Apart from research itself, I am also interested in the situation of researchers. Actually this has caught my interest since realizing sometime in the middle of the first year of my Ph.D. that competition for scientific positions is extremely high and that it is therefore crucial for science workers to join forces if we want to ensure some minimum standards.
During that time I actively started to participate in the Max Planck PhDnet, the association of Ph.D. candidates in the Max Planck Society, and in 2009 became their spokesperson. One of the largest projects we performed during that time was to conduct a survey among all Ph.D. candidates about their working conditions. With a ca. 50% participation rate, this was the first large and representative Ph.D. candidate survey in the Max Planck Society.
The survey report (direct link to PDF download) has been distributed (by the Max Planck Society) to all directors and we have received quite some press coverage during that time. One of the spicy findings was that there was no difference in working conditions of contract holders and stipend holders, thereby questioning the different payment modalities. It took several more years (and some dirty fights), but eventually in 2015, the Max Planck Society decided to get rid of stipends. For the full story, see the Science Careers article “Junior Max Planck researchers win reforms“.
For most researchers it comes without asking that you want to shape your own working environment towards the better. However, sometimes junior researchers have to face strict opposition when being concerned about their careers, their contracts or such. Often it is then said that (junior) researchers should “focus on their research” and not “waste their time” with political actions. This is, with all due respect, nonsense. If it’s not for us — the junior researchers — to ask for better employment contracts, career perspectives and fair treatment in applications, then who is going to lobby for us? Ah, and sometimes it is also at least indirectly suggested that only dimwits are concerned about their careers and contracts. The really excellent scientists don’t need to worry, it goes. Let me ask my friend Albert to answer this: “I consider it important, indeed urgently necessary, for intellectual workers to get together, both to protect their own economic status and also, generally speaking, to secure their influence in the political field.” (A. Einstein, 1950. Out of my later years. New York, NY: Philosophical Library.) — a quote that I read in an excellent article about why junior researchers need to unionize.