14 November 2017 • Arie Verhoef
The passion to do a PhD
So, what’s the fun about doing a PhD? You know when you start a PhD that it will not be a straightforward process. Despite this, lecturers at The Hague University of Applied Sciences take that first step every year. They submit a proposal for PhD research. And then they discover their passion to shape this type of research. We interviewed three lecturers and the chairwoman of the doctoral thesis committee at THUAS about their experiences.
THUAS attaches great importance to good PhD research. That was why all of our colleagues who gained doctorates in 2015, 2016 and 2017 were presented with a special figurine during THNK FST on 2 November as a sign of our appreciation. The figurine depicts a cyclist on the summit of a mountain and represents our colleagues’ journey during their PhDs. The three lecturers who we approached told us enthusiastically about their PhD process, their research and what they have learnt. And yes, we also touched on how this kind of research has turned their lives upside down. We will start by introducing the lecturers and the chairperson of the doctoral thesis committee.
Jos van Helvoort was awarded a PhD in 2016. ‘I have become much better at research methodology.’ Floor Scheffers has been working on her PhD for a year and a half and received a grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). ‘I’m very enthusiastic about what I can contribute to teaching.’ Antonio Frank started his PhD in September and also received an NWO grant. ‘The PhD process is allowing me to develop more as a lecturer.’ As the chairperson of the doctoral thesis committee, Sanne de Vries, who is the professor of the Healthy Lifestyle in a Supporting Environment Research Group, has the task of ensuring that the best people obtain a PhD in areas that are relevant for THUAS. ‘We want to achieve a win-win situation for lecturers, the teaching, research and society by increasing the size of our research community and focusing on our core themes.’
Fruit juice and shanty town
When Jos began his PhD thesis, many of his friends and acquaintances, including his wife, had already been through this. He found this stimulating. He has been a lecturer on the Information Services & Management and HBO-ICT degree programmes for years. His thesis examines the testing and evaluating of IT skills. Before he began his PhD, he developed a rubric for evaluating students’ IT skills. ‘This rubric had to be validated. Its reliability needed to be established. That took up a substantial part of my research.’
The subject of Floor’s research was completely different. She is a dietitian and epidemiologist and a lecturer on the Nutrition and Dietetics degree programme. Her research looks at the relationship between the consumption of fruit juice, fruit drinks and soft drinks and chronic diseases such as heart and circulatory diseases, diabetes and asthma. ‘Of course, this is directly relevant to the professional practice of dieticians. Among the things that I want to discover are whether fruit juice is a good substitute for fruit. So far, very little scientific research has been done on this.’
Antonio is a lecturer on the English-language degree programme in Safety and Security Management Studies. For his research, he will be visiting shanty towns in the city of Luanda in Angola. He is researching who is in charge of maintaining public security there apart from the police. ‘The police are absent or even a source of danger in some countries. I am looking at Luanda because I was born in Angola. I would like to do something good for the country.’
Enjoying the here and now
Joe is convinced that his PhD research is relevant for the teaching at THUAS. That is because his rubric is already being widely used to evaluate IT skills. But it goes beyond this: ‘After going through the PhD process I’ve become a better researcher. I’m also better at transferring my research skills to my students.’ Antonio is equally enthusiastic. ‘I receive training courses from the best professors. I gather data. I do research in the field. And I bring back all of this knowledge and experience to my classes.’
Floor is clear about the relevance of her research for her classes. ‘I’m constantly demanding better research skills from my students. This means that I have to be able to set a good example. Working on my PhD thesis has meant that I’ve been able to draw on current research for my classes. I’m able to pass on to my students what I’ve learnt from conversations with my two supervisors and my co-supervisor. Students have become involved with my research. This gives me a huge boost. I’m enthusiastic and I can see that they have become equally enthusiastic. I’ve learnt how to set the boundaries for my research. No, I’m certainly not doing this for the title of doctor. I’m enjoying the here and now. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to cope, as the PhD process would be too tough.
A passion for research
Jos identifies with Floor’s words. ‘Before you start, it’s important to ask yourself whether you can combine a PhD with your private life. It takes up so much of your free time. My wife has always supported me. However, I have had moments when I thought that I’d never finish. You need to be able to resist these.’
Sanne de Vries recognises this wholeheartedly. Her advice is to be prepared properly. ‘THUAS provides vouchers for a so-called “pre-thesis” which allow you to write a good research proposal. Of course, by this point you need to know what you want. You can then apply for external funding, such as from NWO, as Floor and Antonio did. You will then also have to compete with other applicants from across the country.’
For Sanne, if you want to write a good research proposal it makes sense to first become a member of a research group. ‘This allows you to do some exploratory studies on your topic and you will receive guidance from a professor.’ Here are a few more tips: ‘Make sure that your PhD research fits with THUAS’ profile. It has to be relevant for the degree programme on which you are a lecturer and for the occupational group that you are preparing your students for. You should also make sure that your proposal meets the methodological requirements. That is why you should talk at an early stage with a professor and your programme manager in order to establish a strong connection with the teaching.’
Jos, Floor and Antonio managed to get off to a flying start. Antonio, who has just started, does not yet know how hard it will be. He enjoys commuting between the Netherlands and Angola to conduct field research. ‘I will gain a PhD because I am passionate about doing research. I would like to find out what is really going on and how things really work.’