LESSONS LEARNT AFTER GUIDING OVER 1.000 PHD CANDIDATES A CO-PRODUCTION BY TU DELFT AND DOWNSIDEUP
This e-book is created in coproduction by TU Delft and downsideup, 2015.
Alex Proutski MSc Ana Luz MSc Dr. Anne Meyer Franca Kramer Msc Prof.dr.ir. Hans Hellendoorn Heiko Udluft MSc Hoda Sharei-Amarghan MSc Prof.dr.ir. Ibo van der Poel James Kroll MSc Jiaxiu Cai MSc Mafalda Casais MSc Michiel de Moor MSc Miki Trifunovic MSc Dr. Rudy Negenborn Dr. Saket Pande
www.tudelft.nl www.downsideup.nl By all means: please do use this work and its contents to promote development and learning. No prior consent whatsoever is needed to distribute this work, either in print or digitally. In order to protect the integrity of the work, you cannot remix, transform or build upon the material and then distribute the modified work. If you choose to quote from this work or refer to its contents, it would be great if you mention TU Delft and downsideup as its creators. By the way, you are actually one of the rare people actually reading a colophon.
Additional thanks for the written contributions of:
Dr. Heide Lukosch Prof.dr. Rob Mudde Dr.ir. Jeroen De Ridder Prof. dr. Jack Pronk Written by:
SIMON DOUW LAURENS VAN DER VUURST ERICA RADELAAR (co-author)
about this project The increasing number of people on the planet and their drive to achieve ever-higher levels of prosperity raises some major questions for society. Technology and its underlying knowledge is essential in answering these challenges of our times. TU Delft, as a modern university of technology, is a source of new scientific understanding and technological breakthroughs and, as such, contributes to disseminating the knowledge necessary for battling the challenges we face. By training scientists and engineers, and providing them with a broad academic grounding, the university is a catalyst for innovation and economic growth. TU Delft considers research to be the foundation on which all other initiatives are built and therefore makes the education of its PhD candidates on of its highest priorities. Every year hundreds of the brightest minds of their generation start their PhD trajectory at the
TU Delft. For many of them, the path to obtaining their doctorate degree is and will always be one of the biggest adventures of their lives. Although extensively supported by the university and their colleagues - nothing really prevents them from being dropped into unknown territory. They are often geographically or spiritually far away from home, can no longer find their comfort in their former roles of being students and – maybe even more daunting – are expected to become the sole experts in their research field within four years. And on top of this, being dropped into unknown territory is not an unintentional mistake but a necessary step in becoming an autonomous researcher. How do these PhD candidates experience this grand adventure? And what are the insights, tips and tricks that have proven to be helpful in guiding them? Between 2012 and 2014, the HR department of TU Delft and
e e s o t Click y r a t n e m u c the do 4
downsideup worked together on creating the PhDStartUp, an onboarding programme for PhD candidates in the first months of their PhD candidacy. Almost 1.000 PhD candidates participated in the programme in this time period. These – usually quite critical – PhD candidates were positive about the programme and gave it a mean evaluation score of 7.6 out of 10. Now, after almost three years, we wanted and needed to take another good look at PhD candidates, their challenges and the support they need. Therefore, we were quite happy when the opportunity came by to film a short documentary on this very special group of people. This is the companion e-book to the minidocumentary that can be found through this link: http://youtu.be/NDOCtkxedRE We wish you a pleasant and inspirational read and are very grateful for all the people that have contributed to this magazine and the mini-documentary.
about tu delft TU Delft’s mission is to make a significant contribution towards a sustainable society for the twenty-first century by conducting groundbreaking scientific and technological research which is acknowledged as world-class, by training scientists and engineers with a genuine commitment to society and by helping to translate knowledge into technological innovations and activity with both economic and social value.
about downsideup Downsideup’s learning architects and trainers develop and implement training programmes that are aimed at waking up their participants. In following one of these programmes, one might wake up to a new and unanticipated insight, suddenly clearly see a brand new perspective for action or discover a lifelong behavioural or mental pattern one was previously unconscious to. One of the many training programmes downsideup has delivered, in this case in co-production with TU Delft, is the second day of the PhDStartUP called “Peerday programme” that guided almost a thousand PhD candidates in the first months of their PhD trajectory in 2012-2014.
About this project 5
Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. Ralph Waldo Emerson 6
This project is dedicated to the PhD candidates of the TU Delft. During their four years they are called many things, so here are some synonyms for PhD candidates: trailblazers pioneers
most obsessed person you know scientific paper production machines mushrooms (they are everywhere!) Patiently hoping for a Degree (PhD) PhD student 博士生 a nuisance a blessing About this project 7
About this project
PhD: Research at its finest
What is a PhD candidate?
What is a supervisor?
What it means to start a PhD project
Work hard, play hard
How about fun?
