heidelberg and at the partner universities in Europe.
How can people get involved and why is it essential that they do?
Martina Marzullo: At the last General Assembly, we changed our Rules of Procedure in order to enable more doctoral candidates to join in! We are, in fact, planning to create “advisory seats” – this means that anyone can join the Executive Committee at any time and help with whatever issue/task they would like to be involved in. We believe that this way more doctoral candidates will have a chance to help out – within the bounds of their possibilities, of course. If you are not part of the Executive Committee, there is also a chance to help by joining one of the several working groups or attending our regular meetings to share your ideas and suggestions.
Olga Ivanova: Doctoral candidates are indeed busy with completing their work and dissertation in time, building their future career, and developing soft and hard skills. Administrative tasks added to this might seem like an extra burden. In reality though, we, as doctoral candidates, can exert considerable influence on what our work life looks like, through the Executive Committee. This is not just about some random processes, but can help improve your own experience and that of 9,000 others – for example, by addressing those parts of the doctoral regulations that do not match international standards or put us in an unfavourable position amongst our peers with regard to our future career prospects. Doctoral regulations are set at the faculty level, and the Executive Committee can be seen as a promoter of fair regulations in all faculties. Although change takes time, and the Executive Committee is elected for just one year, it is in our power to enhance our status at the university, speed up necessary change processes and get ourselves be seen and heard on different levels. We are present on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and on Discord. Anyone interested in our work is welcome to join via any platform and participate in any way they want, even if it’s just to casually meet and chat with other people! We are still in the process of building our social media presence and would be very happy to have additional help.
Martina Marzullo: Together with the student council, we are also currently trying to set up a graduate assistant position and are looking for a translator. Both positions will be remunerated! We have way too many duties and not nearly enough people, so creating these job positions could help the Executive Committee do a better job.
Please describe some of the challenges you are facing at this time.
Martina Marzullo: The fact we could not meet in person has to be the number one challenge we faced this year! The pandemic hit us hard – like everyone else for that matter. We started our mandate with loads of deadlines, not enough information, and plenty to organise! We also had to move from our old office to our new working space, which came with additional issues. Moreover, the pandemic made it impossible to organise events for doctoral candidates. We usually host parties, barbecues, and other activities: networking is our main goal and there is little one can do online.
Olga Ivanova: With the isolation that affected everyone during the pandemic, I actually saw a very good point in time for myself to join the committee and build on my network in Heidelberg. I moved here before the pandemic started. I guess I am not alone in wanting to feel at home, as do many international doctoral students who started their doctorate during the pandemic. Finding ways to connect with people here is a challenge per se, without even mentioning language struggles. With Covid-19, meeting and connecting with new people becomes nearly impossible. That said, we were able to build a lot of new contacts and move forward with previously established relationships, cooperating with university institutions and partners such as Communications and Marketing, Heidelberg Alumni International, the University Computing Centre, the Graduate Academy, and the student council. We were able to organise several workshops that are coming up in the next months. We hope that, as restrictions ease, we will be able to have some in-person meetings and other events too, albeit on a small scale. For instance, we organised an art exhibition entitled “Art of Science” in July, which showcases the scientific research of doctoral candidates through art.
Alexandra Zakieva: Doctoral candidates at the university were not particularly visible even before the pandemic, because we often struggle with a high workload or financial issues. Moreover, doctoral studies are very individualistic by nature, making it difficult to integrate into campus life. However, I believe that increasing representation through the Doctoral Convention will improve our situation in academia and in life. We just have to make the first step by creating space for university politics in our busy schedule. I believe that additional incentives might help, like prizes for contributions to university life, networking events with academics and politicians, or just a simple “Go for it!” from the supervisors.
What connection is there between the Executive Committee and the doctoral representatives in the Senate?
Philipp Haubold (Co-Speaker of the Executive Committee and advisory member of the electoral group of registered doctoral candidates in the Senate): The doctoral representatives in the Senate and the Executive Committee of the Doctoral Convention are two different and separate groups. However, the Doctoral Convention is quite successful in advancing its interests in the Senate. This year especially we were able to make the interests of the Executive Committee heard, with Marvin Möhler and myself addressing questions about changing one set of doctoral regulations. The fact that I am co-speaker of the Executive Committee and Marvin Möhler and I are both members of the Convention’s working groups means that we were able to coordinate our efforts and work alongside each other very well. As a result, communication is smooth and direct, making our jobs easier. Building on this, we will continue to work closely with both the Doctoral Convention and the doctoral representatives in the Senate to address additional issues. Starting in October, doctoral candidates will occupy four seats in this body again, and I particularly look forward to tackling new projects together.