Getting a PhD is something you can learn (with a little help from this blog)

How do you get a PhD position? And how can you ensure the articles you write don’t end up discarded in a drawer somewhere? Psychology professor Stynke Castelein and researcher Jojanneke Bruins created a blog to help PhD candidates get started. 

What inspired you to start writing this blog?

Castelein: ‘Every group of PhD candidates I coached has had the same type of questions: “How do I write my first article? How do I make a poster?” There aren’t really any simple instructions for these kinds of things, except for in a four-hundred-page book. But nothing that’s short and to the point.’

Bruins: ‘We’d written a blog once before, about psychosis. In early 2023, on the exact same day, Stynke wrote a spontaneous blog post and I made an overview of all the subjects that might interest PhDs. When we told each other what we’d done, we realised there was an opportunity there.’

Castelein: ‘We do this on our own time. We started with posts on LinkedIn. Then we built our own website in a few months and wrote a few blog posts to put on the site. We wanted it to be accessible and a little funny.’

Did you yourselves encounter any issues when you were doing your PhDs?

Castelein: ‘I had to create a poster for a conference, but I didn’t have any examples whatsoever. My supervisor would simply print his paper and stick all eight pages to the poster board. But that’s just a lot of text. No one wants to read all of that when they’re at a conference. Another PhD candidate showed me a much better way, using short sentences and pictures.’

Bruins: ‘I had a pretty bad case of imposter syndrome: I thought other people did things and knew things I couldn’t even understand. I’d finished my first article, and my supervisors just came up with a few journals they thought might publish it. I had no idea which journals would work. It turns out there’s a website for that: Jane.’

There are more than thirty-six thousand PhDs in the Netherlands. Do you think you’re reaching each and every one of them?

Bruins: ‘Our website – which is also available in English – has been visited more than three thousand times. Traffic is down a little during the summer months, but we still get five to eight hundred visitors a month. It also helps that the UG and the PhD Network Netherlands share our posts.’

Castelein: ‘I supervise PhDs all over the country, including in The Hague and Rotterdam. That also helps with dissemination. A PhD candidate once told me about the blog at a conference, not knowing it was ours. That was pretty cool.’

Does this mean you know everything there is to know about being a PhD now?

Bruins: ‘There are obviously structural differences for each field. We don’t know everything about every field, that’s what doctoral advisers are for. But we are pretty well-versed in the PhD process, and that’s pretty much the same for everyone.’

Castelein: ‘If we’re not sure that something applies to all universities or fields, we add a disclaimer. At the UG, for instance, you don’t have to do an extra presentation on your research in layman’s terms, but you do at the Radboud University.’

What is ultimately your goal?

Castelein: ‘At some point, we’ll run out of topics to discuss. It would be nice if we could turn the blog posts into a small book, maybe something they could give to people getting their master’s degree.’

Bruins: ‘UG PhDs have to come up with theorems, statements they have to defend during their PhD ceremony. Who says it always has to be a serious statement? My ultimate goal would be for us to be a thesis theorem: “promoverenkunjeleren.nl genuinely helps PhDs”. That would be fantastic.’ 

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