From paper production machines to people Content 9
PhD: RESEARCH AT ITS FINEST
PhD candidate Miki Trifunovic faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (EEMCS)
PhD candidate Michiel de Moor faculty of Applied Sciences (AS)
PhD candidate Mafalda Casais faculty of Industrial Design (IDE)
PhD candidate Alex Proutski faculty of Applied Sciences (AS)
PhD candidate Franca Kramer faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences (CEG)
PhD candidate Hoda Sharei-Amarghan faculty of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering (3mE)
Professor Ibo van der Poel faculty of Technology, Policy and Management (TPM)
Professor Hans Hellendoorn faculty of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering (3mE)
PhD mentor Saket Pande faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences (CEG)
PhD candidate Heiko Udluft faculty of Aerospace Engineering (AE)
PhD candidate James Kroll faculty of Applied Sciences (AS)
PhD candidate Jiaxiu Cai faculty of Architecture (Arch)
Daily supervisor Anne Meyer faculty of Applied Sciences (AS)
Daily supervisor Rudy Negendoorn faculty of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering (3mE)
Trainer Ana Luz downsideup
PhD: research at its finest 11
enthusiastic research “In medical care, artery guide wires are mostly used for treating cardiac conditions. Instead of only treatment we can also use these wires for diagnostic purposes at the same time. For many patients these simultaneous diagnoses will lead to discoveries that make the difference between life and death. On top of this societal relevance, for me it is a technological challenge, as it is hard to make data cables and sensors this size.”
“We now treat wastewater purely as waste, but we can get energy and nutrients out of it. My research is about several purposes with this wastewater. For instance, we are working on a concept for poor and rural areas in the world that have problems with waste and fresh drink water.”
“It is exciting as the topic is a completely new field in technology.”
“We work on quantum computing, to build an actual quantum computer in a matter of years.”
“And it’s very hard and you need to work multi-disciplinary.”
“Electronics on flexible materials like paper, that is what I research. I’m here not mainly for the academic research, but it is a logical extension of my master thesis. Doing a PhD programme has a high challenging factor, you’re the only one doing it and you have to be able to do the research.”
I research the transformation of existing cities. I’m curious how an integrated design tool can help achieve historical continuity in urban design while globalisation and modernisation alter our current urban environments.
“I come from an environment with people who have emotional connection to product collections. I work at Industrial Design Engineerin to research the symbolic meaning in products.”
“My research is about decentralised air transportation networks, a complex and multidisciplinary subjects that combines for instance electronics, mathematics, and human interactions. It is challenging to people speak in different professional languages, on top of that it’s an international effort with many countries around the globe participating.”
PhD: research at its finest 13
WHAT IS A PhD candidate Before you think we are stating the obvious: of course we know that PhD candidates come in all SORTS and SIZES but at the same time they DO recognise that they have a common identity. So before saying anything about how they perceive their work, what challenges them, and above all how supervisors and trainers should take in to account their specific characteristics – let us first give them a chance to define themselves as PhD candidates. Ana: “PhD candidates are a different species; they talk differently, they walk differently.” Jiaxiu agrees: “We distinguish ourselves from many others with our analytical minds, as we even question everyday common things in life. In China, my home country, female PhD candidates are often considered a third gender.”
Franca acknowledges the curious and analytical minds of the candidates: “We are very passionate about our research and are practically incapable of talking about anything else... and we like to go our own way.” Heiko agrees and emphasises this ambitious approach: “We try to acknowledge and push the state of the art,.
Michiel provokes: “A PhD candidate is a bit of an idiot too. In industry we would get paid 50% more by doing the same job. But part of being a PhD candidate is that we are not here for the money; we are mostly intrinsically motivated to do the research thoroughly.” Mafalda: “In that we are confused, structured, ambitious, and try to work as autonomously as we can. We share these traits, along with common
It is a mission taken very seriously, and some don’t know when to stop. Michiel: “We can be driven. Our intrinsic motivation is so strong, that it can become obsession-like.” And sometimes it is hard to see the difference between devotion and obsession. Alex adds: “Indeed, we sometimes don’t go outside anymore, we practically live in our office space or in the lab.” James, colleague of
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the former two: “We check our experiments during the weekend. It may not be healthy behaviour, but it could make the difference in being successful or not. And it is a choice we make.” And it is not the only choice that distinguishes them.
jokes and typical things we have encountered in the first year. That is what bonds us.” Supervisor Ibo agrees that what sets them apart is their drive, their internal compass: “It is their willingness of constantly going deeper into the matter. And some can be very stubborn in doing so.” Supervisor Hans: “Once they are committed, you can easily lock them in a room and forget about them for two months. Afterwards you’ll find out that they have been working continuously that whole time.” Jack: “Supervisors often expect a candidate to have intrinsic motivation to do science and, importantly, to learn as a scientist and as a person.”
“A different species” Yes, we recognize Ana’s, Jiaxiu’s and the others’ inclination to set PhD candidates apart from the crowd. And that goes beyond the fact that they are quite a bit smarter than the average Joe or Jane. In training them, we clearly see that… They are very smart and rational. When you guide or support them, definitions and terminology should be clear, rules should be undisputable and stated upfront, and most of all facts should never be contradictory, for they will be dismissed relentlessly and almost without questions asked. Morality and honesty. When faced with a morally ambiguous case, the PhD candidate has a strong feeling for right and wrong. There is no grey scale: they expect their colleagues and themselves to do the work with all cards on the table and interpersonal politics should of course never play a role in doing true and just research.
