Animation by René Lapoutre

FSE PhD culture must change

Five years of work in four years’ time

Animation by René Lapoutre
The Faculty of Science and Engineering wants put an end to overstuffed PhD tracks which lead to candidates taking five years or longer to get their degrees. It is taking measures. ‘We need to protect PhDs from themselves.’
16 April om 16:22 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 23 April 2024
om 15:17 uur.
April 16 at 16:22 PM.
Last modified on April 23, 2024
at 15:17 PM.
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Door Christien Boomsma

16 April om 16:22 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 23 April 2024
om 15:17 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

April 16 at 16:22 PM.
Last modified on April 23, 2024
at 15:17 PM.
Avatar photo

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio »
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Perhaps, Joost Frenken says, the financial crisis his faculty is in is secretly a good thing. Perhaps the otherwise pretty unpleasant lack of money at the Faculty of Science and Engineering will actually ensure that its PhD candidates don’t take more than four and a half years to end up defending their thesis at the Academy building’s auditorium. Earlier attempts to hurry them up have all failed.

‘We need a cultural shift’, says the FSE dean. ‘But it’s not that simple. Sure, people nod politely if you ask them to change, but then they get stuck in all the bureaucracy and their attempts to pacify their supporters. The only way to break that pattern is a good crisis.’

It’s a good thing we’re in the middle of one, then. 

Back in 2018, when Petra Rudolf left her position as dean of Graduate Schools at FSE in order to become the boss of the overarching Groningen Graduate Schools, she already said PhD students have to graduate much faster. At the time, 47 percent graduated within five years. This number was supposed to be at 70 percent by 2020. But a recent stocktaking at the faculty showed that nothing has changed. 


FSE isn’t the only faculty facing this problem. In 2018, the most recent tracking year, PhD candidates took sixty-one months to finish their degree; a little over five years. ‘The same is happening at other Dutch universities’, says Rudolf. At fifty-five months, PhD candidates at Eindhoven were the fastest. The VU, at sixty-seven months, was the slowest.

The only way to break that pattern is a good crisis

But things really have to change at FSE. ‘We hire someone for four years’, says Frenken. ‘We have an agreement with them: if they do their work right, they can do it in those four years. That’s a contract we sign.’

If they fail, that’s bad for the faculty. There’s a PhD candidate walking around, taking up our facilities and their supervisor’s time. That indirectly costs the faculty money. But it also endangers scientific output, as well as the promotion bonus, which universities then receive later than they’d planned. There’s also the risk of PhD candidates not graduating at all because they already found a job somewhere else. 

It’s also bad for the candidates themselves, since they now have to work nights and weekends while not getting paid. 


‘The faculty has to create the conditions that prevent candidates from taking longer’, says Frenken. But how? And why would plans to fix the problem help this time?

Because, he says, there’s a financial crisis. And besides, it’s important we tell ourselves that it can be done. ‘Some institutes took action a long time ago by setting up a good internal monitoring and supervision system.’ 

The Kapteyn Institute, for instance, put a system in place years ago that involves a committee of people from outside a PhD candidate’s group looking over the supervisor’s shoulder. ‘When things get out of hand, the committee takes action towards the supervisor and helps out the candidate. As a result, candidates graduate much faster.’

The Stratingh Institute and the Engineering and Technology Institute Groningen (ENTEG), also succeeded in limiting the duration of their PhD tracks. Of the 2008-2012 cohort, 45 and 40 percent, respectively, graduated within five years. This went up to 59 and 56 percent for the 2014-2018 cohort. 

‘It’s really a cultural matter’, Rudolf emphasises. ‘In Germany, the standard PhD track is three years, with candidates taking four.’

Much longer

However, PhD candidates have been doing worse at other institutes; the Van Swinderen Institute went from 71 to 60 percent, the Zernike Institute from 57 to 49 percent, and GELIFES from 32 to 27 percent. This means the average time it takes PhDs to graduate has barely changed at FSE. The faculty board has had some ‘serious yet constructive meetings’ with the abovementioned institutes. 

In Germany, the standard PhD track is three years, with candidates taking four

‘Some institutes have really drifted off course’, says Frenken. ‘Their candidates’ theses are much longer than they need to be.’ After all, nowhere in the regulations does it say that candidates need to publish a certain number of articles in high-impact magazines in order to graduate. ‘Just that they need to produce results that could be published.’

Another issue is supervisors who don’t realise what you can do in four years. ‘If your project takes four years, you only have three years to do research. Because you’re also taking courses, attending conferences, teaching classes, and taking vacations. And don’t forget writing your thesis.’

As a result, some PhD candidates spend all their time in the lab and don’t start writing until the four years are up.

Old guard

While Brit Coenen with the FSE PhD council doesn’t see this happening in her own group – she’s currently a PhD candidate at the Groningen Biomolecular Sciences and Biotechnology Institute – she has received a lot of messages from PhD candidates about it. ‘If it’s normal in your group, it’s difficult to see that you’re not supposed to be doing it like that.’

Frenken confirms this. ‘We often hear that the PhDs themselves do want it, but they learned it there first. It’s not like they’re born that way. We kind of have to protect the PhDs from themselves.’ 

But some supervisors simply don’t get it, says Rudolf. ‘The action FSE is about to take actually applies to the old guard’, she says. ‘To the die-hards who refuse to adapt to the changing times.’

That means we need more committees like the one at the Kapteyn Institute, to monitor the PhD candidates. Additionally, the go/no-go moment needs to be taken more seriously, to ensure that PhD candidates who aren’t suited to the job actually leave. That’s beneficial to both parties, emphasises Frenken. ‘Otherwise, it just becomes an ordeal. For candidates from certain countries, not writing a thesis simply isn’t an option. If they don’t graduate, they’re in big trouble.’ 

PhD candidates like these receive a kind of ‘proof of internship’, so they can continue their career without a gap in their CV.

Urgent request

At the same time, Frenken realises all too well that there’s no point tightening the screws on institutes. But they did all receive the ‘very urgent’ request to have a serious internal discussion about setting some realistic guidelines for their own field. ‘And then anyone who works hard and tries their best should be able to do it in four years.’

Every euro counts, especially now

They also need to ponder how they can change PhD culture in their own little club in an effort to produce some best practices. 

The reactions from the various groups have been positive, says Frenken. ‘All institutes have energetically started working on it. Not just out because of the finances, but because they realise that this is in the PhD candidates’ interest. So I’m convinced we’ll be seeing a clear change over the next few years.

There is one little screw they’ll be tightening, though: if a candidate takes more than five and a half years to graduate, the faculty board won’t pay out the entire promotion bonus. Whereas institutes that manage to make their candidates graduate within four and a half years will receive a little extra. 


Coenen is happy about the other actions. ‘If implemented properly, they’re a step in the right direction.’ But she’s not so sure about this one. ‘So little of the bonus ends up with the institute anyway.’

Frenken realises it’s just a ‘modest’ amount: it makes less of a difference than he thought when he came up with the measure. ‘But every euro counts. Especially now.’ And if it could actually help solve the issue, the financial crisis will have done some good after all. 

In all cases, however, it will take a long time for the changes to take effect. Coenen thinks it will take a shift in Dutch education as a whole. Rudolf is slightly more optimistic. ‘But this needs time’, she acknowledges. ‘We’re obviously trying everything to show how much we need this.

So what constitutes a successful change? Rudolf hesitates. ‘I’d be really happy if, four years from now, even just 50 percent of candidates graduate in four years.’