The graduate school: Is everyone happy?

The graduate school was intended to decrease the drop-out rate amongst PhD students and to ensure that they complete their degrees within four years. One and a half years after the start, PhD students consider it an improvement, and the patronising that the professors had feared does not seem to be posing much of a problem.

“PhD students lack structure” was the message emerging from a survey conducted at TU Delft in the summer of 2011. Almost half of the 891 PhD students completing the questionnaire had no education and supervision plan. A quarter felt that they had been unable to follow sufficient training, due to the lack of a training budget or permission from their supervisors. In addition, one in five was dissatisfied with the way in which supervision was organised.

The survey produced hard data, which served as a baseline at the start of the first three faculty graduate schools in September 2011. Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science, Architecture and Industrial Design Engineering were the first, followed by the other faculties in January 2012.

By providing improved support and training, the graduate schools were expected to reduce the drop-out rate amongst PhD students and to ensure that they complete their degrees within four years. At the time of the survey, a third of all PhD students had experienced delays, and one in eight attributed this to their supervision.


The graduate schools have been operating for some time now, and PhD students already seem quite satisfied. Filip Biljecki, a PhD student at the OTB research institute, is even “more than positive” about the change. “If I had to choose between the old and the new system, I would choose the new one.”

Biljecki, who is from Croatia, completed his Master’s degree in Geomatics at TU Delft and applied for a position to conduct doctoral research on 3D city modelling at OTB. Two months after his arrival in July 2012, he had a formal interview at the TU Delft graduate school, his passport and diplomas were verified and he was registered in the DMA (doctoral monitoring application), the new tracking system for PhD students.

The DMA is a database in which PhD students enter information about courses that they will follow, certificates that they have completed, conferences that they have attended, their PhD contract and their go/no-go moment. The supervisor is notified of this information and must grant approval for several items. If this is not done, an email is sent from the graduate school. Biljecki considers the system simple and clear. “I make the plan, I choose the courses and my supervisor has to approve them.” Within three months, this plan (and the associated working agreements) must be recorded in a PhD agreement, which amounts to a type of employment contract.

Before the graduate school was developed, there had been only an intake interview with human resources, involving forms for pension and insurance, according to Ken Arroyo Ohori. He is one of the ‘old style’ PhD students and president of Promood, the PhD student association. He shares an office with Biljecki. Furthermore, the R&D interviews had been the only source of information. “Although they were supposed to be held for everyone, this usually didn’t happen for most groups of PhD students” recalls Arroyo Ohori. “In the graduate school, everything is recorded somewhere: it is a sort of contract that protects the PhD student. The system tracks progress as well, and this is a major improvement.”

Another improvement that Arroyo Ohori notices is that every PhD student in the graduate school now has a mentor. The mentor can help with problems (e.g. problems with a PhD supervisor or daily supervisor). Biljecki says that he had not heard anything about this during the intake interview. “I already have two supervisors and a PhD supervisor; a fourth person would be too much. I would not be very likely to turn to a mentor. A PhD programme is like a marriage: it requires compromises from both sides.”

In theory, however, OTB has one mentor for all doctoral students together, according to Henk Visscher. He is director of the graduate school of Architecture, under which OTB falls. “We see mentoring as something that is at a greater distance from you. Primarily you are in contact with your daily supervisors.”


Within six months, the intake interview is followed by a mandatory ‘start-up’ course as an introduction session. The first few times in 2012 this consisted of a three-day programme at the beach. “I didn’t learn anything there,” notes Jonas Teuwen, a PhD student at EEMCS. “Many different subjects were treated very briefly.”

He followed an outdated course that was largely focused on foreign students, adds Erica Radelaar of HR Talent. “It was about cultural aspects, such as how to deal with your supervisor. The programme consisted of 24 modules, and there was no connection. People were bored. The only thing that the PhD students enjoyed was hanging around in the bar.”

Since September, there has been a new programme. “The material covered on the first and second days involves self-reflection: Who am I as a PhD student in this organisation, and what are the expectations?” explains Radelaar. “The third day is devoted to academic integrity. The social element has been eliminated. We opted for more quality.” Although Arroyo Ohori (speaking on behalf of Promood) would like to see the social aspect restored, Biljecki is satisfied. “It was a quick training on the organisation of the university, doctoral research and doctoral education.”

Doctoral education is the first step in the graduate school for PhD students as soon as their PhD agreements have been approved. The courses vary in length from a half day to three days. In all, they can be used to earn 45 credits. One third of these credits are for courses in general skills, including presentation, applying for jobs and setting up a research project. Another 15 credits involve practical skills, including the supervision of undergraduates, giving a presentation at a conference and applying for funding. The remaining 15 points are for subject-specific training.