What is a PhD candidate
a phd candidate and “the rest of them”
What is a supervisor
One of the things we hear most when providing PhD candidates with advice or observations is: “That might be true for some people, but it does not apply to me”. This tendency to think that general rules or patterns might apply to the general public but not to them might reveal something about how PhD candidates perceive themselves in relation to “the rest”. Somewhere and somehow “being different” – perhaps by always having been smarter than the rest, more ambitious or more single-minded - seems ingrained in their train of thought. Perhaps to achieve great dreams, one might deem it necessary to escape the “normal” thoughts and patterns that govern human beings. Based on this observation we entirely left the idea behind that in training or coaching we could present PhD candidates with uniform advice or conclusions on how to successfully achieve their goal and obtain their degree. Instead, we ask questions, we give them models and formulas about behaviour and development that
We asked the PhD candidates to answer the question who inspires them. Alex: “Well, our supervisor in quantum physics really does.” His fellow candidate James adds apologetically: “Yeah, I guess it’s a bit of a canned response, but I totally agree”. Michiel: “He has a very intuitive way of working and so much experience and knowledge”. Franca: “To me, supervisors are smart people. Strong on the content, but also socially. I hope to learn a lot from them.”
s e o d s i h t y l p p a t no
they can wrestle with and creatively apply to themselves and share stories from predecessors they can relate to, without giving the impression that the path of their predecessor is necessarily theirs. Oh, and if you yourself are a PhD candidate (or have been one), then chances are that you are reading this fragment while thinking “this does not apply to me”. Just like many of your fellow PhD candidates.
What makes a supervisor a good supervisor? That depends greatly on the PhD candidate’s needs. And those needs have shifted through the years. Ana: “Five to ten years ago PhD candidates said that they wanted their supervisors to be their supporters in -whatthe PhD does and -how- the PhD does that. Nowadays PhD candidates seem to be more assertive and they would rather
have a supervisor who encourages them by challenging them on the content of their research.” Supervisor Rudy: “I show my PhD candidates news articles about their topic in the news, so they experience the relevance of their research – to get them going. On top of that, I believe supervisors need to show the candidates that they know more then they give themselves credit. So I help them see that and also exchange their knowledge with other candidates. This way the candidates can plan ahead in their own projects.” Supervisor Anne: “The candidates are doing a lot of work, but often the professors are given the credit; e.g. with interviews on tv, publications, or social media. A good supervisor recognises the pivotal moments in the candidates’ lives and knows when to give the stage to them.”
What is a supervisor 17
Balancing the wake-up call for young researchers In my opinion, supervising a PhD candidate is a lot about balancing. First, a PhD candidate is always part of a research team. Thus, a balance has to be found between the individual work on a unique PhD thesis and the work with and in a team of more or less experienced researchers. Secondly, a lot of passion is needed to keep up being motivated for a long time (4 years!), being dedicated to one research endeavour, which should be balanced with the ability to
e c n e i r e p x e m o d e e r f e th s g n i h t o d to n w o r i the y a w
assess realistic targets within the process. Thirdly, a balance should be found between autonomy and the ability to accept guidance. For a PhD supervisor, this means that balance has to be found between guidance and ‘letting go’ of the PhD candidate. This balance has to be defined individually for every PhD candidate, as they are first of all individuals, open and curious towards beginning a new adventure, allowing a supervisor to accompany this exciting venture.
Leading versus managing PhD candidates If an ethnologist would study PhD candidates, he or she would probably take note of their – at first glance - paradoxical nature. On the one hand they admire, sometimes even revere, the seniors that are farther along in their academic paths, but on the other hand the PhD candidates can be quite stubborn when these seniors try to steer them into a specific direction. A closer look might teach us that there are two distinct forces in play here. The one being the attraction of role models that have already entered a place they admire, the other being the question whether they themselves experience the freedom to do things their own way. The first – the tendency to truly admire professors – is not surprising: the given that research is novel means there is not a predefined and clear way of doing things. Role models are the rare reference points in modelling successful PhD behaviour. Concerning the latter, sensing that you have a certain discretionary space to develop your own line of thought and research, seems to be instrumental in creating and upholding the motivation, flexibility and creativity to successfully finish a PhD trajectory. Therefore, a role model that tries to steer or control them might not longer be a role model. If there would be a maxim, it is that one might lead or inspire PhD candidates, but never manage or control them. Supervisor Anne is quite clear on this concept: “My role is guiding them. Some expect that the professor will explain what to do, but the professor’s don’t and they shouldn’t as well. The PhD candidates have to get used to coming up with their own ideas and own the research themselves.” Supervisor Ibo further specifies: “A supervisor is someone willing to set aside his or her own opinion to develop the one of a PhD candidate. Give them confidence, clear-critical-and-positive feedback and help them break down the four years period.”
What is a supervisor 19
what it means to start a phd project It’s clear that once the new PhD candidate has finished shouting from the top of the mountains how great it is to have been accepted for the project, reality must and does kick in. The new researcher is now one person in a large academic organisation and exploring what that means implies navigating some rough territory. Supervisor Hans: “A PhD candidate was often the smartest student of the class.” The student was still dependent on clear guidance and set boundaries. “Once a candidate starts their own research project, everything is turned upside down,” Hans continues. In the first weeks it becomes obvious that the
candidates must transition from being consumers of education as they were as Masters students, to becoming independent researchers. “In the beginning of this transition they work quick. For instance, I had a PhD student who – after 3 months – said to be ready to start his project. I responded firmly that he needed to pick a bigger problem, for a PhD candidate should do excellent research. Candidates underestimate the sheer size of their research at first. After a while they discover it’s all up to them: publishing, visiting conferences, presenting, and defending their work as an independent researcher. And everything else.” And that complicates things.
t a h t d n a s e t a c i l p com
As the supervisor is giving guidance and support, others jump on the bandwagon as well. The Graduate School, copromotors, daily supervisors, the PhD mentor, colleagues in the research group, master students and for some maybe even industrial partners will all be either wanting attention or complicating the playing field for the PhD candidate. It is unclear who or what has priority. Candidates tend to get lost. Be aware however that they can
get lost in two different ways. First of all they can get lost in the organisation, the maze of demands that comes with the new role they are in. And secondly, they get lost in their research; this we call the PhD vacuum. The two are interwoven, especially as they both have to do with the relationship of the PhD candidate and others, mostly his/her (daily) supervisor. Recognising the difference or at least trying to untangle the two can be helpful for finding direction again.
