Nourish Talent!

In the last decade the number of students graduating with a PhD in the Netherlands has remained extremely low. The report Kengetallen University Research of the Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU) indicates that, of all the PhD students who began their studies in 1994, only 7% managed to graduate within the specified 4 years, and only 22% managed to graduate within 5 years. Quantitative research indicates that inadequate supervision is one of the possible causes of this delay and the subsequent drop-out rate. An examination of literature from the former Minister of Education and the former president of the VSNU dating back 10 years shows that it has long been concluded that the supervision of PhD students needs to be improved. Unfortunately that change has not materialised.

Consequently, the central research aim of the report Nourish Talent! just published by LAIOO, the national PhD students' organisation, is to answer the question: How can the supervision of PhD students in the Netherlands be improved? The question has been tackled by examining literature as well as qualitative analyses of the experiences of 20 PhD students for whom supervision was not adequate. The qualitative research provides an insight into what goes wrong, why it goes wrong, and where it goes wrong.

This report draws attention to three central components: the organisational structure of the university, the organisational culture of the university, and aspects which have a direct influence on the supervision of PhD students. If one combines these three elements, it is clear to see why the first attempt by the Dutch Minister Ritzen to improve the supervision of PhD students achieved minimal results.

A key feature of the organisational structure of the university is the powerful and autonomous position of its professors. Among other things they decide whether PhD students are to be dismissed or appointed in the first place (powerful position) and are hardly ever controlled (autonomous position). In general deans have no functional or assessment meetings with professors in their field. The attitude of the governors is therefore characterised by passiveness. Professors usually perform diverse roles and functions within different management organisations which therefore contributes to the organisational problem. For example, many professors are members of a faculty committee. Professors are therefore, through their involvement in such committees, precluded from needing to regulate themselves or their colleagues (who can in turn regulate them the following year, since the members of the board who have executive powers change periodically). The personnel department, the employees council, and the university council all have very restricted influence (and no influence at all with respect to the professor/PhD student relationship). Accordingly, the PhD student is usually completely dependent on his or her promotor. The chance of failure seems higher if one considers that the PhD project is described as a "lonely adventure" and that the PhD student has no supervisor other than the promotor (the so-called "master-assistant" model mostly prevails).

Some Recommendations from Nourish Talent! ( Behoud Talent!):

  • Convincing: University teachers are a powerful group within the university, certainly with respect to mentoring PhD students. They must become convinced of the benefits of good mentoring. Good mentoring stimulates the quality and quantity of scientific output, saves (salary) costs, and is also an aim on its own (Nobless Oblige).

  • Coaching: University teachers should be the coach of their PhD students and a source of inspiration. With regard to the coaching of university teachers themselves: "Peer groups" might stimulate the exchange of information about mentoring students among professors.

  • Controlling: Deans should invite professors regularly to evaluation talks. Mentoring PhD students and the loss of PhD students under the professor's supervision should be part of these talks.

  • Communication: Facts and figures of successful PhD projects and drop-out rates should be communicated at the levels of faculties and universities. This would facilitate the evaluation and support the search for solutions.

The examination of the organisational culture of the university indicates that for both student and professor, the problematic nature of supervision is a very sensitive issue. The supervisor usually decides whether or not the student is allowed to graduate (and also whether the PhD student is dismissed) and at the same time the professor has no interest in questions raised by external parties. Interference from others (for example, the research director of the research school, the PhD student coordinator, or somebody from the personnel department) is often seen as a loss of power or unnecessary trouble. Alongside this, the customs and conventions of professors not to discuss amongst themselves how they deal with their own PhD students must also be considered.

Furthermore it appears that many professors and PhD students see the thesis as the work of a lifetime (a magnum opus). This can lead to delay in graduation and disappointment for PhD students who fail to make "big discoveries". Another point is that project propositions must compete with each other for funding and therefore sometimes finish up being over ambitious. The PhD student ends up shouldering the consequences; it is (before now) unusual for the professor to be mentioned in relation to the PhD student's unsuccessful completion of the thesis within the contract period. A delayed or unfinished project easily damages the scientific reputation which the PhD student has just started to build up and usually has negative consequences for the award of future grant proposals.

From qualitative research it appears that there is a significant lack of "process-control" and coaching of PhD students. Attention must be devoted to: the absence of contact with the supervisor, faulty project propositions, uninspiring and lonely working surroundings, the absence of an introduction into the organisation, disagreement about authorship as well as academic freedom, and intimidation by the supervisor. In the cases where there is a disagreement between student and professor it usually seems to be remarkably paradoxical. During a degree a student is taught to be a critical and independent scientist. However, if he or she adopts this attitude in his or her thesis research, a conflict can arise between professor and student. The promotor often sees the critical attitude of the PhD student as a personal attack, for example, because the PhD student would like to use a theory other than the one the promotor had in mind. It seems that in the case of a disagreement the student comes off worse due to the powerful and autonomous position of the professor.

Close analysis of cases and literature show that a number of concerned parties avoid responsibility when things go wrong in the supervision of a PhD student. The PhD student is in an isolated position and needs to find his or her own way through the bureaucratic maze. The professor, who is absent, remains undiscussed. This is due to the taboo between professors of talking about each others' supervision of PhD students. The powerful position of professors in combination with the passive attitude of faculty governors and members of the Board of Governors plays an important role. All respondents experienced the situation as extremely negative, and in the case of a few respondents poor supervision lead to psychosomatic complaints such as a nervous breakdown.

The report recommends that all the different parties should make an enormous effort which will eventually yield a substantial improvement in the situation. This will come about as a result of a cultural change whereby the university is not only seen as "a marginal phenomenon", a place to practice skills, but instead as an academic meeting place which offers a stimulating and pleasant working climate for everybody who works there. As a result of this cultural change, scientific productivity would also increase, which is an aim within itself.

More specifically one must look to the importance of human resource management, where adequate supervision of young scientists is seen as integral. For this to be realized, professors must be convinced (by colleagues and governors) of the need for improvement in the supervision of PhD students. Evaluation (by means of oral communication), an open communication climate, and coaching (for professors and PhD students) are crucial in attaining this aim.

Editor's Note:

On 25 February the report Nourish Talent! was presented to the Dutch Minister of Education and Sciences, Loek Hermans. In his appreciative reply, Hermans acknowledged the need for practical changes: "Mentoring must become better!" The minister announced that funds will be allocated for follow-up research on the PhD students' situation in 1 year's time. The PhD students' plan of a "Best University Award", where the quality of mentoring will have an important influence, will also be supported financially.

On 17 April LAIOO will hold a public debate about the report's findings and the given recommendations with PhD students and Members of the Dutch Parliament at the Free University Amsterdam. Next Wave will report about this event and keep you posted.

Are you a PhD student or a promotor? Have your say at our ongoing debate and visit our Forum.

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