Improving Ph.D. Studies in the Netherlands

Last Friday the University of Amsterdam and the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) organised a meeting on the future of Ph.D. education. Although this meeting dealt with some very interesting and useful topics, the main question--What is the point of a Ph.D. education?--was barely touched upon. In my opinion, this should be the first question to answer, and most other problems should be resolved keeping the answer to this question in mind.

Within the university community, AIOs (the Netherlands' "assistants in training," or Ph.D. students) form a special group. They typically work on a large research project that--in most cases--lasts at least 4 years. Even if they stay at the university and continue a career in science, they will never again plunge into one circumscribed subject this extensively and intensely.

After 4 years, the universities let most AIOs go. In itself, this does not have to be a bad thing; not everyone is cut out to be a scientist. But if a large group of people is being told "Yes, you are very good; you would make a great scientist and we know you really want this, but we're fresh out of money," then something must be wrong with the system.

Several studies in the last couple of years have already signaled that changes are necessary, so maybe it is time to reconsider the AIO system. With that in mind, I asked myself several questions.

Are AIOs employees or students?

The status of the AIO remains unclear. AIOs do get paid during their 4-year project, but their salaries are reduced because they are still in training. Besides that, they often get the feeling they do not really belong. Even the Ministry of Education and Sciences seems a bit confused about this. Not too long ago, a judge ordered the University of Utrecht to abolish the bursary system through which Ph.D. students, although not formally employed, received grants from the university. The judge's reasoning was that because AIOs deliver research output, such as scientific articles and papers, they do in fact work for the university and must thus be employed by it. Still, for some reason, AIO policy is under the purview of the State Secretary of Education, together with the policy on higher education, instead of under the purview of the Minister of Education, who handles the rest of science policy.

Is the Ph.D. thesis a magnum opus?

If it is, why the 4-year deadline? Shouldn't it much rather be a proof of competence, a way to show that you are capable of setting up and carrying out a research project and interpreting the results? Many professors and supervisors got their Ph.D.s at a time when they could do this while they were already in steady employment at the university. They did their Ph.D. research partly in their own free time, but there was no time limit for the thesis work. This still leads to conflicts between supervisors and AIOs. The supervisor wants the AIO to "just check out a couple more things." The AIOs often do not dare stand their ground and point out that they really have to finish their research within the 4 years before their contracts expire. In this way, several months of work can be added to a Ph.D. degree programme.

Is a Ph.D. programme an education only to become a scientist?

At the moment, large groups of university masters are being brought into the universities as AIOs. Surveys show that 77% would like to continue their career in research and preferably would do so at a university. But only a small portion actually gets that chance. Some of them can go on for a while in temporary postdoc positions, but after a while many of them quit, because their chances of getting a steady job at the university are very slim.

When the AIO system was founded in 1986, it was intended to make sure that there would be a steady inflow of scientifically well-educated researchers for the universities and also to prepare AIOs for the job market. It now turns out that the system doesn't measure up to any of those expectations. The universities are not using the inflow at all, and as preparation for the job market the system has utterly failed. Doing a Ph.D. turns out to be worthwhile only if you aspire to a research position; in terms of salary it is only marginally beneficial; and in some places, the Ph.D. title can even be a hindrance. AIOs do have many skills that could be very useful in other jobs, but neither they nor the universities have been successful in conveying this to employers in the real world.

The present introduction of the Bachelor-Master system in Dutch education gives us an opportunity to reconsider. Universities are hastily setting up new master's-degree programmes to attract students in as large numbers as possible. But they have not really given any thought to the next step: the Ph.D. phase. The only thoughts university boards have had until now are directed toward cutbacks: "Couldn't we do a 2-year research master's degree and count the second year of the master's as the first year of the Ph.D.? Then we would only have to pay our AIOs for 3 more years!" While worthwhile concepts such as ''more diversification'' and ''individualization'' are mentioned, a clear vision is nowhere to be found.

Therefore, I would like to challenge administrators and policymakers to present a consistent vision on the future of the Ph.D.! While doing that, they should keep the following questions in mind:

How many Ph.D.s do we want anyway? And what are we educating them to do?

My first question--How many Ph.D.s or Ph.D. students does the Netherlands want?--has to do with the current financing system. A substantial part of the research is financed on the basis of projects (the so-called second and third flows of funds). This is the reason there are so many AIO projects in proportion to the relatively small number of steady jobs and thus so few opportunities for AIOs to continue at the university after finishing their projects.

Of course it is understandable that, because the money is temporary, there are predominantly temporary employees. On the other hand, in other professions work is also done on a project basis and people still have "real" jobs. For instance, engineering and architectural firms are confident that they will be able to raise sufficient funds to keep their employees working. So maybe it would be better to take in a smaller group of AIOs who then--if they met the standards-would have the opportunity to continue in a steady job.

The second question--What are we educating them to do?--cannot be answered in isolation from the first one. There will always be more AIOs than job openings for steady jobs. This is necessary to ensure the quality of the inflow into the universities. Thus there will always be outflow of people who enter the job market after finishing their project. The universities also need to take responsibility for this outflow, even if only by making it clear to each AIO what the prospects of continuing his or her career in research really are. They should also make the effort to point out the AIO's added value on the job market, both to prospective employers and to the AIOs themselves.

The problems of the 'young researcher' are well known to our new Minister of Education and Science *. Several years ago, when she was a Member of Parliament, she proposed the "van der Hoeven resolution. " This put forward "a goal-oriented plan, making an inventory of the bottlenecks in the scientific staffing policy of the universities for the short, middle, and long terms, giving special attention [to] the position of women and young researchers (postdocs and AIOs)." The plan has been drawn up ("Talent for the Future, a Future for Talent"), and van der Hoeven is now Minister of Education and Science. This gives her the opportunity to show that she not only supports young researchers with words but also with deeds!

Therefore I have not yet given up hope that she--in spite of the recent cutbacks introduced by the new government--will make a case for those who carry out the largest part of the research but are listened to the least: the young researchers, today's talent!

* Editor's Note: The Dutch government was dissolved on 10/16/02 when the Prime Minister tendered his and his cabinet's resignations to the queen. However, Mrs. Van der Hoeven will continue to run the ministry until new elections are held, which will probably be in December.

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