What it means to start a PhD project 21
Defining the role – becoming who you are Instead of being on the receiving end of the education the university offers, the PhD candidate is now a part of academia: a setting with many players, a specific culture, and all sorts of expectations. This is a rude awakening for the ones who expected to come and ‘do research’ for four years. As Franca points out: “People ask you to do things that distract: can you give a presentation, can you give a course, can you do this, and that. Sure we’d like to help, but we need time for our research too.” Heiko clarifies: “We are not lost because we see no options, we are lost because we are overwhelmed by the amount of choices to make.” Ana adds that especially supervisors regularly seem to forget this: “But the choices are the candidate’s to make.” At first the choices may seem to be about planning and fine-tuning the research focus, but there are so many more choices to make and all choices are interconnected. The PhD candidate and the supervisor both have a vested interest in the successful progress of the research project, and it is easy to only talk about research in the meetings. However, the stumbling blocks often have to do with the capability of the candidate to deal with his/her surroundings
and the supervisor has a role here that both need to recognise. In our fast changing world, people increasingly need to be able to respond intelligently to unknown situations – and this is even more so for the PhD candidate, as s/ he by definition operates in the context of the unknown. Therefore the ability to adapt, learn new skills, and continually assess personal capabilities is essential. This ability we call personal leadership and supervisors have a role in supporting the development of this and the PhD candidates needs to realise the necessity of it. In this way it is a part of the relationship between the supervisor and PhD candidate and the way the supervisor helps the candidate in his/her long-term career and not just the research. You might expect that the relationship a candidate has with his supervisor is malleable for both. Maybe for the supervisor it is, but the candidate does not necessarily experience this to be the case. As the candidate is new to this academic environment (and often cultural differences play a role as well), the candidate often takes this relationship as a given fact – not aware that s/he has the freedom to shape this professional relationship as well. Trainer Laurens: “More than half
of the PhD candidates during the first training days indicate to be hesitant in shaping the relationship with their supervisor. After all, the candidates realise they are the newcomers and the majority prefers the follower/re-active position for a while. Some for a long while.” Supervisor Jack gives the following advice to PhD candidates on
We are not lost because we see no option s
how to get his/her researchobsessed promotor to help with the career: “Try to be honest and open with your supervisor. Make clear what you expect/what you are missing. Showing a genuine interest in what motivates your supervisor may help too.“ After all, this professional relationship is an investment for both people involved.
‘Personal development’ is not a trigger Supervisor Rudy: “Personal Development – knowing that you’re not able to something and later discovering that you have become able.” While some people lighten up when they are offered an opportunity for personal development, many PhD candidates seem to have an allergy for “personal development”. And how it is usually addressed is vague, not result-driven and “really doesn’t apply to me”. Training in personal development for instance often asks for divergent thought, slowing down and for a moment letting go of a to do list, while the everyday reality of a PhD candidate pushes for convergent thought, speeding up and tightly holding on to a to do list. Living in a world where there is much more to do than is possible in the time that is given – and being completely responsible for it yourself – taking time for personal development is a vacation you didn’t ask for. While at the same time it might be the one thing that can really help and support PhD candidates in their challenges. Therefore, we tend to frame the aspects of training that specifically tend to personal development not as personal development and not as a vacation from actually doing things that are considered relevant in the context of a PhD trajectory. We frame personal development as challenges that need a solution. Instead of asking them whether they experience a lot of solitude and whether they need to improve on general themes that are not directly attached to attaining the results for today - like pro-activity, cooperation, networking and being sociable – we ask them to, together with fellow PhD candidates ‘reflect, and then devise an effective strategy’ for these themes as they see fit. Like this, they experience a sense of urgency, self-relevance and see the opportunity to actually translate discoveries concerning self-development into palpable and relevant actions and guidelines. Instead of asking PhD candidates how they “feel” about the relationship with their supervisor for instance, we ask them how they “think” about the relation with their supervisor and on how to make this relationship more effective. The result is that they overtly reflect on their feelings and start making strategies based upon their feeling, without stepping into their allergy.
What it means to start a PhD project 23
“Great, but HOW does one become independent, HOW does one become a critical autonomous thinker, HOW does one have fun during the research project? Some very concrete advice I give my students is to build in regular moments of reflection. For instance, why not take an hour every Friday, sit down (preferably NOT behind your desk) and think about your development, about your learning goals, your progress, your struggles, et cetera. Ask yourself questions like: am I on the right track? Am I still enjoying myself? Do I get enough from my supervisor? Am I still working on the right topic? Why is it so hard to interact with colleague X? Could I benefit from the input of person Y?
It is tempting to be very critical, and come to the conclusion that you still haven’t finished your PhD thesis. So you must be doing everything wrong, right? Try to give yourself some credit, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Formulate realistic learning goals, and concrete actionable routes to obtaining these goals. If you fail to reach them, don’t despair: reflect on why this happens and change your strategy. While this may all sound a bit straightforward, the key is to make the time to actually do it, and change from a reactive to a proactive person. Bottom line: reflection takes time, but it is so important that you owe it to yourself to free up this time.”
