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Do I want to pursue a PhD?

Are you thinking about pursuing a PhD? Perhaps you enjoy doing scientific research and are considering making a career out of it. Applying for a PhD is one way to pursue that. But what does that mean exactly? Does it suit you? What are the possibilities?

Doctor of Philosophy

PhD officially stands for Doctor of Philosophy and it is the highest academic degree you can obtain. The requirements to earn a PhD degree vary considerably from country to country and even from university to university.

In the Netherlands, a PhD position takes about four years, in which you conduct scientific research. You will be supervised by a university professor. The aim is to contribute to the development of scientific knowledge and understanding in a particular field of research.

During the PhD trajectory you will write a number of scientific articles (peer-reviewed papers) that will be published in scientific journals, and/or you will write a book. In addition to research, you have a teaching position, which means that you also teach a small part (thesis supervision, working groups).

Learn more on Dutch academia

A paid position? Different funding models

PhD positions may or may not come with funding. Most PhD positions in North America and Australia are funded: you’ll be guaranteed funding throughout the course of your PhD, which you may top up with teaching assistantships. In some countries (e.g., the UK, Italy, Spain) you may be admitted to PhD programs without funding, which means you have to pay for registration fees and for your own living expenses, though there may be teaching opportunities, which may help you survive.

PhD positions in the Netherlands, Belgium and other West-European countries offer you a rather generous salary compared to most other posts in the world. In effect, you are a public employee with related benefits. In the Netherlands and some other countries, there are typically four categories of positions.

PhD position, financed by a department or research institute’s own research money

Typically, you are free to pursue your own research interests/topic, provided a faculty member can and is willing to supervise your project. In this case, the application procedure will involve writing and submitting a project proposal, in which you explain what research questions you want to pursue, how you intend to address those questions, and how your research is important/interesting/original, and under whose supervisor you’d like to work. There may be some teaching obligations, but this depends from position to position

PhD position, financed by specific grant or project money

Acquired by a professor who can now hire PhD students to work on that specific project. The legal status is the same as the first category but the requirements are usually different, as you will have to do research on a pre-specified topic. These are the positions that you will generally find vacancies for and can ‘simply’ apply for.

Personal, externally funded PhD grant

For which you apply in co-operation with a potential supervisor and a specific university on the basis of a PhD project you decide. External sources of funding include national research agencies like the NWO in the Netherlands. There is often a two-step procedure for such positions: 1) you apply within the School at some University, and 2) the School decides which applications may submitted to the NWO.

You do your research in your own time

Either unfunded or with a special arrangement with your employer. In this case, you should realize that writing a PhD is a huge time investment and thus that it will take you often longer than 3 or 4 years to finish up. It also means that it can no longer be viewed as a paid job in that sense. You would do it in your own time, on your own terms.

Is a PhD something that suits you?

A PhD can be a huge commitment. It should not be viewed as a logical next step after your master studies. It is something you really should be passionate about and go into with the right motivation. Why do you want to pursue a PhD? Talk about it with others. You are at university, so a great environment where people have experience with pursuing a PhD! 

  • E-mail current PhD students in your program to get a sense of “what it’s like doing a PhD” in that program.
  • Ask for advice to the supervisor of your Masters thesis.
  • Attend activities related to academic research in your area of expertise, such as research seminars, summer schools, conferences and workshops in order to get an idea of what doing research is actually like.
  • Be pro-active, and contact professors about your intention of pursuing a PhD and ask whether they would have opportunities for you.
  • Find a side job as a research assistant/student assistant (during your studies) or junior researcher/teacher (after your studies).

A career in academia?

After acquiring a PhD, you can end up in a wide range of different positions and domains within the labor market (private companies, NGO’s, public administrations, universities, et cetera).

A PhD degree is required if you seek a career in academia. If you are striving for an academic career (as research or professor), know that it does not automatically mean you get a permanent contract. Most likely, before having a permanent contract in some university, most PhDs first occupy temporary positions in other universities, like a post-doc (a research position of one to three years) or a teaching position (often with little time for your own research).

The typical way of getting a permanent contract is to successfully apply for a “tenure-track” position, which is a job (partly research, partly teaching, partly administrative tasks) that will become permanent after a positive (internal) review taking place after a set number of years. Also be aware that the number of opportunities exist for these positions could be limited, depending on your domain.

Outside academia?

It is also possible to leave the scientific world and start working as a researcher in industry, in research institutes, or universities of applied sciences. If you want to bring scientific research to the attention of a wider audience, you could work in science communication or, for example, as an editor or writer. You can use your acquired skills and knowledge in a various range of different positions.

Relevant websites

There are a lot of different institutions and agencies that fund PhD research or advertise PhD positions every year. Funding opportunities and vacancies for PhD positions are posted on the websites of different universities and funding agencies and their mailing lists. The most important websites are:

Or check the following website for tips on how to create a good CV.

Check PhD CVs

Need help?

Please ask Student Career Services for advice.