CBR: Central Bureau for Research Capabilities


plaatje_blog_ernst_geutjes_2“When will you finally finish your PhD”?, is a question I get almost every week. My PhD has been lasting for 5 years, 5 months and 27 days now. I have no idea when I am going to finish, I don’t even know whether it is going to be this year or next year. For sure, I am not the only PhD candidate in this situation. In the Netherlands, every PhD candidate gets an employment contract of 4 years. However, only 7% of all PhD candidates succeed in finishing their PhDs within this time frame. In the worst-case scenario, PhD candidates have to ask for unemployment pays. Besides doing research, writing job application letters to vague scientific acquaintances suddenly becomes a weekly prerequisite.

A PhD almost always takes more time than has been planned for, because the concrete demands to get a PhD are unclear. The PhD guidelines from the University of Utrecht at which I am enrolled as a PhD candidate say: “the PhD candidate has executed his research independently or/and has made an essential contribution to science”. Clearly, independency is not prerequisite to get a PhD. Some PhD candidates start their own research projects, but probably most PhD candidates work on research projects that their supervisors have initiated. Some PhD candidates design their own experiments and execute them, but there are also many that design their own experiments and have others execute them.


In practice, I am being judged on my contribution to science, which is determined by the quantity and quality of publications of scientific data in scientific journals. The PhD guidelines do not mention how many articles the PhD candidate has to publish and of which quality those articles should be. As such, these requirements are dependent on the scientific standard of the supervisor, which is highly variable. For example, the demands of my supervisor to obtain a PhD have varied from one publication in a good journal to up to 2 publications in excellent journals. Recently, a PhD candidate from a different supervisor that is also affiliated to the University of Utrecht graduated without any publications. I also know PhD candidates that have been working on their PhD research for almost ten years now.


Obtaining your PhD has many similarities with obtaining your driving license. The arbitrariness and financial aspirations of my driving instructor were determining in when I was allowed to apply for a driving exam. During my 60th lesson, in which I drove as well as in my 30th lesson, I was really suspecting that I was contributing to the reconstruction of my driving instructor’s villa in the rich people’s town Huizen. My suspicion was underscored by the fact that I passed the driving exam with the exam only taking 30 minutes instead of the usual 50 minutes, because the driving examiner was already convinced that I was able to drive.


If only the number and quality of publications is important in science, than the PhD title is nothing more than a status symbol inherited from the medieval centuries. I thus propose that the PhD candidate has to convince a scientific committee of his acquired scientific skills after four years, similar to what is being done in the UK. A PhD candidate can then decide for himself whether he wants to try to publish his findings, depending on his ambitions and the financial resources of his supervisor.


#3 Ernst Geutjes 2011-07-01 18:35
Dear Sabrina and "De piet",

Thanks for your comments! I am happy that, at least for me, it is now clear when I will able to finish : my boss has agreed to allow me to defend my PhD in December. Indeed the determination and chasing my boss and collaborators, sometimes necessarily quite aggressively (almost like a collection agency) is becoming very important, as you predicted, Sabina.

About your comments. I think whatever the demands for a PhD maybe, # and quality of papers, I think the demands should be made clear from the beginning. It would also be fair that the standards for a PhD would be somewhat similar for all countries...
#2 Sabina Lukovac 2011-06-17 13:57
I think it's not more than fair to expect the PhD-candidates to publish at least one paper, since publishing is an essential part of being a scientist, and therefore, an important part the PhD project. Regarding the number of publications and the time of finishing he thesis, in the USA is the same as in the Netherlands...i t is very subjective and highly dependent on the supervisor. Although the average at Penn here is 6 years, students in my lab finish in 4.5 years with two publications. I do agree with you, Ernst, that setting up an independent committee with the expertise in specific field of research at the beginning of a PhD-project, which is also common in the USA, would be extremely helpful in speeding up the process and increasing the quality of the PhD thesis. I wish you all the best with finishing your project, and I learned that an important part of finishing the PhD-thesis is taking control of your own project, being determined to finish and capable of convincing your supervisor to support you in doing so!! Good luck!!
#1 De Piet 2011-06-17 06:30
I thought you needed 1+ publications, no matter what journal for the UU? Here in the US, grad students can take 7+ years before their supervisor allows them to write their thesis. Not sure about the publications one needs though..

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