JEROEN DE RIDDER
The vacuum What is this PhD vacuum? There is a great variety in how PhD candidates start their research projects. Some arrive at TU Delft on the basis of a very well defined research project with clear and specific goals and deliverables. Others come in with just a title or topic and will spend a lot of time exploring what the project needs to be about. However, in both cases the PhD candidate will experience a vacuum. There is an expectation that the supervisor will tell them what to do, in topic, in approach, in literature choice, in framing the project, etc. But they are no longer students and quite intentionally the supervisors leave them to their own devices.
t n e d u t s m fro t n e d n e p e d n i o t r e rch
The PhD candidate can get frustrated with this and complain that the supervisor is unavailable or disinterested or even that he or she doesn’t seem to know the topic very well. The supervisor of course is looking on, but is also creating this research vacuum deliberately so as to stretch the PhD candidate in to taking risks and thereby becoming autonomous. This ‘giving the PhD candidate ownership over their own project by making them feel it’ is experienced very differently by the PhD candidates. Some love it, some hate it. This freedom of choice also defines the relationship with the supervisor. It is a balance between dependence and autonomy, which changes
throughout the project towards the moment when the PhD candidate knows more than the supervisor about the topic. Now the PhD candidate can and needs to “go rogue”, i.e. choosing topics of investigation, initiating the paper write-ups, etc, and to do this even if her advisor is insisting s/he should do something else. This vacuum is tough for the beginning PhD candidate. Candidates Michiel and Alex say: “As a PhD candidate you are dependent on your supervisor’s budget, facilities, and initial knowledge on the subject – to name a few. Your supervisor has to give you direction, but you also want to make your own choices to explore your own research path.” But during the candidate’s search for balance in this transition ‘from student to independent researcher’, the supervisor too tries to find the right moments to give instructions, to coach, or to let the candidates find their own way. Supervisor Hans: “If you supervise too much they don’t become independent, if you supervise too little they don’t become researchers. That fine line depends on each PhD candidate.” For some supervisors finding the right way is not easy and can confuse the PhD candidate. PhD candidate Mafalda advises from experience: “Don’t regularly change the way you treat PhD as students or autonomous researchers.”
What it means to start a PhD project 25
Fortunately there is a big difference between ‘letting them go’ and ‘dropping them and letting them drown’, as Franca puts it. Not everyone recognises that difference at first. Jiaxiu: “At the start, I asked for clear tasks and goals, but the supervisors said this was my project, and that I had to learn to shape it myself and collaborate with different agencies.” She expected 26
supervisors to be supportive by giving instructions. This situation forced Jiaxiu to be more autonomous in her research approach: “I put matters in my own hand, and I discovered that my ideas were more original and the ideas became more and more creative over time.” This positive spiral encouraged her to go her own way.
the ideas became more and more creative over time
Both processes of defining your role in the organisation and in finding your own research niche, involve risk taking. This ‘going your own way’ can scare candidates. James: “Our freedom is attractive – but risky. If things go wrong you only have yourself to blame.” Supervisor Ibo: “Indeed, once you make your own choices, people can criticise your way of working. In that sense you are vulnerable.” Though this vulnerability seems unavoidable, PhD candidates need time to get there.
for us to make them understand that what they actually did in the simulation is just as applicable in real life – e.g. in going head-tohead with supervisors and starting a focused conversation with strangers. Having learnt to walk on a narrow plank on the floor, and then walking the same plank lifted 1 meter in the air might not feel the same, but it involves the same newly learned motoric skills. By putting the same skills into every day practice, the candidate will find out there is no difference.”
Trainer Laurens: “When we do a simulation game during a training day, many candidates fearlessly try out new social behaviour, e.g. by acting more persistent, focused, or relaxed than they usually are. And the majority succeeds with flying colours, expanding their circle of influence in new ways! Afterwards the participants say they dared to take the risks they took, because during a simulation game there were no serious consequences. It’s a challenge
So candidates have to go for it, and that takes guts. Rationally speaking, the challenge for the PhD candidate lies in recognising the difference between being courageous and being reckless. James: “If you don’t look critically at yourself and your work, you’re going to make mistakes.” Valid point, but when put into practice: if this ‘being self-critical’ leads to strong self-doubt, you won’t go far either.
What it means to start a PhD project 27
DOWNSIDE UPSERVATION We see that candidates know they have to be resolute and persistent in making choices
TOO MUCH Allergy
in their own research project and
the supervisor or promoter more in
in their careers, but many say they
making the tough research choices
are too self-critical to trust their own
â€“ but exactly that goes against the
professional judgement at first. When
agenda of the supervisors, who
they are told to be courageous and
in their turn are developing the
make a (bold) choice, they easily
candidateâ€™s independency by not
mistranslate this as if they should
giving the answers.
be reckless. The candidate trusts
What it means to start a PhD project 29
Supervisor Anne looks at it pragmatically: “Autonomy, risktaking, and guidance have delicate lines. Guidance to me means a meeting every two or four weeks where the candidate explains what he has done and suggests the next steps, and the supervisor helps with choosing.” And dynamics change over time, says supervisor Hans: “The biggest challenge for me as a supervisor is not to lose them. They have a long trajectory to go and it often happens that in the third year they get lost. Demotivated by a direction they took and didn’t work out, facing their own stubbornness, and realising the amount of work that needs to be done in so little time to catch up.”
