• One in three drops out

    Struggling PhDs

    There should be more PhDs, according to the cabinet. But getting a doctoral degree isn’t easy: one in three candidates never finishes their thesis and at some universities, fewer than half manage to graduate.

    in short

    Dutch politicians want more doctoral candidates, and that is already happening: last year, 4,500 people graduated with PhDs from Dutch universities. That is nearly double the number there were around the year 2000.

    But there can always be more, and that’s why universities are experimenting with more affordable PhD students who receive a bursary rather than a salary.

    Even though the number of PhD candidates continues to rise, many are also dropping out. One in three never finishes their thesis.

    PhD candidates are also taking longer to complete their theses, even though the averages in different programmes vary dramatically.

    There are also significant differences in the chance a PhD candidate has of succeeding at different universities.

    According to PhD candidate Van Uijen, whether a doctoral student will graduate on time depends on their advisor.

    The structure of the work is also important, as is contact with other PhD candidates and researchers.

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    We all know the refrain by now: the smarter we are, the stronger the Netherlands will be in the worldwide competition with countries like China, India and the United States. Furthermore, knowledge and innovation can help to solve social problems, such as rising health care costs and rising sea levels.

    As far as politicians are concerned, the higher educated we are, the better. First, they wanted as many young people as possible to enrol at the applied science and research universities, but now, politicians are setting the bar even higher – they want more people to get their PhD.

    It’s working, too. Last year, no less than 4,500 people defended their theses at a Dutch university: more than 86 a week. That is far more than in the past, due in particular to the growing number of female PhD candidates. Around the year 2000, there were only 2,500 PhD defences annually.

    The cabinet believes there can still be more. That’s why universities will be allowed to experiment with more affordable PhD students who receive a bursary instead of a salary. The cabinet also wants more businesses to pay for or at least contribute to PhDs, with the approval of education minister Jet Bussemaker and Secretary of State Sander Dekker. That includes the collaboration between TU Eindhoven and Philips: the business sponsors 70 PhD positions. If universities make more agreements like this, the expectation is that hundreds more PhD positions could be created.

    The finish line

    But getting your doctoral degree isn’t easy. Only one in three PhD candidates reach the finish line within four years. Nearly every PhD candidate encounters delays and takes much longer than expected to complete it. In years past, four out of ten PhD candidates completed their thesis within five years (with at most a year delay), but in the most recent figures (circa 2009), it appears that that is closer to three in ten.

    Do the rest ever actually make it to the end? After seven years, two out of three PhD candidates have completed their thesis. The rest either throw in the towel before then (although there are no statistics for that) or slave away even longer. And then there are the external PhD candidates who work in the evenings and weekend on their research. They are even more likely to become stranded.

    PhDs in the Netherlands

    © HOP. Source: CBS. Figures include external and bursary PhDs from abroad.

    That raises the question: do these plans make much sense? Should we really keep adding ever more PhD candidates, and must so many of them bite the dust? Perhaps it’s more logical to cast a critical eye to the PhD process first – there are already major differences among various disciplines and universities.

    Duration and chance of success

    Candidates researching technology and economics complete their thesis the quickest (57 months on average), while studying law typically takes 69 months. In the language and cultural field, PhDs normally take longer than 60 months to finish their research.
    But the differences among academic fields can’t completely explain the variations in the time that it takes to graduate at different universities. Why do researchers in Eindhoven complete a thesis the most quickly (in 54 months) while researchers at Delft take more than 60 months? They are both technical universities. At the Radboud University, completing a thesis takes the longest (66 months).

    Experimenting with bursary students

    Thanks to an experiment from education minister Jet Bussemaker, the RUG can once again make use of the bursary PhD structure.

    Starting on 1 January 2016, universities can take on bursaries, young researchers who do not receive a salary but are given a study grant for their training to become a researcher.

    ‘We are the initiators of the experiment. But we also think that it should really be enshrined in law and should not have to rely on being an experiment’, RUG board member Jan de Jeu said recently in the University Council.

    The system isn’t new to the RUG. The University has made use of bursary PhDs for years. In doing so, the RUG is not required to pay employers insurance or pension funds. And that makes the bursaries one-third less expensive than a traditional PhD. In 2010, the university suddenly decided to stop working with bursaries as a result of discussions with the tax services. The system appeared to be in conflict with the law.

    But with the plan from Bussemaker – which she has been developing for two years – the bursaries are back on. And that is remarkable, because both the courts and the House of Representatives have spoken out against the practice.

    ‘The universities have to treat their PhDs with decency’, VVD representative Halbe Zijlstra said, during his time as spokesperson for higher education. ‘They use the PhD candidates as cheap researchers. They are not even considering the question of what happens to them after they graduate. They don’t seem interested in the fact that a doctoral title has no added value in the labour market.’

