A supervisor who doesn’t have much time to supervise, final chapters that take ages to finalise, or data-collecting processes which go on for years. Many PhD students get behind schedule while working on their theses. Only one in ten PhD students manages to get his or her doctorate within the scheduled four years. How come so many PhD candidates take so much longer than expected?

Every year Erasmus University accepts between 120 and 190 new PhD students on a contract. Those who obtained their doctorates in 2014 generally took 63 months to do so, according to figures published by VSNU. Although the majority of PhD candidates are on four-year contracts, the VSNU figures show that few candidates actually complete their degrees within four years: approximately 10 percent. Which is not to say that the remaining 90 percent are all necessarily experiencing hold-ups. Some of them do manage to finish their dissertations within the scheduled four years, only to have to wait a few months before being allowed to defend them. Also, some PhD students are on longer contracts, e.g. because they only work four days a week or give a lot of lectures in addition to doing research. However, that does not alter the fact that one in three PhD students on a contract does not even manage to complete his or her degree within seven years.

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‘Their lives have revolved around their research for four years, so quitting is not an option’

Epke le Rutte

Rens van de Schoot, an Associate Professor at Utrecht University, confirmed that many PhD students get behind schedule. Along with Hans Sonneveld and Mara Yerkes, he investigated the reasons for these hold-ups in 2013. His study took into account the fact that some PhD projects are scheduled to take three or five years to complete, and assessed candidates on the discrepancy between the scheduled and actual duration of their research periods. ‘We noticed that nearly every PhD candidate got behind schedule to some extent,’ said Van de Schoot. ‘In some cases it was just by a few months, but in other cases it was considerably longer than that.’ On average, the respondents in Van de Schoot’s study, who were all doing PhDs at four universities, including EUR, took ten months longer to get their doctorates than planned.

Even so, it is desirable that PhD candidates complete their PhDs within the agreed time span, said Charlotte de Roon, Chairwoman of Promovendi Netwerk Nederland (PNN, Dutch PhD Students’ Network). ‘You see, PhD candidates on a contract are only paid for the work they actually do within that period, and universities generally don’t extend PhD students’ contracts.’

PhD candidates are increasingly being pressured to get their doctorates according to schedule, said Elaine Mak, Director of the Erasmus Graduate School of Law (EGSL). ‘It’s getting harder and harder for us to be able to offer extensions once those four years are up.’ Since ESL provides problem-based learning, which is mainly delivered by tutors, PhD students generally cannot be offered teaching positions. ‘We can offer them a hospitality agreement [allowing them to continue using the university’s facilities], but that doesn’t help them make ends meet.’

De Roon is aware that PhD students who are behind schedule tend to get stressed out once their due date draws nearer. ‘They have two options: continuing their research without any income, or looking for a new job. People working on dissertations are not eligible for unemployment benefits. And it takes so much time to find a job or start in a new job that it’s all the more likely that they’ll never complete their dissertations.’

Epke le Rutte, Chairman of Promeras, Erasmus MC’s PhD students’ network, is also familiar with the sight of PhD students getting stressed out when they are getting behind target. ‘It’s a painful subject. They are unlikely to get an extension, and it’s so hard to finish your thesis at night or on the weekend once you’ve got a new job. But their lives have revolved around their research for four years, so quitting is not an option.’

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No magnum opus

‘In the great majority of cases, the hold-ups are external factors,’ said Van de Schoot. ‘For instance, illness, a data set which is not completed on time, or a supervisor who suddenly moves to another country. At any rate, the problems are never caused by a lack of motivation on the PhD student’s part.’

Even so, external factors are not to be blamed for every student’s failure to finish on schedule. Liesbet van Zoonen, the Dean of the Erasmus Graduate School of Social Sciences and the Humanities (EGS3H), believes that PhD students have a tendency to be overambitious. ‘I’ve noticed that some PhD students are confused as to what getting a PhD actually means. It means that you’re capable of conducting independent scientific research. But many PhD students feel they have to be brilliant intellectuals, as well.’ Van Zoonen feels that they often set overly ambitious goals for themselves. ‘Which results in a kind of fear of failure, an idea that it’s never going to be good enough.’

Perfectionism is definitely a contributing stumbling block, says EGSL Director Mak. And Dutch students doing PhDs in law, who tend to take a little longer than their counterparts in other fields, may be more prone to this than others. In Mak’s words: ‘Our PhD students still tend to write comprehensive dissertations, whereas PhD students in medicine or economics tend to be awarded doctorates for individual articles. It’s not unheard of in law that PhD students will do very well for three years, only to get stuck in their final year, once they’re supposed to write their books.’ It is vital, both Mak and Van Zoonen believe, that students not consider their thesis a magnum opus. ‘A PhD is a ticket that will allow you to embark on a career in science.’

Stage of life

For their part, De Roon and Le Rutte have a whole list of reasons why their fellow PhD students are getting behind schedule. Some of these reasons are related to the stage of life the PhD students are in. ‘Take maternity leave, for instance,’ said Le Rutte. ‘You’re out of action for four months, but no replacement is hired to keep your research project going, and you may not get paid for four more months, either.’ Mak, too, mentions the age bracket in which PhD students fall. ‘Most PhD students are aged 25 to 35, a period in your life during which many things change which may affect your level of concentration.’

Remarkably enough, Van de Schoot found that male PhD students were more likely to get behind schedule after having a child than female PhD students, whose progress is barely halted by the birth of a child. ‘I’m a methodologist rather than a gender scientist, but I guess it’s possible that women get incredibly focussed once they’ve had a baby. Maybe this makes up for the fact that they have less time to devote to their research.’

