As Dean of Research since 1 January, Richard Visser is responsible for the quality of Wageningen PhD research. What issues does he need to address? Seven current and former PhD candidates offer the new dean some advice.
Chantal Vogels, PhD candidate at Entomology
‘Personally I didn’t have any problems with my PhD but I am on the Wageningen PhD Council, where we are currently discussing the recommendations of the international visitation committees to the graduate schools. One of the things we discuss is the supervision. With increasing number of PhD candidates, there is more and more pressure on supervisors. As a PhD candidate you sometimes have to fight for your time and that doesn’t do the quality of the research any good. I think the new dean should do his best to stay in touch with PhD candidates from all sorts of chair groups so that he can find out whether this is a problem throughout the WUR or only in certain groups. If a promotor isn’t a good supervisor you should talk to him or perhaps offer a course.’
Tessa Brinker, PhD candidate in Breeding and Genetics
‘The Wageningen PhD trajectory is very good. The university provides plenty of structure, you get an overview of what you have to deliver when, you get to go on courses and to conferences. The disadvantage is that it is you can’t easily diverge from this programme. I know PhD candidates with a different background and prior education who would like to take other Master’s courses while they are at graduate school. There is not much scope for that at the moment. It is also not clear what the selection process for PhD candidates is. The criteria are not the same for the various chair groups, whereas we do all get the same title. I would like more transparency.’
Christian Siderius, Got his PhD in Environmental Economics
‘I am an unusual case because I work at Alterra and I just got my PhD part-time on the job. That was no problem at all at the university. The two professors who supervised me showed a lot of interest in my research and the supervision was good. I do see problems in Alterra. You have to keep your projects going and put in your hours. I was lucky because I had a multiannual project. That made things calmer. I hear from other people that it is very difficult for a DLO researcher to do a PhD if you have lots of small projects. I think the research institutes should provide clarity for staff members who want to do a PhD. Are you going for projects and acquisition or is there scope for academic development?
Marjanneke Vijge, PhD candidate in Environmental Policy
‘Things are well arranged in our group. We PhD candidates talk to each other a lot and hold meetings. That is valuable, because you need a sounding board, if you are stuck with your writing for instance. Then it also helps to talk to people who are not your supervisor. I am amazed that the copromotors often haven’t done any courses on supervision. I get a lot of feedback on my papers but there is little opportunity to discuss the supervision process and the relationship. That is a weak point. A lot of PhD candidates have problems with the supervision process. Do you get on, do you understand each other, does it click? As well as: how much support and guidance should the supervisor give? There are courses on that and I think they should be compulsory for copromotors and supervisors, because PhD research is not an easy process.’
Bert van ’t Ooster, Got his PhD in Farm Technology
‘I’ve been working within Wageningen UR as a teacher for a very long time. It proved to be perfectly possible to do a PhD part-time, because my workload was made lighter. There is a lot that is right with the PhD process, especially compared to the mid-1980s, when I started in Wageningen UR. There were no graduate schools yet then and PhD candidates were with individual chair groups. So I only have some minor criticisms. It struck me that there are cultural differences between graduate schools. I think it would be good, for instance, to make sure the quality assessments are done in the same way everywhere. I’ve sometimes noticed other PhD candidates getting frustrated if a paper was rejected by a journal. Then they sometimes decided to submit to a journal with an even higher impact, which generated more stress.’
Frederih Lech, Got his PhD in Food Technology
‘Wageningen has a pretty good system. I knew what was expected of me and got the chance to do experiments and to take courses alongside my work. It is a system that has proved its merits and I think doctoral research goes well for 90 percent of the people. I think it would be interesting to get more exchange of experience going. I would have liked to hear more about the overall agenda of Wageningen UR and the work of other PhD students and chair groups. Perhaps this could be done at special symposia or PhD days. Another point is that PhD students currently learn to communicate about science mainly in a traditional way, through posters, patent applications and academic articles. There are other forms of science communication too, more geared to the general public.’
Muriel Verain, Got her PhD in the Economics of Consumers and Households
‘The rules on the thesis could be more transparent. Like the fact that no photo is allowed on the back cover and the propositions are not allowed to be longer than one sentence, or to refer to the king. Since these rules are not in the Doctorate Conferral Regulations, PhD candidates all have to find them out for themselves. There is now a course about the ‘last stretch’ of the PhD process, which is a step in the right direction.’