Universiteit Leiden

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Chuan Ming Ong

Is getting a PhD worthwhile? The 'Twijfeltraject' podcasts tries to find the answer

After one bachelor’s and two master's theses, Fenna IJtsma knew for sure: she wanted to do a PhD. Her thesis supervisor warned her about the high workload. In the 'Twijfeltraject' (PhD: to do or not to do) podcast, published by Mare, IJtsma explores with Mare editor Susan Wichgers whether a PhD track is really such a good idea.

'Shouldn't you make a podcast about this?' It is thesis supervisor Maartje Janse who puts the question to IJtsma, just after she has said that she wants to do a PhD. 'I really liked studying. I only knew university, so I more or less automatically wanted to continue in it,' says IJtsma, who at that point already had two podcasts to her name. 'Maartje then told me to think about it more carefully.'

From betas to outside PhDs

In the five-part Twijfeltraject podcast, IJtsma and Mare editor Susan Wichgers explore what a PhD track entails. Is it really the huge workload, temporary contracts and dozens of ancillary activities that Janse outlined, or still the dream job IJtsma saw in it? 'We pitched the podcast very broadly,' IJtsma says. 'I would like to do a PhD in History myself, but we also talk to science graduates and external PhD candidates. In the end, it's even a bit about how our generation views work. We hope that will make the story accessible and relatable to more people.'

Systemic problem

Although the individual circumstances may differ, the experiences of PhD candidates often turn out to be surprisingly similar. 'On the one hand, many of them are very enthusiastic about their PhD,' says IJtsma. 'They are very committed to the subject and have a lot of ambition and motivation. On the other hand, you see that almost everyone runs up against the fact that it’s a lot of work, also because they tend to do all kinds of things alongside it. Then you might think: “You’re making it difficult for yourself”, but the more we went into it, the more we found out that the system actually imposes that.’

The system actually imposes that PhD candidates do all kinds of things alongside it.

The financial system behind PhDs is what IJtsma calls the biggest eye-opener of the podcast. 'The university receives funds for each PhD, so projects often hire more PhDs than postdocs. But as a result the university trains many more PhDs than there are actual follow-up positions. That means there’s always going to be enormous competition.'

To do or not to do a PhD?

And does she really want to do a PhD herself? Living up to the title of the podcast, IJtsma is still unsure. 'When I graduated, I thought: I must have a dream job right now, otherwise all my professional knowledge will fade away. I’ve since discovered that the world outside university also has value, although I always thought I found all those 9-to-5 jobs boring. Maybe I just prefer to work on shorter projects anyway.' But it’s still there in the back of her mind. 'I think it makes a difference if you do your PhD without the ambition to necessarily continue in academia. Then becoming an external PhD candidate would definitely be an option.'

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