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Image credit: Michelle Muus

Clear guidelines and deadlines

Another common factor causing grad students to get behind schedule is the nature of their PhD project. Data collection is a stage of the research which is likely to throw a spanner in the works. ‘We must distinguish between PhD students working with readily accessible data and PhD students collecting their own data,’ said Nina Conkova, the Chairwoman of EGS3H’s PhD Council. ‘Delays are a lot more likely in the second case.’ Le Rutte recognised this problem. ‘Many projects involve developing, posting and collecting your own questionnaires, and come with multiple measuring moments. Sometimes you’ll be dependent on others. For instance, you’ll be waiting for a data set from India which just isn’t happening. In such cases, it will take you three years just to get all the data you need to start performing your analyses and write.’

Some projects come with a readily formulated research question. Van de Schoot’s study showed that having such a clear research question in the first year greatly helped PhD students stay on track. Conkova, too, subscribes to the view that having a solid research question helps. In her first year, she was asked to write a paper outlining the relevant literature in her field of study and the contribution her research project was going to make to this. ‘Some PhD students consider that sort of thing a waste of time, but it gave me a very clear idea of what my research was going to achieve, right from the first year.’

As of September 2015, all PhD students must have an education and supervision plan, a modification to the rules of PhD research which graduate students and graduate schools alike have welcomed with open arms. Among other things, the plan outlines the kind of training a PhD student must receive, the number of hours of supervision he or she must receive per week or month, the go-or-no-go moment which will decide on the PhD student’s future about a year into his studies, and generally what a PhD student must achieve in each year of his studies. ‘I think such plans can make a world of difference,’ said Le Rutte, who noticed at Erasmus MC that quite a few of her fellow PhD students did not have such plans in place. ‘Clear guidelines and deadlines can go a long way towards preventing unnecessary hold-ups.’

Hands-on supervision

‘These days, supervising PhD students means being very hands-on’

Liesbet van Zoonen

Van de Schoot also pointed out that many grad students blamed their lack of progress on the quality of the supervision they received. A study conducted by PNN and the Rathenau Institute showed that the great majority of PhD students are satisfied with the supervision they are receiving. ‘But 10 to 15 percent of them indicated that there was room for improvement,’ said De Roon. ‘It’s vital that expectations be managed right from the start, so that both PhD students and supervisors know exactly where they stand in relation to each other.’

Interviews with PhD students and graduate school managers show that supervision comes in many guises. Some PhD students meet their supervisors once or twice a year, others are part of a research group where a post-doctoral researcher acts as their daily supervisor, and yet others meet their supervisors every week.

‘Some supervisors take the concept of independent research a little too literally and leave their PhD students floundering right from Day 1,’ said Van Zoonen, before pointing out that intensive supervision is vital. ‘That’s what things used to be like, back in the days when getting your PhD was your magnum opus and supervision consisted of a one-hour lecture by your professor.’

She herself meets her PhD students every week during their first year, and gives them regular assignments and deadlines. ‘I’ve supervised 24 PhD students, who didn’t get too far behind schedule. I’ve only lost the one student. These days, supervising PhD students means being very hands-on.’

What are the graduate schools doing?

Graduate schools are a relatively new phenomenon in the university’s PhD policy. Since they were established, PhD candidates have had an educational institute on campus, which helps safeguard the quality of the education they are receiving and helps supervise students when they run into difficulty.

A solid recruitment policy is the first step, said Natalija Gersak, a doctoral programme manager at ERIM. ‘Selecting candidates on the basis of quality and level of motivation is crucial.’ For instance, EGSL has instituted an open round of applications for PhD positions managed by a selection committee which does not include the relevant PhD supervisor. Said Mak, ‘This allows an independent committee to assess the quality and feasibility of a proposal.’

Next up is a solid education and supervision plan, according to Liesbet van Zoonen. Such a plan outlines the kind of training a PhD student must receive, the number of hours of supervision per week or month, the go-or-no-go moment which will decide on the PhD student’s future about a year into his or her studies, and generally what a PhD student must achieve in each year of his or her studies.

Graduate schools offer a wide range of courses, especially in the first year, designed to fine-tune students’ PhD proposals. The courses deal with all sorts of advanced methodologies, academic writing and scientific integrity, but also provide PhD candidates with practical tips on how to get through their four years.

For instance, EGS3H offers a course on How to Survive Your PhD, said Van Zoonen. ‘What are your expectations? Are they too high or too low? How do you achieve a good work-life balance? How do you ensure that you can get on with your supervisor?’ EGSL offers a ‘Collaborating with Your Supervisor’ course, as well as a ‘Quality of Supervision’ training course for PhD supervisors.

Graduate schools place PhD students in classes of postgrads who are all embarking on their PhDs at the same time, allowing them to regularly meet up, present their work to fellow postgrads and receive feedback. EGSL has also implemented individual doctorate committees, meaning that it’s no longer just about PhD students and their supervisors, but that independent experts are now involved in passing a verdict on the student’s future in academia at the end of his or her first year, and also in providing feedback down the track.

Whether the graduate school approach is affecting the amount of time PhD students take to obtain their doctorates is hard to say, both Mak and Van Zoonen agreed. Their graduate schools were only established in 2012, so their first students are still working towards their doctorates. ERIM’s graduate school has been active since 1999, and according to Gersak, the programme has been a success. She said ERIM PhD candidates generally take 57 months to get their PhDs and over 70 percent find a job in academia afterwards. She also pointed out the importance of a proper research information system, which is currently being developed for the entire university. This system will closely track the progress made by PhD students, by recording their start dates, go-or-no-go moments, other assessment moments, publications and drop-outs. Gersak believes this will greatly assist in identifying potential problems.