Science on the Farm: Training T-Shaped People


The C.T. de Wit Graduate School at Wageningen University, the Netherlands, offers a unique educational programme that aims to provide its 260 PhD students with in-depth knowledge of specific research issues, as well as a broad appreciation for the full scope of science.

T he Graduate School

The C.T. de Wit Graduate School for Production Ecology and Resource Conservation (PE&RC) is a collaborative research and PhD/postdoc training institute that tackles research themes such as crop growth and vegetation development; genetic resources and diversity; biotic stress; pest interactions; functional biodiversity; and sustainable production and conservation systems at the levels of plants, crops, fields, farms, ecosystems, and regions. PE&RC also aims to tackle many of the problems that have been identified with conventional PhD training in the Netherlands (for previous Next Wave articles on this topic see "Related Links" below) by ensuring that students have access to a structured supervision programme. In addition, the students receive training that not only prepares them for research in a narrow field but also allows them to apply their skills more broadly. Indeed, the aim of this graduate school is to produce so-called "T-shaped" people--those who have in-depth knowledge of a specific scientific subject but also broad scientific and societal skills.

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences officially established graduate schools in the Netherlands in the early 1990s to bring a focus to scientific research programs, to guarantee and stimulate the quality of scientific research, and to provide an educational platform for PhD students. PE&RC is one such school, based at Wageningen University. It has a strong international dimension--not only do 40% of the PhD students come from outside the Netherlands, but more than 50% of its research projects have their central focus outside the Netherlands, primarily in second- and third-world countries.

Functional biodiversity in agro-ecosystems.

PE&RC is an international leader in production ecology research, plays a proactive role in EU projects, and collaborates with numerous universities and international research institutes, such as the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research. Within this context, PE&RC training and research closely follow international developments in the institute's research area. This includes issues such as spatial ecology; drivers of agrobiodiversity; sustainable resource management; and integrated studies on productive, equitable, and efficient agri-food chains to increase food quality. Increasingly, new research themes require the adoption of an integrated approach to production ecology and resource conservation. Furthermore, the social sciences are increasingly included in projects that previously were the sole domain of biophysical researchers.

In fact, interaction between different disciplines is one of the most important aspects of PE&RC research, which attempts to explain the performance of systems on the basis of insight into the basic physical, chemical, physiological, and ecological processes taking place within them. Within PE&RC, staff members, postdocs, and PhD students work together in a multidisciplinary environment. They also collaborate with scientists at the Dutch research institutes ALTERRA, Plant Research International, the Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Engineering, and the International Institute for Geo-information Science and Earth Observation. And PE&RC cooperates with groups in closely related areas working on issues such as social aspects of rural land use, biomolecular plant sciences, and food safety.

To be a full staff member, one must have a PhD degree and publish at least two papers in internationally reviewed scientific journals annually. You'll also need to participate in PhD supervision and contribute to PhD education activities. Admission as a PhD student to the Graduate School requires an MSc degree recognised by Wageningen University or an admission exam, an approved PhD research project (the scientific quality, time, and financial feasibility of which is guaranteed through internal and external review procedures), and submission and approval of a Training and Supervision Plan (TSP--see below). At present, the school consists of approximately 100 staff members, 25 postdocs, and 260 PhD students, of which about 40 graduate every year.

PhD Research and Education

More than 70% of the research of PE&RC is performed by PhD students. A PhD project normally takes 4 years; in this period, about 15% is allocated to education and training activities. Those in university-financed PhD positions (so-called AiO's) also have teaching responsibilities for up to 10% of the period. Apart from quality control of the PhD project, the graduate school plays a central, primarily facilitating/organisational role in the educational programme of its PhD students, enhancing the breadth and depth of their scientific knowledge and skills. The educational format includes activities such as discussion groups, foundation courses, postgraduate courses, symposia, conferences, and a literature review.

In the PE&RC discussion groups, information, ideas, and insights on research are obtained by discussing key articles, analysing research plans and data during various stages of the PhD appointment, and learning to present these in both oral and written formats. In postgraduate courses, students actively participate through presentations and discussions, whereas in foundation courses they develop and broaden their general academic experiences, skills, and views (e.g., learning about research planning and management, scientific writing, and ethics in science).

Although some components of the symposia and conferences are specific for the PhD research, others are more general and are organised by the graduate school (e.g., PE&RC days on ethics in science, biodiversity, or genetically modified organisms). The literature review is specific to a subject, but one of the aims is to integrate the work into a larger scientific framework. PE&RC's multidisciplinary environment gives added value to the educational programme, and makes it unique in its kind.

Training and Supervision Plan (TSP)

A Training and Supervision Plan (TSP) has been developed to give educational guidelines that PhD students must comply with in order to be full members of the graduate school. In essence, the TSP contains an outline of both the planned educational activities and the type and frequency of supervision that the PhD student can expect. Because the TSP is officially signed by the candidate's supervisor and approved by the Graduate School, it conveys obligations and rights--for example, a financial budget for every PhD student, to be spent on educational activities.

Responsibility regarding implementation of the individual research project and TSP lies with the PhD student and his or her supervisor(s). PE&RC does not directly intervene in individual projects and TSPs, because completing a PhD is a test of not only the student's scientific capacity but also his or her independence. Other than providing the broad educational framework described above, the role of the graduate school is to monitor the progress of the PhD research and suggest improvements where necessary.

The progress of all PhD projects is monitored through annual project progress reports and frequent informal enquiries. If PE&RC observes any delay, it investigates the reason and helps find solutions to the problem when necessary. In this context, both supervisors and PhD students are evaluated.

The hope is that PhD students graduating from PE&RC will be able to function as independent scientists, place their work in a broad theoretical framework, be able to identify priority areas of research, and formulate questions and experimental hypotheses. Furthermore, they should be competent in scientific communication skills, in order to contribute to scientific journals, conferences, and other meetings with colleagues. The research and educational programme aims to prepare scientists to be flexible, in terms of science, communication, and cooperation, in their post-PhD careers.

The indications are that the program is working. After graduation, the majority of PE&RC PhDs--approximately 75%--go on to scientific positions in universities and research institutes. The remaining 25% find employment in governmental and NGO services and industry. Unemployment among them is negligible.

More information about PE&RC can be found at

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