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PhD Talk For AcademicTransfer – Supervising PhD Students In The Netherlands

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer – Supervising PhD students 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!

When you are a new faculty member in the Netherlands, or if you are considering to apply for a faculty position there, it is good practice to inform about how PhD students are being supervised. Similarly, this information is useful if you are considering moving to the Netherlands for your PhD.

Last month we looked at MSc students, and some of the differences between the practices at TU Delft and universities outside the Netherlands. This month, we will focus on PhD candidates. Here are some of the aspects that sometimes surprise international faculty about PhD candidates in the Netherlands:

  • PhD candidates are often employees: Unless the PhD candidate has a scholarship from their home country, they will be hired on a project as an employee of the university. They will receive a salary, pay taxes, get a health insurance, and contribute to social security and a pension fund. Doing a PhD in the Netherlands can be an attractive option – not just for the research, but also from a financial point of view.
  • Admissions are different: In the US, the PhD students typically start with the beginning of a new semester. They have the status of a student and pass through admissions to get accepted into a program. In the Netherlands, candidates are hired for a certain position, so one cannot just apply to “the PhD program at University X” unless they have funding for the PhD. As candidates are hired like employees (unless you are on a scholarship), they will start on the date when their new contract start, regardless of the start of the quarter.
  • Supervision happens in teams. As a faculty member, you will see that supervision of PhD candidates happens in teams. There is usually a daily supervisor (assistant or associate professor) and promotor (often a full professor; has to have ius promovendi), and other constellations with two daily supervisors or two promotors are possible too.
  • PhD candidates take less courses than in other countries: As compared to the USA where coursework is a hefty part of the PhD and a continuation of the Master’s program, the coursework in the Netherlands is less and different. Depending on the university, there may be requirements for candidates to take a certain number of credits (and this approach is relatively new, as I didn’t have any coursework requirements). These credits can be distributed between practical skills (such as taking a course on how to write a journal paper) and courses in the field of study of the candidate (which are typically not offered by the university but can be fulfilled through summer schools and online courses).
  • The expected amount of research is relatively large: Since the contribution of coursework is lower, the balance shifts towards the side of research. Add to that the relatively longer time period for the PhD in the Netherlands (officially 4 years) which is longer than the three years used in some other countries, and you can understand that the expected research contribution is large.
  • PhD candidates can do some teaching: The contract will stipulate which maximum percentage of their time PhD candidates in the Netherlands can spend on teaching, and this percentage tends to be rather low (10 – 20%), although it can vary between groups and universities. This teaching is often related to checking exams, assisting with case studies, perhaps teaching one lecture, and working with Master’s students.
  • Part-time is an option: Part-time PhDs are an option in many countries and systems, and they are an option in the Netherlands as well. For international candidates, this option is typically not viable as they will move to the Netherlands for the PhD, but for Dutch candidates it may be attractive to return part-time to university to do the PhD after they have spent a number of years in industry, while remaining active in their industry job.

And, just as for the Master’s students last month, I’d like to share some of my tips for supervising PhD candidates:

  • Set expectations clear at the beginning: Just as it is good practice to on-board Master’s students, it is good to tell PhD candidates at the beginning how you work. Identify how often you will meet, and schedule this recurring meeting. Let them know how you like to be updated on the work, and in which way you like to give feedback. Let them also know how much time you need to review their work, and set clear deadlines for papers and reports.
  • Keep communications in supervision team clear: To avoid giving confusing feedback to the PhD candidate, it is good to coordinate important feedback within the supervision team. If necessary, have a pre- or post-meeting with the full supervision team after a supervision meeting to better coordinate the feedback and way forward..
  • Understand that every PhD candidate is different and requires different supervision: What works for one student may not work well for another candidate. What interests one, does not spark joy for the other. While this advice sounds rather obvious, it never hurts to remind us of this truth.
  • Dance on the tightrope: There’s a sweet spot between letting PhD candidates run wild with their research and becoming a micromanager of their work. Again, it depends on the candidate to see how much advice they need in terms of planning. By all means, I like checking in with my candidates on their activities for the upcoming period and how they plan to organize themselves.
  • Advice on courses: If you see an interesting course, don’t assume they will hear about it but let them know about it. Similarly, if you notice that certain skills can get more training, advice them appropriately.
  • Give opportunities to explore: While usually a project has deliverables and tasks that need to be completed, PhD candidates also need to have enough free reign to explore their interests. As a young faculty member, it may be tempting to share all the possible ways forward you have in mind, but give your PhD candidate enough time and space to come up with their own ideas.
  • Make connections for them: As a supervisor you know a lot about your field, but not everything. Unless you have worked a few years in industry, you may not be the right person to advice on building a career in the industry. But at the same time, you probably know a former student who will be just the right person for giving this advice. Your task here is to make the connections for your candidate.

What are your best practices for supervising PhD candidates?

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