Supervisor Rudy knows to put it briefly: “When candidates hesitate, I’ll help. When candidates show ownership, I let them go.” Candidate Miki and supervisor Anne think in similar lines: “The supervisors only have to give advice or confirm: leave the initiative to the PhD candidate, so the supervisor only has to confirm or correct.”
leave the initiative to the PhD c a n d i d a te s o the supervis o r only has to confirm or correct What it means to start a PhD project 31
work hard, play hard
PhD candidate Hoda: “The Head of the department of Architecture inspired me recently with his life story. He said: “Success is 10% talent and 90% hard working.” If you try hard, you can do better than someone with a great talent who is not working hard for it. This comforted me, because I was disappointed by the doubts about my work. The idea that working hard makes it possible gives me hope.” Supervisor Rudy: “Also people outside the university mainly see the candidates’ devotion as they give 120% of themselves every week.” All invested time is spent not only on doing focused research and flawless writing. “Many non-PhD’s don’t recognise the efforts candidates have to make, and how much skills they need to learn to perform well.” PhD candidates can seriously be consumed by their work. Willingly.
Ambitious business cultures often encourage a so-called “work hard play hard” mentality: alternating hard work with lush partying. PhD candidates might rather nourish a “work hard work hard” attitude though. PhD candidate James: “People are very serious about their work. They put a lot of themselves in their work, there are people having meetings at night and you get e-mails at 4:00 a.m.” Combined with taxing expectations from the outside as well as within, the long hours can put a lot of pressure on the candidates. Anxiety, stress, insecurity and a feeling of simply not being happy often come up. This is how a PhD candidate tends to answer when you ask him or her how to deal with the pressure of a PhD trajectory: Michiel: “Time-management” Saket: “Time-management” Mafalda: “Time-management” Miki: “Time-management”
Time-management as a panacea PhD candidates are confronted with an immense amount of choices and possible avenues to explore. When asked how to deal with this, PhD candidates often respond with “time-management’. So, when confronted with an enormous amount of decisions and complete responsibility, the tendency is to manage this by scheduling and prioritising. Although this possibly is a very useful tactic on the level of managing time, it would be a shame to limit the guidance of PhD candidates to time-management, just because that is the reflex the candidates themselves have. Being confronted with more autonomy and responsibility then ever encountered before, asks for more than structuring time and prioritising. It asks PhD candidates to be okay with not knowing what to do and dealing with high pressure and expectations. Managing time can help by structuring priorities, but doesn’t address what’s underneath: the challenge of autonomy. In other words: “You cannot time manage the challenge of autonomy”. Here, candidates can be greatly helped by self-reflection: knowing what their strengths and weakness are, so they can hold on to their strong points and work on their weak points, in times when they are drowning a bit in their trajectory. These are the times when it becomes a must to have a strong network, that can support them when confronted with questions on content and method, but on a personal level as well. Seeing other PhD candidates struggle with the same challenge of autonomy and helping each other develop strategies to cope with internal expectations as well as working on skills for decision-making, networking, reflection and problem solving are potent tools in managing autonomy. By the way, the same might go for supervisors. Supervisor Hans: “The supervisors have a lot to do: you have to read all their work, they give you a lot of paperwork, but you have to read is word by word.”
Work hard, play hard 33
PROFESSIONAL NETWORKING The TU Delft encourages researchers to network: go to conferences and collaborate on research. Also supervisors Hans, Rudy, and Anne indicated to encourage their PhD candidates to seek out each other: together they know far more then they give themselves credit for. And they need to be encouraged, because for many networking does not come instinctively. Laurens: ”Before a training starts, if we have a room with 8 tables and each table has several chairs, most days the first 8 participants will each be sitting at a different table. It is surprising to see how many new PhD candidates tend to start a conversation only when forced to. But once they start talking, there is no stopping them either.”
t o n n a c u Yo e g a n a m e tim e g n e l l a h the c my
“I nurture professional exchange between my colleagues,” says PhD Heiko. “It is mutually beneficial because (a) it will help young candidates to think in a more structured way and (b) the older PhD’s can understand how supervising works. The TU Delft could benefit from its current day-to-day approach of testing each other’s ideas, to a more sustainable relationship between older and younger PhD candidates. In the mean time, the candidates have to do this by themselves.“ Networking and collaboration ask you to step out of your comfort zone.
Professional networking 35
Candidates James, Alex, and Michiel agree: “We are surrounded by people who know better than we do and they are fully devoted to their work. Sure, our colleagues are open to newcomers and have never been condescending to us, but we still feel like idiots compared to them when we have to ask trivial and simple questions. It can be stressful and tiring.” When professor Jack is asked how candidates should deal with researchers more experienced then themselves, he firmly answers: “Every professor was a student once. No one is perfect and even professors are insecure. Candidates should never deny themselves chances by being too shy: universities are places of learning and learning is a two-way, interactive process.” Trainer Laurens: “In training sessions many candidates wish
to change their professional relationship with specific others or colleagues in general. 90% of them can only think of formal ways to do just that, often limited to ‘a precise question or request to that person’. There are so many options they overlook: using their colleagues to meet others, talking about the weekend, having an informal lunch with someone, or joining the Friday Afternoon Drinks (Dutch: VrijMiBo) to mention a few. Eye-opening options for many PhD candidates, especially those of foreign origin who still have to find out how the Dutch respond to informal contact.” And some like to go for it. Franca: “I get inspired by talking with other PhD candidates, their supervisors, the whole department – sometimes just talking with a colleague during a coffee break; even a simple remark can give you new directions and clues.”
