Journey to a PhD: A view from the inside

It takes four years if you stay on track. There are endless hours of research, writing and attempts to get your work published. You may even consider quitting more than once along the way. Then in order to complete the process you have to convince a panel of experts that you have mastered your subject. But in the end, doing a PhD is much more than the sum of these parts.

Photo: Sam Rentmeester
Photo: Sam Rentmeester

It's a journey that will most likely take you down a path of learning and self-discovery that nobody can prepare for. It requires perseverance, adaptability and self-motivation. And it's not just the PhD candidate that takes the journey. The other part of the equation is your supervisor, the professor who is tasked with providing the necessary guidance and feedback to help you develop into an independent researcher. With this first installment, Delta begins a short series looking at the personal experiences of PhD candidates at different stages of the process and their supervisors.

Jorge Moncada
PhD candidate, Energy & Industry section, Faculty of Technology, Policy & Management (TPM)

Jorge Moncada knew he wanted to do a PhD very early on. But due to what he describes as a lack of resources and infrastructure in his home country of Colombia, he decided to go abroad. So after completing a master's in chemical engineering, Moncada began to explore his options. "I had a friend at TU Delft doing a post-master's study," he said. "I thought I would need to know Dutch, but when I found out that wasn't true I applied to the PDEng programme on Process and Equipment Design at TU Delft."

Moncada came to Delft in March 2011 to do a Professional Doctorate in Engineering (PDEng), a two year design traineeship that is application-focused. Upon finishing the PDEng, Moncada worked for four months in The Hague in industry, but quickly decided it wasn't for him. Luckily, he was told about a PhD position in the TBM faculty by his current promoter.

Now in the fourth year of his PhD, Moncada said the journey has been both challenging and rewarding. "The beginning of the PhD was kind of tough because I had to learn so much," said Moncada. "It was not specifically my background so I had to take some master's courses." Moncada believes the PDEng was good preparation in terms of learning organisation, communication, technical skills and soft skills. "Had I not done the PDEng it would have been really tough," he said.

During the first year of the PhD, Moncada feels planning and keeping an open mind are critical. "In my opinion, the first three months you are still so naïve about the topic," he said. "Things really change when you get into your research. There are always surprises doing a PhD, things always change."

His work, which focuses on biofuels for the aviation sector, involves system level analysis and modeling how actors in the supply chain make decisions. "The biggest challenge for me has been changing my way of thinking," said Moncada. "In TBM you need a more holistic view. I like things concrete, well defined problems. But now I realise there may be many solutions to a complex problem and they may not be well defined."

A unique factor for Moncada is that his PhD is a joint programme with TU Delft and Utrecht University. He noted that the two systems are quite different and he has three promoters. "It's complicated but I think it depends on how you see it," he said. "It can be difficult and takes more time, but I also benefit from having input from more people."

Moncada says that he has learned many things during the PhD process. From a professional point of view, if he had the chance to start over he would be more systematic in literature review and would start doing modeling from the very beginning. He also said he would spend more time writing and discussing things with colleagues. "From a personal perspective, I look at the guy I was a few years ago," he said. "I am more critical now and I see the world differently. I am more curious about many subjects. If you go deep enough into any subject it can be really interesting."

As for advice to those considering a PhD, Moncada said, "You have to really like research and do it because you really want it." When he's finished, Moncada would like to stay in the Netherlands to pursue an academic career.

Dr. Zofia Lukszo
Co-promotor, Associate Professor, Energy & Industry (TPM)

During the startup of a joint project with Utrecht about four years ago, Dr. Zofia Lukszo was looking for PhD candidates. "Jorge was a referral from a colleague," she said. "Despite the fact that his background was heavily in engineering, it was clear from the beginning that he was a promising candidate. We saw he was an open minded person and ready to learn." She explained that they almost always work with multi-disciplinary projects, so it's rare to find someone already experienced.

Although Lukszo and Moncada have been fortunate to build a good working relationship, it's not always easy to find the right candidate. Lukszo noted that sometimes professors need to be more careful with their choice of candidates. "It's important to check the skills and abilities that are important for the position," she said. "But it's most important to judge if someone can bring things to a good end, not only being goal oriented, but knowing how to finish something."

Finding and supervising PhD candidates like Moncada is just one of the many roles professors play. Nowadays most are also responsible for carrying a teaching load, doing their own research and writing proposals for funding, amongst other things. Dr. Lukszo estimates that four PhD candidates at one time is reasonable, but said it's important to find a way to balance the work. "Personally I like to sit down and talk to people, to figure out the direction and develop concept models," she said. "Do I have sufficient time for this? No! I wish I had more time for these types of discussions."

Dr. Lukszo, originally from Poland, said the PhD process has changed since she started working at TU Delft in 1995. She explained that before the Graduate School there was a group of PhD candidates without proper support. The administrative procedures have changed, but now Lukszo said it's clear what is expected. "In our section there is the right culture for supporting candidates. Having more formal procedures helps in supporting a bigger group of people." She also noted that these changes were needed in order to get the average PhD time down to four years.

Procedures aside, Lukszo takes a very personal approach to supervising. "I think it's important to see the person and not only the project," she said. "You can better support them in that way." Lukszo emphasised that for a PhD candidate it's important to know that it's a difficult trajectory. They must understand that it's an individual project, their supervisor never has enough time and problems always come up. And in her experience, Lukszo said there are some PhD candidates that need more attention. As a supervisor, she feels it's important to see that people need different things and to be flexible.

At the end of the day, like many people in academia, Lukszo loves what she does. "I love working with young people and seeing them grow," she said. "You hope you contribute to their growth; that is the reward."