Improving Ph.D. Student Mentoring Takes Time--Do We Have It?

A Ph.D. candidate's happiness and scientific success is largely dependent on the student's group leader and promoter. The supervisor, for his or her part, may well be an outstanding scientist but is less often a gifted mentor. The problems that arise from this dependence not only frustrate young researchers but also reduce the quality and quantity of a work group's scientific output. All this has been known for a long time: Ten years ago, then-science minister Jo Ritzen warned, "Ph.D. students need better mentoring!" That not much has happened in the meantime was obvious when his successor, Loek Hermans, was unable recently to do much more than echo Ritzen's words.

But perhaps things are finally changing. When Dutch Ph.D. students presented their report, "Nourish Talent!" at a symposium on Wednesday at Amsterdam's Free University (VU), the university's rector himself, many professors, and even members of the Dutch Parliament took the time to listen to the students.

Why are students suddenly on the decision-makers' agenda? The answer is simple: The Netherlands is facing a serious shortfall of academic staff that will only get worse in the years to come. By 2010, about a third of all academic staff will have reached retirement age. Meanwhile, today's Ph.D. students are leaving the academic track because of a lack of career prospects. Further delay in improving career options for young researchers would cause irreparable harm to the Netherlands' knowledge-based society.

And yet it was clear from Wednesday's panel discussion that many in the academic establishment find it hard to admit that poor mentoring exists in their own institutions or departments. "These are just rare cases," and "I myself have only successful and happy Ph.D. students," claimed many of the academic staff.

But there are also emerging signs of recovery from this widespread perceptional disorder among faculty members. In his reaction to the report, Rector Taede Sminia agreed openly that coaching of Ph.D. students, infrastructure, and international exchange need urgent improvement. Taede also emphasized that clear and concrete agreements between Ph.D. student and promoter are crucial for a functioning relationship. A go/no-go decision after the first year of a Ph.D. project should also be part of the regular feedback loop between student and supervisor. Last but not least, VU wants to take action now to develop long-term career prospects for top talent.

Marie-Jose Broeckx is head of VU's special task force, "Top Talent," which has been formed to advise the university. She announced that it intends to come up with concrete plans before the summer break. In addition to coaching arrangements for Ph.D. students, she hopes to enhance career development by employing top Ph.D.s when they complete their theses, even if there are no regular positions available at the time.

This "shelter-construction" should help bridge the time until older staff members begin to retire. A second advantage of this timely overlap is that knowledge will hopefully not retire with its current carriers but can be passed on to the next generation of scientists. Although universities still have the difficulty of competing with attractive salaries in the nonacademic job market, Broeckx hopes that secondary facilities, such as day care for researchers with children, will convince young Ph.D.s to stay at the university.

Ph.D. students still doubt whether they can expect immediate action from this new initiative. "It will take a year, at least, before the task force comes up with suggestions," says Ph.D. student Ingrid Giebels. She knows, from the students' long fight for each faculty to appoint an independent contact person for Ph.D. students, how long it takes to change academic culture.

Research would benefit from a more modern approach to human resource management in Europe's universities, which are among the world's oldest institutions. By now, everybody should have learned exactly where the problems lie. And the time is ripe to actually change things. Says May-May Meijer, author of "Nourish Talent!": "In another 10 years, I don't want to write a new report. I want to read that the Ph.D. students' situation has improved substantially."

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