Journey to a PhD: A view from the inside – Part 3

With this third installment, Delta continues a short series looking at the personal experiences of PhD candidates at different stages of the process and their supervisors.

Noeska Smit, PhD candidate Computer Graphics and Visualization, (EWI)

After finishing high school, PhD candidate Noeska Smit didn't go straight to university but instead worked as a radiographer for three years. She later decided to continue her studies and completed bachelor's and master's degrees at TU Delft in computer science. "I had so much fun during my master's thesis that I decided to do a PhD," she said.

But she soon learned that it's tough to keep up your motivation doing a PhD, noting that it requires a lot of help from your promoter and supervisor. This became a challenge for Smit when one year into the PhD her supervisor left academia. It was a shock she said, but she continued with her work until Dr. Anna Vilanova came along and "adopted" her. "She had a different style than my first supervisor and her research focus was a bit different from my project," said Smit. "We both had to adjust to working together but luckily it worked out well."

When she started the PhD Smit knew that endurance was a big deal. Getting a lot of rejection from reviewers has taught her that knowing when to quit is also important. One of Smit's papers got rejected three times and she admits she might have done it differently looking back on it.

As for advice on doing a PhD, Smit said you have to stay organised. "Four years is a long time so you have to stay on track," she said. "You are responsible for the process. In the end, don't count on people to hold your hand."

Smit's research focuses on visualising medical data to provide more insight to the physician. It has involved a joint project with clinicians and medical researchers from Leiden University Medical Center. The work is something that she is uniquely suited to. "I have a background in the medical field and computer science," said Smit. "I can speak both to technical people and medical people." Now near the end of her PhD, Smit has accepted a research position in Bergen, Norway.

Dr. Anna Vilanova – Associate Professor, Computer Graphics & Visualization Group (EWI)

Originally from Catalonia, Dr. Anna Vilanova came to the Netherlands in 2002 and worked as an assistant professor at TU Eindhoven. Although she joined TU Delft in 2013, she still works one day a week at Eindhoven.

One of the biggest challenges in her position, Vilanova said, is that the system expects professors to be good at many different things like research, education, supervising students, getting grants and management. "Switching back and forth between projects and tasks is not always easy," she said. Amongst her other responsibilities, Vilanova currently supervises five PhDs, which she feels is on the upper limit.

The challenge of finding good PhD candidates is part of the juggling act that professors deal with on a daily basis. "Ideally you want PhDs to be someone you know or from your network," she said. "In an open call, you get a lot of CVs. For one call I went through 170 CVs. You don't want to make a bad match." Before hiring someone Vilanova normally does an initial Skype interview and meets them in person to make sure there is a good fit for both sides. She noted that she tries to make choices based on content but also on other skills.

When it comes to supervising Vilanova said she takes a coaching approach with her PhDs, trying to get the best out of them. As a PhD candidate, she said, you become an independent researcher and you have to work on your own. But despite the challenges, Vilanova said it's very rewarding to see them grow. "I really enjoy supervising my students, having discussions and finding solutions," she said. "You learn things every day. I can't always go as deep into every project as I would like, but I try to go as deep as needed to give direction and guidance."

You can read the next story in this series on October 24, 2016. You can also read the first and second installments of the series.