The last category continues to pose a problem according to Biljecki: Architecture does not offer any specific courses in his field. Director Henk Visscher says that they are still working on this. “Our offerings continue to lag somewhat behind. Other departments are using external research schools. For most of the disciplines in Architecture, however, such schools just aren’t there. What we develop for the entire faculty needs to be somewhat broader. If Biljecki can find substantive courses elsewhere, he will be allowed to take them.”

This also reflects the situation that existed before the graduate school: PhD students who were attached to a research school were often able to take wonderful courses. “Some PhD students were not allowed to take courses, because it took time or was too expensive,” recalls Arroyo Ohori. “Now, PhD students are always able to take courses. That’s great.”

Biljecki has already taken five courses: the mandatory start-up course, networking, presentation of research and two courses on teaching. He considers the teaching courses to have been of good quality. He already had considerable knowledge about networks. “It would have been good if someone had provided information about the course content. For the rest, I also need courses on finance and project management.”

He has not had any exams. They are required for Master’s degree courses. Although Biljecki has occasionally had homework, it has not been required for the certificate of completion. According to Biljecki, one disadvantage is that PhD students have become students once again. “As PhD students, we are actually degreed researchers. The graduate school frames us as students. That’s odd for PhD students with 30 years of work experience. They are either junior researchers or staff members. We are here to study, not as students, but as employees.”

One marked improvement, according to Arroyo Ohori, is that the graduate school has made € 7500 available for courses and conferences. He tells us that, in the past, PhD students had been unable to attend conferences because there was no money. Conference attendance is no problem for him or for Biljecki. “This is not so much due to the graduate school as it is to the fact that we are in a good group with sufficient funding,” explains Arroyo Ohori.


Six months after the start of their PhD, according to the recommendation within the graduate school, it is good for PhD students to discuss their progress in a review meeting with the PhD supervisor and daily supervisor. This is particularly advisable in view of the approaching go/no-go moment (with an external expert), which takes place 9-15 months after the start.

Arroyo Ohori considers the introduction of this strict go/no-go moment a “significant improvement”. “In the past, there was a tendency to schedule this moment ‘somewhere in the programme’, without much pressure. Now it is mandatory to have a good plan after one year. This means that the supervisors must be truly involved after a year. In addition, PhD supervisors, supervisors and their PhD students within the graduate school should have regular contact with each other. This should also take place strictly after each year, in order to discuss results.

In order to help PhD students feel that they are not completely alone, the plans called for establishing networks within the graduate school. According to Arroyo Ohori, that has not yet succeeded everywhere. There is some debate within faculties about whose responsibility these networks should be: that of the PhD students, the faculty or the graduate school?

According to Stella van der Meulen, coordinator of the graduate school, all faculty graduate schools have now organised events that are partly social and partly substantive in nature, thus leading to the emergence of a community of PhD students. For example, in the faculty of Architecture, director Visscher took the initiative to form a PhD-student council, which resembles a local chapter of Promood.

Finally, beginning three years after starting the programme, PhD students follow a compulsory module on career development, with the goal of actually completing their degrees within four years. Exit interviews are held with PhD students leaving the university in order to gain insight into the situations they encountered. The main questions from the survey that served as a baseline are included in this interview. Then it will be possible to say whether the TU Delft has achieved its goals with the stricter schedule of the graduate school: fewer drop-outs and degree completion within four years.

452 PhD students now attending the graduate school

3mE: 65



CEG: 80

EEMCS: 115

IDE: 27

AS: 72

TPM: 20

Is the graduate school patronising?

Two years ago, professors expressed concerns about the introduction of the graduate school. Would it be patronising? Would the PhD supervisor retain ultimate responsibility? Might the graduate school turn into an administrative monster?

Prof. Lucas van Vliet, professor of image analysis in Applied Sciences (AS) was not convinced, but he has not experienced the graduate school as an ‘administrative monster’. “PhD students have to complete the tracking system themselves; we just have to approve it. We had already been doing that for a long time in AS, through the annual interviews.” For this reason, he does not experience the graduate school as damaging his autonomy. “You should take decisions yourself; you shouldn’t hide behind the graduate school, and the graduate school shouldn’t force you to take certain decisions. If pressure should arise, you should resist it. As a professor, you are in charge of your PhD students. I still retain ultimate responsibility.”

Nevertheless, he and others question the usefulness of the three-day start-up session. “They don’t hear anything in this session that they didn’t already know,” observes Van Vliet. Erica Radelaar of HR Talent has heard similar concerns (see main story). Some professors do not consider doctoral education necessary, given that PhD students had previously received some portion of this within the faculty. Radelaar: “Some of the supervisors expressed resistance to personal-development courses. They would tell PhD students: Just work on your research. Nevertheless, self-organisation, communication and personal leadership are important. PhD students are now telling us that it was useful for their six-month interviews or for conferences.”

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