Diversity in peer group networks PhD candidates tend to spend most of their time in their own research groups with people who are closely related in discipline. Therefore their immediate circle of influence consists of people from the same ‘mold’. Fundamental theoretical physicists for example think differently than design engineers, they really do. There is a whole palette of sorts of researchers within the university. Networking more broadly than your own discipline has many advantages for the PhD candidate. Heterogeneous groups are very efficient in problem solving.
Ev e r y r o s s e prof a s a w e c n o t n e d u st “A thing worth stressing is the importance of interacting with others. This is also something that takes time, and might need a conscious effort: don’t wait until people come to you, but be proactive and approach others. Many students find it hard to say to their colleague: “Hey, do you have five minutes? I need some input, and I think you may be able to help me.” But when you ask them what they would do when they were asked this question, the answer is always positive!
Another typical thought is: “I don’t want to talk to anyone yet, because the problem is still not even clear for myself.” How silly! Why not just pitch the parts you do understand, and see what comes back? Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. If you notice this doesn’t come easy: formulate a learning goal and reflect each week on the steps you took and successes/failures you obtained en route to reaching this learning goal.”
JEROEN DE RIDDER
People come at the problem from such different angles. In this differentiation it is not only discipline that is important, but also variation in gender, nationality, culture, educational/work experience, etc. The university is the most wonderful breeding ground for multicultural and multidisciplinary PhD peer groups. These peer group networks are a very strong force that the PhD candidates can and should be encouraged to tap in to.
Professional networking 37
SOCIAL NETWORKING Candidate Heiko was used to a strong social network of PhD researchers in the United States:
“I’m usually quick at meeting new
of PhD candidates at the TU Delft:
people, but the TU Delft has a different
former Dutch students – who already
approach to networking and I had to
know their way – and international
get used to that. Participating in the
students who don’t. The latter are
PhDStartUp course helped me a lot,
challenged by not having an initial
and I decided to start a Facebook
social network to start with, but they
group for TU Delft’s PhD candidates.
also lack knowledge of everyday
It now holds over a hundred souls,
things in the Netherlands, e.g.
and we regularly meet for all sorts of
opening a bank account or having a
informal events to stay in touch.”
mobile phone. The Facebook group
Heiko sees two different populations
serves both populations. Professional networking 39
Once the professional networking starts, whether it is project related or not, loyalty issues kick in. PhD candidates discover that academia is not just content and that often scarce resources, positions or opportunities must be shared by many highly ambitious people that inhabit the university. Which means there are people with different interests and one has to make choices in professional relationships. Some work clashes are mild. PhD Mafalda: “In our research team serious challenges relate to the abstract research vision and practical choices in timemanagement of our research.” These are work-field related choices, but fortunately that’s not all. “Team members are born in different countries as well; we do not only speak different languages, we see our research from different cultural backgrounds as well.” But sometimes politics clash with the PhD candidate’s independency. PhD Franca:
“We have companies involved in our research, they push us to make things that work and are applicable. That’s all fine, but as a PhD researcher, your approach needs to be academic. That pulls you into all kinds of directions.” This also touches the delicate subject of independency of academic research in general. Jack says the solution is to lay your cards on the table: “The supervisor can help by discussing conflicting interests between academia and industry, so the candidate can afterwards address this issue with his or her industrial sponsors.” But also internally the TU Delft’s departments are not infallible. PhD Michiel notices contradicting expectations: “Our faculty for instance has its own departments that share similarities with those on the bigger scale at the TU. Just as in any other organisation, for an employee it can be quite opaque whose regulations I should follow when the two departments give me conflicting instructions.”
fun is when it works
how about fun? PhD Michiel: Fun is.. looking at your measurement and seeing what you want
are working on research.” Having fun and doing work seem to be two entirely different worlds, with different rules and regulations.
PhD Heiko: .. is when it works! PhD Hoda: …is the moment when you receive the acceptance of a paper, article PhD Mafalda: … is animals, rabbits, friends, family and food “It is forbidden to ask work-related questions in leisure time,” says PhD candidate Mafalda. Supervisor Ibo confirms: “Never invite a PhD candidate to a party when they
Jack: “For some it helps to schedule free time as if it were a professional activity, having activities firmly planted in your agenda helps – it prevents you from filling the gap in your agenda with TU-related work. For example, it has helped me tremendously to become a member of a beach angling club rather than to rely on my own initiative to go angling on a regular basis.”
On fun and work One might challenge this strict separation of having fun and work. Having fun not only triggers relaxation and happiness, but also a set of skills and characteristics that may be extremely useful whilst actually working on a PhD. Having fun triggers improvisation, puts into perspective boundaries and expectations, helps coping with unexpected occurrences, and helps in connecting to others. Where PhD candidates at work often try to deal with setbacks and challenges in a very serious manner – it is serious business isn’t it? – they might be more effective and at ease if they would allow themselves not to restrict fun to the times when they are out of office.
How about fun? 41
FROM PAPER PRODUCTION MACHINES TO PEOPLE
Challenge and vulnerability Sometimes it can be hard to assess whether a PhD candidate at a given moment can (or: must) be pushed harder or should rather be supported and unburdened. PhD candidates can also often be perceived as giving mixed, paradoxical signals: on one hand they want to be challenged, while on the other hand they struggle rigorously and need support. An explanation might be that candidates seem to be hard on the outside and soft on the inside, and it might be best to treat them as such.
