Lucille Mattijssen, own photo

‘Be lenient for PhD candidates’

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Give PhD candidates additional time or change the requirements for their thesis during the corona crisis, says Lucille Mattijssen of the Dutch PhD Network. "Health is more important than research."

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Everyone is suffering from the corona crisis; PhD candidates are no exception. Some of them are now unable to collect data or are not allowed to enter the laboratory. Others cannot defend their thesis.

But something special is going on with PhD candidates, says PNN chairman Mattijssen. For their PhD, they are heavily dependent on their supervisor, whom they would like to keep in touch with. Sometimes they feel the pressure to continue their research, even if they are worried about the virus. "It occurs that PhD candidates don't dare to stay at home."

Why do PhD candidates have to go out in this day and age?
"Everyone has to work from home, unless there's really no other way. Only research that requires urgent attention can continue."

That doesn't sound complicated. For example, if you work with chimpanzees, you have to continue to take care of them as well.
"But who decides which research should continue? If Principal Researchers are allowed to decide that themselves, you run the risk that they consider their own research rather important and that they ask their PhD candidates to come too, while those PhD candidates might prefer to stay at home.

Conversely, PhD candidates may also find their own research very important, especially if they do not know whether there will be compensation for their delay. There is a chance that unnecessary risks could be taken. As far as we are concerned, universities, therefore, may be strict when determining which research really has to continue and which research does not. Health is more important than research."

What should the leniency for PhD candidates look like? Can you just give PhD candidates a little more time?
"Prolongation is most obvious, but sometimes it doesn't make sense. Think of longitudinal research for which the data are not collected now. Or research in which you have to measure both beforehand and afterwards. That could go completely wrong. So, then you have to come up with something else."

What should we do then?
"Some PhD candidates, for example, have already published three articles and should write a fourth, according to the rules of their university. Maybe you could let go of such requirements in these circumstances. Compare it with the final exams in secondary schools that aren't taking place right now."

Doesn't that lower your requirements for the promotion?
"It would then be about quantity, not quality. In these exceptional cases, it is best to leave it to the supervisor and the Doctorate Committee to assess whether a PhD candidate is good enough. If a PhD candidate is on track and only gets into trouble because of the corona crisis, it really isn’t such a problem for the quality of the promotion".

Is your own thesis also at a standstill?
"Fortunately, I don't depend on laboratories. I conduct research on flex-workers based on data from Statistics Netherlands, so I can access that either way. I am healthy and work at home. I don't have to collect data myself, like many other PhD candidates."

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