PhD platform wants to hear your concerns

Questions about your dissertation, dealing with stress or the Tilburg PhD factory? The Tilburg PhD Platform (TiPP) is all ears.

PhD candidates in Tilburg are concerned about the ‘PhD factory’ that has been discovered at Tilburg University. Over the years, excessive amounts of external PhD candidates were supervised by only a few professors, who sometimes were paid substantial sums. Newspapers write that anyone can get a PhD at Tilburg University, and at conferences people want to talk about the scandal. “Some PhD candidates have expressed their concerns about what this will mean for their degree,” says Karlijn Hoyer from TiPP.

External PhD candidates are important for Tilburg University, says Clemens Fiedler from TiPP. “We rely on external candidates to get access to valuable data, and to know what goes on in the real world. These are important connections.” The environment for PhD candidates in Tilburg is quite favorable. For instance, PhD candidates have a seat in the university council and are represented in most faculty councils. But there are still improvements to be made. The university has taken a first step towards improvement by requiring external PhD candidates to be registered with a graduate school at least two years before the intended PhD defense. Also, PhD candidates are required to have a second supervisor.

PhD tracking system

Moreover, the university is working on a PhD candidate tracking system, says Hoyer. This system will enable the digital storage of documents and logging of meetings. “It is a way to track progress, and to monitor how things are going,” says Hoyer. “It might be able to show, for example, that a three-year track for TiSEM PhD candidates offers too little time to complete a doctoral degree.”

With this tracking system, it will also be possible to see where (external) candidates are in their PhD trajectory. “It’s good to have an overview,” says Fiedler. “If we know where they are, it will help us to incorporate external PhD candidates into their respective faculties. A large part of doing a PhD is the connection with other people – fellow PhD candidates, professors, students, and other researchers. If your only connections to Tilburg University are your supervisors, that might not be good for your development as a researcher and the quality of your dissertation.”

Quality

The system can potentially also show how many PhD candidates a supervisor is supervising. This way, it would become possible to take measures to ensure that a professor does not supervise “too many” PhD candidates. TiPP is exploring the possibilities for limiting the number of PhD candidates per supervisor. According to Fiedler, “It will likely not make sense to supervise fifty PhD students, even ten can be critical next to all the other (academic) obligations.” TiPP has not yet determined what the upper limit should be, but stresses that quality should be prioritized over quantity.

“Supervising is a job, that doesn’t come naturally to everyone.”

“Pursuing a PhD is not easy,” Hoyer and Fiedler say. During the PhD trajectory, a substantial contribution must be made to the scientific field, courses must be taught and taken, and (all) supervisors have to be satisfied. Excelling in all of these areas is quite a challenge. Fiedler: “Letting your supervisors know that you are struggling is an unpleasant thing to do. As we saw in the mental health workshop that we organized before the summer, there is a lot of room for improvement.”

Training of supervisors

Supervising PhD candidates is not an easy task, but it is part of many researchers’ jobs. Supervisors themselves can help improve the conditions faced by PhD candidates. They could be offered a training, TiPP thinks. “This is something we really want, and we’re trying to implement it,” says Hoyer. “Supervising is a job, that doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It might make sense to offer supervisors a course, a manual, or to set up a peer group of supervisors.” Fiedler adds that a supervisor might not all know how to see if something is wrong with a PhD candidate, or how to help.

Additional support

Another idea is to get psychologists on campus specifically for PhD candidates, as is the case at Delft University of Technology. A more immediate solution for PhD candidates is to find their ways to the PhD councils of their respective faculties, or to TiPP. Although Hoyer, Fiedler and their TiPP colleagues may not be able to solve individual cases, they might spot problematic trends and take issues to higher administrative levels.

PhD candidates that are struggling, suffer from problems or just want to talk (confidentially) can contact the PhD council of their faculty, or TiPP via tipp@uvt.nl.

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