How to get a PhD done in time

Keep that sword from falling

When a PhD student doesn’t finish on time, it’s traumatic for the student and the faculty alike. The faculty of science and engineering tries to solve the problem by monitoring their PhDs closely. ‘Doing research can be a depressing thing.’
By Christien Boomsma / Animation by René Lapoutre

It’s not easy being a PhD student. You’re married to your research, but they’re consumed by it too; it haunts your days and nights, because everything depends on it.

Your thesis may very well define your career. If you fail, what then?

It’s not easy to supervise a PhD student, either. They are enthusiastic and smart, but also very young. They come from all over the world to do research in Groningen. But sometimes they don’t know the language well enough, they are insecure, they simply want too much in too little time. Sometimes you want them to do too much in too little time. Sometimes, they’re just not cut out to be a scientist.

Knowledge lost

And sometimes, they don’t finish in the four years allowed by their contracts. Sometimes they don’t finish at all. So your department doesn’t get the 77 400 euro bonus for a completed PhD thesis. All that money, all that scientific knowledge and effort: lost.

This is happening way too often, says Petra Rudolf, outgoing director of the Graduate School of the Faculty of Science and Engineering. No more than fifty percent of the PhD students at her faculty finish within four years. Twenty percent never finish. And that is way too many. Behind that number is drama, for the faculty, but even more so for the PhD’s themselves.

‘A PhD project is a project of four years. If a PhD student doesn’t finish in that time, something extraordinary must have happened’, she states.

If they can’t communicate, they can easily get isolated

There are many circumstances that warrant delay: sickness, the birth of children, equipment breaking down that is essential to the research. But these circumstances aren’t that common. When so many PhD-students need more than four years, something else is wrong.

Language problems

‘When I asked around among the supervisors, they usually remember that there may have been someone once, that didn’t finish in time’, she found. ‘Like it was an exception and not their problem. But it’s not like that. It happens all the time.’

Why is that? And – more important – what can she do about it?

Four years ago the Graduate School launched an initiative to make sure PhD students finish in time. One very important problem, one Rudolf has already dealt with, is language. Asian students especially tend to have problems with their English. They don’t struggle with reading – they have to do a proficiency test do be admitted in the first place – but they do struggle to pronounce the words in a way that Westerners understand. ‘That is very important’, Rudolf says. ‘If they can’t communicate properly, they can easily get isolated.’

The Graduate School of Science and Engineering now puts PhD-students in touch with a pronunciation teacher who works via Skype, so that they can improve their skills from behind their computers.

Personal problems

Personal problems can also set a PhD student way back. Perhaps they are overwhelmed by their project and fall into a cycle of procrastination, hoping against all hope that their problems will eventually solve themselves. Maybe they get depressed, homesick, isolated and lonely.

‘We found that it’s often the secretaries and the technicians that pick up on the first signals’, says Rudolf. ‘These PhD’s won’t open up to their supervisors, but the secretaries do see something may be wrong.’

The course ‘Wat zie ik, wat doe ik’ is especially targeted at secretaries helps them to pick up on the signals and make students aware that they can get help from the Student Support Centre. A similar course will target technicians.

They are sometimes working with no funding and no salary

They also offer writing courses, like ‘Thesis Writing Coaching’ – a bootcamp for PhD students who are behind on writing and already employed elsewhere. There are also courses like ‘Academic Conversation, Writing and Publishing in English’. ‘We started four years ago, so the first results are showing now. And it looks promising’, says Rudolf.

How much do you need?

But it’s not enough. These last few months all the research institutes of the faculty have been thinking about how to speed up the timelines for PhD projects, so the different institutes can learn from each other. And when all those different plans and ideas are put together, one thing stands out.

Planning: Supervisors should not ask too much of their PhD’s, says Rudolf. ‘How much do you really need to get your PhD?’, Rudolf asks. ‘In many groups it’s the norm to go for three or four publications, but all you really need to do is show the reading committee that you are capable of doing research on your own.’

But there’s way more. Like realizing that the actual writing of the thesis is part of the project. And if a PhD student teaches – which many do – that takes a lot of time out of their research time. Time that matters. ‘A day only has 24 hours’, says Rudolf.

Christian Leutenantsmeyer and Monique Bernardes Figueirêdo, both from the FSE PhD council, see that happening a lot. ‘After the four years, people still have to write the thesis’, says Leutenantsmeyer. ‘So then they are sometimes working with no funding and no salary’, Bernardes Figueirêdo adds.

Also, supervisors may ask too much of their PhDs. Write another article, do this or do that task unrelated to your own research or progress. ‘And if your supervisor asks this of you, it’s hard to say no’, says Leutenantsmeyer. He has also seen PhDs getting more and more competitive these last few years, which makes it even more difficult. ‘It’s not as healthy as before.’


And of course there are planning sessions at the start of a PhD, and an annual meeting with the supervisor. The problem is, says Leutenantsmeyer, that supervisors too often view that meeting as an annoying piece of bureaucracy. So often, the plans aren’t revisited or updated in a way that actually helps students.

The same goes for the ‘go-no go’ decision, where a project can be terminated after nine months. ‘There’s almost never a no go’, says Bernardes Figueirêdo. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be.

We shouldn’t believe it ‘ll be alright. That never happens

Rudolf agrees wholeheartedly. When things aren’t working, research can be a deeply ‘depressing thing’, she says. ‘We shouldn’t believe it ‘ll be alright. That never happens.’

But because a no go is always a personal drama, prevention is best. The best prevention is doing a better job of selecting PhDs in the first place, according to both Rudolf and the members of the PhD council.

How? Look at their language skills, yes, but also check what kind of research they have done before. Rudolf once had a PhD who was completely shocked when he found out he had to do the technical setup for his experiments himself. ‘He’d always had a technician to do that’, Rudolf says. ‘You have to be aware of those cultural differences and take them into account.’


Mentoring is also crucial, perhaps more than anything else. There’s a reason why some supervisors have way more ‘fast’ PhDs than others. Even a PhD who is smart, skilled, and driven needs extensive guidance. So confidential mentoring and peer support trajectory is offered to all new PhD students.

‘It’s so important to be able to go somewhere and talk to someone confidentially, says Leutenantsmeyer. Preferably someone who is not your supervisor, or even from the same research group. All FSE research institutes have PhD coordinators who also act as confidential advisors; so does the Graduate School coordinator.

It’s a win-win situation, says Bernardes Figueirêdo. ‘Because those mentors may not supervise you, but will have their own PhDs. This way they will learn to be more aware of the problems that their own students may be afraid to tell them.’


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