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PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: What is PhD life like in the Netherlands?

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better – and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

Some time ago, a reader asked me: “Eva, what are the opportunities for doing a PhD like in the Netherlands, and how is it different from a PhD in other parts of the world?” That’s an excellent question, and perhaps you are not aware of the differences between the PhD in the Netherlands and in other parts of the world.

On the internet and in the academic literature on doctoral studies, we mostly find references to PhD programs in the UK and the USA, with the odd reference to Australia or New Zealand. Few references and blogs deal with the PhD in continental Europa.

Since I did my PhD in the Netherlands and my husband in the USA, we often discussed how very different the programs are. If you are contemplating applying to a PhD position in the Netherlands, it may be good to know what is like, and how it is different from the many descriptions you find online about PhD life in the UK and USA.

Here are a few things that are different in the Netherlands:

1. You are a university employee
In the Netherlands, you either are hired as a university employee (one year contract first and then extension, or four years’ contract) or as a scholarship student. Getting hired as a university employee is quite common, and is the typical arrangement when your PhD is funded by a research project. There are many advantages to being hired as a university degree, which include social security, employee protection, building up retirement savings etc. It also means of course that you have to pay taxes on your salary.

2. You apply to a project
The common path in the Netherlands is to apply to an advertised PhD position. This position will only be advertised when the project is already funded. In other words, part of the research and deliverables are already defined before you start. The proposal is already approved and funded. This approach is different from programs where you apply to work with a certain professor, and then propose your project, and defend your proposal.

3. Coursework is very limited
Traditionally, the PhD program in the Netherlands is a research-only program. In recent years, some universities have started doctoral schools, which require you to take a number of courses. Some of these courses are related to research skills, whereas other courses are related to your field of study. However, a number of these courses can be organized as intensive courses or summer schools. As such, your day to day life will still be mostly focused on your research.

4. People tend to treat their PhD like a job
You will see that in the Netherlands, PhD candidates tend to treat their PhD like a job with relatively steady hours. It may also be a requirement that you are in your office between certain blocks of time. University buildings tend to have opening and closing hours. Working around the clock or during odd hours is thus much less common than in the US.

5. Defense after publication of the thesis
In the Netherlands, your committee will approve your thesis, then you send your thesis for publication and printing, and at the very end you will have your defense and graduation ceremony in one event. In the USA and the UK, you finalize your thesis after the defense instead. So, in the Netherlands, the defense is much more of a ceremony and rite of passage (and a very formal one indeed) than in other parts of the world.

6. Your working environment may be partially Dutch-spoken
While the lingua franca of academia in the Netherlands is English, and you will most likely publish your thesis in English and give all academic presentations in English, part of your working environment will be in the Dutch language. When you have funding from industry or the government, it can be to your advantage to speak Dutch if you the only person during meetings who does not speak the language. Try to learn the language early on, so that you can work more easily with partners outside of academia.

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