    But the financial argument is winning out: there will soon be more PhD candidates for the same amount of money. Roughly 2,000 PhD students will be able to take part in the eight year long experiment. Once they have their doctoral title, the ‘students’ can be replaced with new ones. It’s a far-reaching experiment. For comparison’s sake: in the year 2010, around 3,000 traditional PhD candidates began their research.

    In the Anglo-Saxon world, PhD students are common, but is it also more common that they complete their thesis? The British figures closely resemble those in the Netherlands: a bit more than 70 per cent of researchers finish their doctoral degree within seven years.

    And that’s not only because of differences in cost. There are also considerable differences in the chances that a PhD candidate will succeed at different universities. Eindhoven and Utrecht perform relatively well: 80 and 75 per cent finish their work within six years, respectively. At the University of Maastricht and the Free University, on the other hand, less than half of the PhD candidates finish in that same period.

    Where do these differences come from? PhD candidate Sophie van Uijen has a theory about why it goes relatively well in Utrecht, at least. She is doing her research in clinical psychology and is the chairperson for the local PhD group, Prout. ‘If PhD candidates stop, that is commonly a result of the working relationship with the promoter’, she says. ‘But there are also safety nets in Utrecht. In each department, there is a mentor for the PhDs, an impartial person who you can talk to if things aren’t going well. There’s also a university ombudsman. Those people may help.’

    However, Anna Emanuel of PhD union ProVU doesn’t know why things are so delayed at the Free University. She can think of possible explanations, but ‘it remains speculation’, she says. There is a new rule that has just been implemented: PhDs have to earn study points and they have to create an education and guidance plan with their promoter. Emanuel says, ‘In any case, this should ensure that every PhD candidate is being better educated and is receiving better guidance.’

    A flying start

    But proper research into the differences among universities has never been done, according to Barend van der Meulen, head of the Science System Assessment department of the Rathenau Institute. He can only make general statements about the odds for PhDs. ‘Three factors are important. First and foremost, the advising: can you really progress very far with that particular professor, and does he or she have enough time? A survey last year revealed that the quality of guidance has improved: only ten per cent said that the guidance they got was insufficient. Secondly, the structure of the work matters: does a PhD candidate have to start from scratch and come up with a research proposal, or can he or she make a flying start? Finally, contact with other PhD candidates and researchers is important for hanging in there.’

    PhDs per university

    © HOP. Source: VSNU. Regular PhDs, starting year 2008.

    In other words, sorting through old VOC archives all by yourself is probably more difficult than examining an Erlenmeyer flask with five other scientists. There’s also the matter of the character of the PhD candidate. ‘Some candidates consider their thesis to be their life’s work and even make a book out of it’, Van der Meulen says. ‘Personally, I didn’t do that.’

    Minister Bussemaker and Secretary of State Dekker think that there needs to be more ‘differentiation’ in the PhD system between PhD students and PhDs working for businesses. But really, it’s not about the form. Their goal is to have more PhD graduates, more trained researchers, more innovation. Perhaps they should look at the guidance that PhDs are given first. It seems that there is much to be gained in doing so.

    ‘You have to find middle ground’

    The majority of PhD candidates don’t see their delay coming, according to a survey from PNN and the Rathenau Institute last year. A minority of respondents expected some delay, and on average, researchers anticipated that they would only need half a year of extra time.

    Why don’t PhD candidates anticipate that their research will take longer?

    ‘That is indeed a little bit crazy’, PhD Network Netherlands chairperson Charlotte de Roon says. ‘Perhaps they get more feedback closer to the end or they only realize at that point that their results aren’t what they were expecting… It’s also possible that PhDs have to have the courage to motivate themselves. They don’t want to be delayed, because getting a contract extended isn’t easy. If the contract ends, then they fall into a hole: you don’t qualify for welfare if you are a PhD candidate. That means that you have to start applying for jobs before you’ve gotten your degree.’

    And why do so many PhDs quit despite being satisfied with their academic programme?

    ‘It’s true that only ten per cent of the respondents indicate that their programme is insufficient, but only eight per cent actually give their programme a six, and that’s also not very high. There are always more factors at play. PhDs can also encounter personal issues or experience writing problems, or have difficulty focusing. Students can go to a student psychologist, but there isn’t someone like that for PhDs. If you count it altogether, it’s maybe around 30 per cent who never finish their thesis.’

    Should the PhD track be more like normal education, then?

    ‘Not per se. A complaint that we hear often is that PhD candidates have to do various kinds of tasks for them. The promoter may have thought up exactly the work that they want the PhD to do, and then they just need them to do it. That may sound like high school, but it doesn’t work: you need some independence. On the contrary, it doesn’t work if everything is too unstructured and open. Then, it takes too long to really focus. You have to find middle ground, and that requires a lot of commitment from the advisors and really being embedded in the faculty and the field.’