For several years now, the University of Twente has been working to further professionalize its PhD programme. For instance, there is now a greater focus on personal development, societal responsibility, scientific integrity and academic training. Dr Paul van Dijk, Director of the Twente Graduate School, reviews the developments to date. “Current doctoral candidates have awarded the entire programme a grade of 7.4, or ‘very satisfactory’. I’m pleased with that, especially as we have already identified areas where there is room for further improvement. At the next evaluation, we would like to achieve a score of 8 or above.”
The most important governing factors for a successful PhD programme are the quality of research in the PhD candidates’s department and the quality of their day-to-day research supervision. Clarity and a streamlined support organization are a close second. In 2014, the University of Twente created a PhD Charter and a PhD monitoring system (ProDoc). The aim was to streamline the PhD programme, to prevent PhD candidates from dropping out, and to provide clarity – right from the outset – concerning the rights and duties of PhD candidates. “This meant we were one of the first universities in the Netherlands to clearly define the processes involved in its PhD programme,” says Van Dijk.
At the start of their PhD programme, candidates at the University of Twente draw up a training and supervision plan, together with their supervisor. One of the topics addressed by the plan is the supervision that PhD candidates can and should expect from the University of Twente. Furthermore, PhD candidates must earn 30 credits for courses in their field of study or to improve their academic skills. In other words, since 2014, PhD candidates need to demonstrate a wider range of proficiency in order to obtain their doctorate. Paul van Dijk feels that this is quite justifiable. “It is in keeping with social developments and is entirely consistent with the University of Twente’s overall philosophy,” Dr Van Dijk explains. “Our university’s goal is not just to generate PhD theses, but to produce highly trained individuals who have achieved wide-ranging personal development. Incidentally, you should not see these additional requirements merely as an extra burden. This way, you acquire a range of additional skills that you will need later on in your career. Moreover, you will quickly recoup the time you invested in an academic writing course, for example, when you start writing scientific articles.”
It is still too early to tell whether fewer candidates are dropping out or whether they are completing their PhD programmes more quickly. After all, the main changes only took effect three years ago, while it usually takes four years to complete a PhD programme. However, during this period, the first three candidates to complete their PhD programmes under the new system did so in just three years. Paul van Dijk feels that this is a hopeful sign.
The results of an initial survey of around 1,000 University of Twente PhD candidates have recently been obtained(it should be noted that, in addition to those graduating under the new system, the survey group included a number of PhD candidates who had started their programmes under the previous set-up). The response rate was nearly 50 percent, which qualifies as ‘high’. At any rate, Dr Van Dijk is satisfied about the main outcome – the average grade of 7.4 that doctoral candidates awarded their PhD programme. “A grade of ‘very satisfactory’ (...). At the next evaluation, we want to achieve a score of 8 or above.”
As is the nature of these things, the survey highlighted a number of points for improvement. For instance, it transpired that many of the courses for PhD candidates became fully subscribed far too quickly. To remedy this, The University of Twente has increased the frequency of some of the most popular courses and will make further improvements to the range of courses on offer in the course of 2017. The University of Twente is already working on other points for improvement, such as making the PhD monitoring system more user-friendly and improving the TGS website. Paul van Dijk also wants to make more PhD candidates aware of the existence of the PhD counsellor, who can help them deal with any problems they might have, at an early stage.
The most recent change, which took effect on 1 January this year, concerns the formal congratulations offered by the Rector (or deputy Rector) during the presentation of the doctoral degree. During this part of the ceremony, the PhD candidate is reminded that using the title of ‘Dr’ is a privilege, but one that entails certain responsibilities to society. For instance, PhD candidates are required to act honestly and transparently, and to be entirely objective when communicating the results and relevance of their work. According to Dr Van Dijk, “That too is in keeping with developments in society and with the University of Twente’s principles.”