Evaluating Ph.D. Programs – My own experience at the VU University (Vrije Universiteit) in Amsterdam

This is in response to John Anderson’s re-opening the discussion on Ph.D. programmes.
When people ask me why I’m working on my Ph.D at the VU University (Vrije Universiteit in dutch) in Amsterdam [Netherlands], I sometimes tell them that it had to do with the simplicity of the application. I wrote an email to the supervisor I wanted to work with and a few weeks later he wrote back agreeing to be my supervisor. And hence I was accepted. I’m somewhat joking when I say this, but the story is true – minus, of course, the personal connections and the complicated elements.

Five years ago, I took advantage of a loophole related to my parents’ country-of-origin and the year of their immigration, and I applied for and receive dutch citizenship with very few difficulties. This citizenship (or a citizenship in any EU country) removes many of the complicated elements of residency and regulations and costs of living and studying and working in the Netherlands.

The email to my supervisor mentioned above had been intended as a sort of inquiry into whether my studying there would be feasible – an introduction into who I was, what I was interested in, and a mentioning that I studied under and worked for people that he admired and appreciated. I had considered it to be the beginning of a rather long complicated process, and in some ways it was, but in other ways it wasn’t, as I had the guarantee of acceptance (the support of a supervisor) right from the beginning.

The entire manner in which I describe my acceptance here gives some idea of how different the European system is compared to the American system. Things are changing so that the systems are somewhat more in line with each other (although the system in Germany still follows more of the older European system), but there are still many significant differences that should be noted, such as:
– the lack of classes and comprehensive exams prior to starting writing one’s dissertation. The assumption is that the student has learned all these things prior to starting their Ph.D work – or will learn them along the way. The Netherlands, or at least the VU University, is moving towards encouraging students to get (the second year of) a Research Master, where they would receive some course work and write a chapter of their dissertation or a mini-version of it, before beginning. Yet, it is still possible to enter immediately into the dissertation writing phase of the Ph.D. program if one has a solid proposal, a long writing sample related to this proposal, and the support of a Ph.D. supervisor. This leads us into…
– the necessity of the student to have a topic when they begin. One’s acceptance into the Ph.D. program is based on the acceptance of one’s research proposal and the support of a Ph.D. supervisor. This topic can be outlined/provided by the supervisor and the student then agrees to be employed for four years working on the topic with the results becoming their dissertation. This strange system is related to the fact that..
– one is not considered a student if one is working on a Ph.D. in the Netherlands. One is an employee who is employed by the supervisor or by a grant institution to do research on a proposal that has been developed with the supervisor and/or approved by the grant institution. This factor makes it complicated in terms of visas and/or funding for people who are either not dutch or are not intimately familiar with the dutch system. One can receive a visa as a research scholar and one can get one’s Ph.D using one’s own resources – but there is no large scholarship system that is present in many American schools. At the same time,
– there is no tuition cost for getting one’s Ph.D. The lack of cost and the lack of classes makes it easier for people to work on their Ph.D. part-time, either in a different country or while working somewhere in the Netherlands (or while a spouse is working in the Netherlands). In this way, a Ph.D. is much more attainable assuming that someone is independent and ambitious enough. The most difficult factor is
– the influence/sway of the supervisor – anyone nearing the end of their Ph.D. is well aware that their relationship to their supervisor (and their ability to work/learn under him/her) plays a significant role in whether their dissertation gets finished in a timely overall pleasant way, or even whether it gets finished. In the Netherlands, I learned that one’s acceptance to the Ph.D. program is dependent on having a supervisor’s approval and help. As well, since most of the Ph.D. program is independent and one takes few classes, one can be quite isolated from the University’s faculty and even more dependent on one’s Supervisor.

In many ways, I’ve really appreciated the system here in the Netherlands. It’s been a good fit, as I expected based on the recomendations of people whose advice I sought before coming here. I have a lot of freedom to discuss things that I care about – and I’m allowed to ask questions in my dissertation about why what we’re reading actually matters (Something that’s not present everywhere). But sometimes the freedom of the system is a bit much. One can flounder for quite awhile, as it feels like there’s a lack of structure and I have to pursue for myself opportunities to connect with other scholars and determine what I need to learn further and where to go. Yet, at the same time I’ve really enjoyed the independence. I am not pushed to be “a certain kind of academic” and instead can develop my academic (and non-academic) side at a pace and in a manner that fits me (for which I am very thankful). To give me more freedom with time and my topic, I’ve chosen not to pursue the option of being employed by the university through a supervisor – and this has meant some complications with funding, but through a grant from my church denomination, some teaching opportunities, and my supervisor’s help in my receiving some temporary work doing researching and editing at the university, the funding has worked out fairly well (although a non-EU citizen would have to have more secure means of funding than I have in order to live here legally).

As a final thought – in looking at John’s comments, I’d have to say that I agree with him about a lot of things and it sounds like good advice (although in my situation I managed to bypass some of the common sense things because I was applying to a European institution).
– A good fit is very, very important. It is also very important to be able to live in a certain place, especially if one has a family.
– When looking at whether something is a good fit, of high importance is the reason one is getting a Ph.D. and whether this school will help achieve that. For me, I’m getting a Ph.D. because I love studying the Bible and I want to teach students (most likely Christian students) about why the Bible matters. Where I study now gives me the freedom and opportunity to ask those questions, while also challenging me to see things a bit more broadly than I had in my more sheltered former academic institutions.
– European schools aren’t interested in the GRE and don’t have the same acceptance rates as schools in America, which makes a difference in how you approach applications. If you can find a supervisor who has time and energy and is excited about your project, you’re in. Finding the funding for the project is a lot more complicated, especially if you are outside the EU, but the opportunity to get the Ph.D. is much more attainable.