Berend van Veldhuizen (Faculty 3mE) did his bachelor’s and master’s at TU Delft and has been a PhD Candidate at the Nautilus Project, where he works on making cruise ships more sustainable, since December. Van Veldhuizen has taken over from Vittorio Nespeca (Faculty TPM), whose focus areas during his chairmanship included the regulations surrounding corona delays and increasing the representation of the University PhD Council (UPC) on the Works Council. UPC’s activities revolve around subjects at TU Delft that are centrally rather than faculty relevant. It has members from all eight faculties.
You have been a PhD Candidate since December and are now already Chair. Tell us about it.
“I was looking for something to do next to my doctoral degree research for a while as the corona crisis had forced PhD Candidates to spend a lot of time at home and I hardly spoke to anyone. Through my Faculty PhD Council I heard that the central UPC was looking for someone. The UPC’s work seemed really useful and full of learning opportunities. It identifies the problems incurred by doctoral candidates and then tries to see what it can do about them through discussions and questionnaires for example. Very interesting. The position of Chair was still open so I thought why not go for the biggest challenge?”
There is a lot going on right now, and you yourself pointed to the corona crisis. How has the crisis affected the lives of doctoral candidates?
“Research by Promovendi Netwerk Nederland shows that many doctoral candidates – perhaps even as many as half of them – have psychological problems. The causes of the complaints are varied and one of them is a high workload. I believe that the corona crisis has made these problems worse. Preparing a doctorate can be lonely work and the corona crisis is pushing people into social isolation. The corona crisis is affecting international doctoral candidates especially. About 70% of the people doing PhDs come from abroad. While you start your PhD at TU Delft, you never actually go there and you do not have a social network. It is especially hard to build that social network if you are doing an individual type of doctoral degree research. We also see that the reduced contact with colleagues and supervisors means that some doctoral candidates do not know the basic things such as how to submit claims and other practical things. This led us to publish a PhD survival guide and practical information on our new website. We don’t want every individual PhD Candidate to have to reinvent the wheel.”
‘The doctoral candidates are such a more diverse group that it really is hard to reach every individual doctoral candidate’
During the last elections, the UPC did not manage to get a PhD Candidate on the Works Council. Are doctoral candidates being listened to enough?
“It is a pity that there is no PhD Candidate on the Works Council, but I do believe that we are being listened to more and more at TU Delft. The contact with the Works Council has strengthened considerably thanks to my predecessor Vittorio Nespeca, and we are well represented there. We meet with the Works Council regularly and if there are any major problems, we can also consult them. We did this when the financial space for contract extensions for doctoral candidates was delayed by the corona crisis, for example. We received complaints about both the communication and the implementation of this ruling. The Works Council signalled this to the Executive Board, as did the central trades unions, by the way.”
Did it help? In April the HR cited articles in Delta as one of the arguments that the ruling was communicated well, while Delta is an independent journalistic platform and as such does not fall under the communication channels.
“The communication to students is usually direct so the Executive Board sent an email earlier this year to all students. The communication to staff is also direct. But to doctoral candidates? That is a different story. For the covid regulations, the communication went through the deans and doctoral degree supervisors instead of through a central announcement or an email to all doctoral candidates. This could have been done better. But equally, the doctoral candidates are such a more diverse group that it really is hard to reach every individual doctoral candidate. We carry out research for TU Delft through all sorts of contracts and constructions. The one is directly hired by TU Delft, the other is barely registered and is paid through companies or grants. The one works closely with a research group, the other only has sporadic contact with his/her supervisor and hardly comes to campus. On top of this, TU Delft – and all universities in the Netherlands – does not have a complete list of how many doctoral candidates are connected to it directly or indirectly. This means that doctoral candidates in all sorts of subjects and in all sorts of rulings fall between the cracks. We too find the communications challenging. Previously, we communicated through the faculties’ PhD Councils which included our messages in their newsletters. That did not always work well though. We have now started a community on MS Teams, but not even one third of all the doctoral candidates have joined yet.”
‘We will also work on closing the gap between preparing the doctoral candidates for their post-doctoral degree period and the reality’
Where else do you want to put your efforts?
“We are keeping a close eye on the reimbursements for the corona delays. We will also work on closing the gap between preparing the doctoral candidates for their post-doctoral degree period and the reality. Two thirds of doctoral candidates ultimately find work outside the academic world, while the training given at the Graduate School mostly focuses on work without the academic world. We also want to understand why it is almost a matter of course that doctoral candidates take more time to finish than the time they are given. Four years is given to obtain a doctorate, but most doctoral candidates at TU Delft take longer than at other universities, and the most recent annual report shows that the so called doctoral returns – the percentage that finishes within five years – is only 49%. This means that more than half finish their research while working hard on applying for new jobs or even already working somewhere. This does not help anybody. Not the PhD candidate who is even busier, and not TU Delft as the PhD Candidate can spend less time on the research which affects the quality of the research outcomes.”
Why do you think that doctoral candidates often need more time?
“It’s hard to say without looking into it. What I myself see is that many doctoral candidates believe that teaching is an obligatory part of their doctoral degree. That is not the case, at least not in my Faculty. Here at 3mE you need to get 45 credits while working on your PhD. Of these, 15 credits fall under transferable skills. You can earn these by teaching – which takes quite a lot of time, attention and energy – or you can do things like taking certain courses. It is hard for PhD Candidates to set limits. They are ambitious and want to do their research well so they quickly fall into the trap of doing too much. This is certainly the case if they want to stay in academia where there is so much competition. It makes them feel that they can never do enough.”
How do you yourself set your limits?
“I am part of a large European consortium of 10 companies and four other universities. We do joint research and are working on a ship’s design. The latter is very practical work and it raises questions like what do you need to think about in terms of safety, what are the costs and so on. Where I have to be watchful is the amount of time I spend on the project and the amount of time I spend on my own research. This is hard as I really like getting as much out of the project as possible. I try to take on as many things as I can that are relevant for both my research and for the project. But perhaps I am more able to focus on my own interests than others. If my doctoral degree supervisor proposes something for my research that I do not think is a good idea, I say it. Then we can talk about it.”
How long do you plan to support doctoral candidates as Chair?
“Oh dear, it’s hard to say. As long as it is interesting and I can cope doing it on top of my doctoral degree, I think I would like to stay. I’m assuming at least one to one-and-a-half years.”
- Are you facing any problems during your doctoral degree period? Or do you want to support the UPC? Send an email to email@example.com.