The Challenge of Ph.D. work in the Netherlands (and Europe)

As mentioned previously, the system for getting a Ph.D. in the Netherlands is somewhat different than that in North America. More specifically, there is a difference in time, focus, and funding/cost. In the Netherlands, a Ph.D program is most often considered to be a 4 year full-time job, where one is hired to fill a need/grant to do research in a specific area, and this results in a Ph.D. at the end, assuming that the research is (also) published in the form of a dissertation. Thus, there are no required courses and no cost for the program. There is also limited opportunity to do one’s dissertation specifically on what one is interested in; one adapts one’s interests to the job/research opportunities available.

The other option is to choose to be an ‘outside’ Ph.D. candidate. This also has no cost and no course work. Acceptance into the program is based on the approval of one’s research proposal by the faculty and the presence of someone in the faculty willing to be the dissertation supervisor. This gives one much more flexibility concerning the topic and concerning time to finish. The only challenge is funding, which can be difficult to find. Hence, many outside Ph.D. candidates have a “real” job to pay the bills, and they work on their dissertation in their free time.

For a number of reasons, I’ve been following the second method. I’ve enjoyed the freedom to do what I want when I want. Funding has come from various places, most notably connections with my church back in North America and working temporarily for the Werkgroep Informatica of the Vrije Univesiteit (WIVU). This has provided me with enough money to live on (although not much more) and given me lots of experience in different areas, most notably teaching. So I don’t regret my choice, although it hasn’t exactly been much of a choice – I haven’t exactly seen any openings for research positions in my field of expertise. That changed, however, when the large general research body of the Netherlands decided to make a number of grants available to Ph.D. studies in several areas, including theology.

So all of a sudden there is the possibility that I received funding to do the research I want to do, on the research proposal that I’ve developed – a fairly unusual possibility in the Netherlands. This means that I’m jumping somewhat head-first into the language and culture of grant applications – a rather daunting process, but one that could serve me well, not only if I manage to receive a grant for my Ph.D. but also as I look for funding in years to come.


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