Sure, it’s easy to say that any employer is a human being too – anyone can figure that out. The TU Delft has made serious and successful attempts to make supervisors involve the human side of PhD candidates when guiding them – in regulations, involving PhD mentors, and training the supervisors. Then why do many PhD candidates still indicate they are often still not seen or treated as such? PhD Miki: “Many PhD candidates struggle with supervisors who give them only tasks and not see them as a person with a personal story. A good supervisor knows what’s going on in the life of the PhD candidate.” To give a few examples: PhD Alex was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the TU Delft; Jiaxiu had to overcome her loneliness being far from home; PhD Hoda was cultureshocked when experienced how the very direct Dutch seem to have a different view on privacy than she had known. Supervisors can accommodate this.
With the hard outside we mean their intellectual capabilities that need Quote
“Several years ago we had a riot in our faculty of 40-50 PhD candidates strong. They exclaimed: ‘We are not paper production machines. No one treats us as human beings asking us how we are.’ We clearly had to change our angle, and so we did. We now have more personal contact with them: as a result, we recognise the stress of their go/no-go moment and even the dip afterwards.”
And there are practical, fun, and effective approaches. Supervisor Hans applied one for the informal side of work: “We bought some IKEA couches and a wooden table with chairs, and a foosball table – when people come in, they become friends quickly and they can relax. Candidates regularly stay till 10 p.m. in the lab and they need some relax time too. They treat the university as their home.” He continues on a more personal note: “I will never forget their personal questions. Some people regard you as a father: I had a
to be challenged as much as possible. PhD brains might be considered “machines” that run on complex questions instead of gasoline and thrive under high pressure of ideas and rational dilemma’s. With the soft inside we mean the more personal aspects of their character, that in the academic world are often a bit harder to accommodate appropriately and ask for quite a lot of support. One might also formulate it thus: be hard (or: challenging) on the content of a PhD trajectory, but soft (or: supporting) on the relation and the personal side of things.
girl PhD candidate who asked about a wedding proposal by her boyfriend and someone asking about how to deal with a child.” James: “In general it would be good to have a better understanding of mental difficulties during the PhD programme. Some people need to pause their projects, and some professors don’t get that and put even more pressure on the candidates. It is important to build a personal relationship with PhD candidates, to have a laugh, talk about the weekend and genuinely ask how the candidate is.”
But not everyone is genuinely interested in someone else’s weekend. Fortunately there are enough ways to connect to the PhD candidate in a different than strictly operational way: Mafalda: “Not only the PhD candidates are human beings, so are the supervisors. The best way for a supervisor to deal with the human side of PhD candidates is to show their own human side too.” Supervisor Ibo adds: “It has been a long time since I was a PhD student, and it’s hard to remember how I felt then.” And sharing that could make the relationship mutually open.
From paper production machines to people 43
Being a PhD candidate: what does it take, what does it bring? Most PhD candidates start their journey with the dream of doing research for four more years: finally going deep, being able to sit behind the steering wheel and be passionate about that. Many have the idea that this is just the start of a nice and long research career, preferable in academia. What they cannot oversee is what is ahead, as they are all first timers. The road to a PhD degree is bumpy, far from straight and full of junctions - most of them without signs for direction. All that is present is a supervisor, who has navigated into the unknown before, but doesn’t know the way either. It brings uncomfortable feelings; one’s self esteem might get a real kick or even a few. How to deal with this?
One of the analogies I like to make is comparing a PhD to doing a sport at a serious level. Many PhD candidates, when asked, come up with something like the marathon. Not too bad a choice: it is a long way and it will wear you out. But I like the analogy with the chess player. Not only because it is more of an intellectual game. But because of what it can do to someone. If you run a hundred metres race, you might lose from someone who just runs faster. Not nice in top sports, but if you did the best you could: bearable. A chess player faces something else. As chess is a logical game, losing means also that you were too stupid to analyse it and see the moves coming. In other words: it hits on the person itself. You don’t lose from your opponent, you lose
from yourself. A PhD candidate has something like that: it is your thoughts and ideas, or the lack of those that count. Many PhD candidates roughly half way feel that they fail, that their supervisor is useless and is not willing to help. However, it is natural: supervisors push their PhD candidates to their limits. Moreover, they cannot give the answers and ideas. For one, because they don’t know either: it is research at the edge. But also because they need to make the PhD candidate a critical thinker, an independent researcher. What might be helpful for many PhD candidates is to realise that it is the journey that counts. Doing a PhD is like mountain climbing: it’s a struggle to reach the top. Once you are there, after 10 minutes you have to go back and work your
The trick is to enjoy the struggle of the walk
way to the next top. Unfortunately, no interesting summits without a long walk in valleys. The trick is to enjoy the struggle of the walk, and, obviously keep that smile of having reached the top all the way down into the valley.
What else does it bring? The possibility for personal development. That is found in doing the research, in trying to become autonomous, in going through tougher times. Moreover, it gives the opportunity to develop other skills that are important in any career, whether in academia or elsewhere. Growing in many directions, not just one. A PhD period offers that all, making it one of the most intensive periods of one’s life. I wouldn’t have missed It for the world!
Prof. Dr. ROB MUDDE
From paper-production machines to people 45
contact We are very interested to your response to this magazine: do you recognise the dynamics as they are depicted? Do you have a different view on certain themes that were addressed? Your reactions are most welcome at email@example.com. Check out the companion documentary here: 46
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Lessons learnt after guiding over 1.000 PHD candidates