Why PhD’s are not obtaining their doctorates on time

They may be required to obtain their doctorates within four years, but not even 5% of PhD’s at TU Delft manage this. Why?

Are TU Delft doctoral candidates really so slow? (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Of lees de Nederlandse versie

Discussions with representatives of doctoral candidates reveal the following factors.

  • Publish or perish: the pressure to publish several articles delays their thesis writing.
  • The research question does not sufficiently reflect the expertise of the supervisor.
  • The research question is not defined clearly enough.
  • There is too little supervision.
  • Practical problems loom and it is not clear who should solve them.
  • The research question continues to expand, even after the go/no go moment.
  • Backlog – there are too few spaces where the PhD conferral ceremony can be held.

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Vice Rector Magnificus Rob Mudde: ‘We need to change the system’

“We need to change the system. Obtaining a doctorate is an aptitude test which should be done within four years.” These are the words of Vice Rector Magnificus Rob Mudde at a meeting of the Executive Board and the Works Council last summer. The reason that the subject of the defence of doctoral dissertations came up was the ‘doctoral returns’ in the Annual Report 2018. The percentage of doctoral candidates that finished within five years was 43% last year. This was the lowest percentage since 2013. And officially, the doctoral candidates should finish within four years. Not even 5% manage this. Mudde believes that “there is an aspect of culture that we need to deal with. People think it’s easier than it is.”

Are TU Delft doctoral candidates really so slow?

On average, doctoral candidates in the Netherlands defend their doctoral dissertation within 60 months. This is according to the latest figures (2017) of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU). Researchers at TU Delft take four months more (64 months) on average. That is a lot more than peers at the University of Utrecht (53 months) for example, but significantly less than those at the Free University of Amsterdam (68 months). Strikingly, nationwide, as at TU Delft, there is no clear increasing or decreasing trend.

TU Delft set up the Graduate School in 2012 to speed up doctoral dissertation defences, didn’t it?

The Chair of the Executive Board Tim van der Hagen believes that “the Graduate School has apparently had little effect” on the returns, he said at the Works Council meeting. The Graduate School helps young researchers complete their research more quickly and organises training such as on writing and presentation skills. The Graduate School ensures that the researchers go through a more structured dissertation process.

Publish or perish

The pressure to publish delays dissertations

It is not fair to point fingers at the Graduate School, says PhD candidate Yan Liu (CEG) who was Chair of PromooD, the TU Delft doctoral candidates network, from March 2016 to June 2018. “Extensions are almost unavoidable. The adage publish or perish is ever more applicable to science. Some professors demand PhD candidates to publish at least four articles in highly regarded journals before they obtain their doctorates. It’s inevitable then that it takes longer to finish. Other professors put less weight on publishing. It depends on the research department. The Graduate School was supposed to make things more uniform, but has not been successful. That said, without the Graduate School, the doctoral dissertation return would be even lower.”

Joeri Brackenhoff of CEG’s PhD Council hears mixed messages about the Graduate School. “Some see the mandatory subjects that the Graduate School arranges as a burden and they want to get through them as quickly as they can. But other doctoral candidates benefit from the programme. The writing and presentation courses are particularly appreciated. I think the Graduate School helps doctoral candidates stay on track.”

Last month, the Graduate School issued a questionnaire which 534 doctoral candidates filled in. This is just less than 20% of the total number of doctoral candidates at TU Delft. The results of the questionnaire are not yet public, but Brackenhoff saw the preliminary results and noted that “the pressure to publish was frequently cited”.

Doctoral candidate Yildiz Sağlam (AS), until last month the Chair of PromooD, however, has the impression that things are changing and that professors are more aware of the problems that doctoral candidates experience if they exceed the four years. It appears that professors are softening their rigid position on publishing in highly regarded journals. “That is good news,” says Sağlam, “because doctoral candidates are perfectionists. They often work for four long years in the lab, collecting data. There is a highly competitive atmosphere at TU Delft. The doctoral candidates only start writing deep into their fourth year. They are often not paid for the extra time they put in their project and this creates stress. Some of them will even have visa issues if they exceed the time.”

Shortage of supervisors

There are too few supervisors …

This problem is gradually easing now that, since the beginning of 2018, associate professors may act as promotors. Yan Liu thinks this is a good thing. “These are often younger people who are better able to understand the dilemmas that doctoral candidates struggle with.”

Still, Brackenhoff often hears from doctoral candidates that they would like more guidance from their supervisors. “Who do you turn to if you need to do certain experiments? This is not always clear and can be problematic. Some international researchers are not used to approaching people to ask.”

Sağlam recognises this. “The Dutch students are quite direct and dare say no, but you will not often hear an international doctoral candidate say ‘I don’t want to go to the lab, I want to write’.” On top of this, doctoral candidates can face all sorts of problems beyond their control, say the doctoral candidates who were interviewed. These could be machines in the lab that break down or research projects which do not get sufficient funding at the last moment. These mean that the prospective post doc is not accepted and the doctoral candidate is saddled with extra work.

The long wait for the dissertation defence causes delays …

Brackenhoff often hears complaints about the logistics around the doctoral defence. “Doctoral defences are held in the Senaatszaal and the Frans van Hasseltzaal. We simply do not have other spaces. Some doctoral candidates have to wait six months before they can defend their dissertations. It’s quite a big ceremony so only a couple can be held every day. I often hear complaints about the logjam.”

Not the right expertise

The research subject does not sufficiently reflect the expertise of the supervisor …

Increasing numbers of doctoral candidates come from abroad. They often come to TU Delft with a scholarship from an institute abroad or are paid by a company. Liu says that in these cases the expertise of the supervisory professor may not completely match the research subject conceived abroad. “One example is that international doctoral candidates often do research into specific cases in their country or origin. Take bridges for example. The researcher comes to TU Delft to a professor that may know a lot about bridges in the Netherlands, but less about bridges in the USA, China or Brazil. This may mean that it takes longer for them to do their research.”

The research question is not defined clearly enough …

Research questions can always be adapted, of course, but Liu says that that sometimes happens after the go/no go has been given. “An interesting case may arise and you could simply be sucked into it. I’m not saying that this is always a bad thing. It may make the work more exciting, but it could create some difficulties. The go/no go decision-makers do not always assess this process.”

What’s next? A tour of the faculties

The undesirable figures compiled for Rob Mudde and Vice Rector Peter Wieringa, head of the Graduate School, was reason enough to visit all the faculties and list all the problems that doctoral candidates come up against. They will soon report back. Wieringa told Delta that he was not willing to speculate about the causes of the low doctoral returns. “I will not pre-empt the conclusion nor the direction we will take. I will know more at the end of December.” Hopefully the outcomes of the questionnaire will also be available then.

Editor Tomas van Dijk

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