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PhD Programs in the Netherlands

by Mark Bennett

Why study for a PhD in the Netherlands?

When it comes to forward-thinking and new ideas the Dutch have an impressive reputation and it's no wonder that a large number of students regularly choose to study a PhD in the Netherlands. The geography of the Netherlands is itself the product of historical innovations that allowed substantial amounts of land to be reclaimed from the sea. This quite literally ground-breaking ingenuity is maintained through a system of dykes and canals, developed and perfected by generations of Dutch engineers. In fact, the Netherlands is still a centre of expertise in water-management and agricultural science. Dutch enterprise and ingenuity has also driven innovation in a range of other areas. The country established the world's first centralised banking system and stock exchange in the seventeenth-century and can also take the credit for significant breakthroughs in the discovery and application of electrical power. Research in the Netherlands has given the world the first diagnostic electrocardiograph and conducted pioneering work in the development of artificial organs. The Dutch also invented the first electrical speed camera, but you probably shouldn't hold that against them.

The Netherlands' universities have played a key role throughout this long history of innovation and invention and internationalisation is a long-established feature of the Dutch higher education. All of this makes PhD study in the Netherlands a great choice for students looking to tap into a culture of open-mindedness and innovation. Whether you want to study economics in a centre of global finance, become an expert in water engineering or agricultural science in a country where such ideas are applied on a daily basis or conduct artistic and creative research in the homeland of Rembrandt and Van Gogh… there's almost certainly a Dutch PhD programme for you.

PhDs in the Dutch university system

Higher education in the Netherlands takes place at various types of institution. The most common are Research Universities, Universities of Applied Science, and Institutes for International Education. All of these categories of Dutch higher education provider offer high-quality degree programmes, but not all of them do so at all levels of study. Their particular academic strengths also differ slightly; some types of institution are geared more towards professional training, with less emphasis on ongoing research programmes of their own.

As a PhD student in the Netherlands you are most likely to be studying at a Research University. Unsurprisingly, these are where the majority of Dutch research and higher level academic training takes place, with advanced facilities and expert faculty available to supervise doctoral study.

Institutes for International Education focus on collaborative projects and scholarly partnerships pooling expertise from different countries. They are an expression of the Netherlands' longstanding commitment to internationalisation and knowledge exchange. With very limited exceptions, however, they do not typically run PhD programmes.

Universities of Applied Science do not award PhD degrees; they focus instead on professional and technical training in a range of subjects and award Bachelors degrees as well as Masters degrees.

Accreditation

Dutch PhD programmes are not directly accredited by the body that oversees other university degrees in the Netherlands (The Netherlands and Flemish Accreditation Organisation, or NVAO). Instead, individual universities are responsible for the quality and content of their own doctoral training processes - though NVAO still has a role to play in overseeing the overall quality of the institutions that offer PhDs in the Netherlands.

PhD structure and course content in the Netherlands

As in other education systems, a Dutch PhD is research-focussed. Registration as a PhD student in the Netherlands lasts a minimum of four years, during which you will research and write an extended academic dissertation offering a substantial original contribution to knowledge in your field.

Dutch PhD programmes are offered by Research Universities, but take place in dedicated Graduate Schools or Research Schools. Graduate Schools are associated with individual universities, whereas Research Schools are often collaborative: pooling facilities and expertise from multiple institutions to pursue ongoing projects and areas of investigation.

In some cases universities also collaborate with external partners, including private research organisations, businesses and industry. This allows Dutch PhD programmes to be enhanced with specialist knowledge and for doctoral students to benefit from additional training and development opportunities. Though the PhD degree is always awarded by the Research University itself, you may have the opportunity to be based externally and work closely with research partners for substantial parts of your degree.

Supervision

During your PhD in the Netherlands you will work closely with a supervisor responsible for guiding and monitoring your work. Depending on the structure of your Graduate School or Research School and the requirements of your individual programme this may involve periodical progress checks and formal review points.

Submission and examination of a Dutch PhD

Once your research is completed and your thesis has been written up, your supervisor will confirm that it is of the required standard for examination. In the Netherlands it is a relatively common requirement for all or part of a PhD thesis to have already been submitted for some form of publication before the candidate is entered for examination.

This is a highly formalised ceremonial process, including various details that make it quite unique in comparison with other PhD defence arrangements. It usually lasts for one hour and is opened and closed by the beadle (or pedel), an officer of the university, who announces the beginning and end of the ceremony using a ceremonial mace. All participants are in full academic dress, with specific titles and forms of address based on seniority. For example, any member of the Doctoral Committee with a professorial chair should be given the title hoggeleerde opponent ('most learned opponent') whilst those who possess a doctorate but are not professors are referred to as zeergeleerde opponent ('learned opponent'). You will be given guidance and assistance with these titles as well as the full formal procedure when the time comes to prepare for your examination. One of the peculiarities of the Dutch examination process is that you may be accompanied by two supporters, known as paranimfen. Their traditional role is to act for you if you are unable to defend the thesis yourself and even to physically assist you if the debate becomes heated! In a modern examination, however, their main responsibilities are to provide moral support and practical assistance on the examination day.

During the examination itself, questions are asked by an appointed Doctoral Committee along with any other individuals who have been granted permission to take part. Following the conclusion of the examination your Doctoral Committee will retire to make their decision. If your defence is successful the ceremony will reconvene and the PhD will be formally awarded, sometimes accompanied by a laudatory speech by the head of the Doctoral Committee. Where a thesis is not deemed to have been satisfactorily defended, an opportunity may be granted to re-submit for a re-examination.

The PDEng

A small number of Dutch universities also specialise as universities of technology and offer a professional doctorate in engineering, or PDEng. These programmes usually require - or proceed directly from - an MSc degree and focus on advanced design skills and practical problem solving. They are structured using the ECTS Credit system and are worth 120 credits over two years. You will usually spend your first year receiving cutting edge training, before undertaking an extended placement in industry in your final year. Completing a PDEng will qualify you as a technological designer, ready to work professionally in a range of prestigious and rewarding roles.

Admissions and applications for a Dutch PhD

The standard requirement for admission to a PhD programme in the Netherlands is a Masters degree in a relevant subject area. Because The Netherlands are part of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and conform to the Bologna Process, a Masters from elsewhere in Europe will usually be recognised without difficulty.

Qualifications from elsewhere in the world will usually be accepted provided they can be demonstrated to be equivalent to a European Masters degree. The body appointed to do this is Nuffic (The Netherlands' Organisation for International Cooperation). They act as the Dutch branch of ENIC-NARIC (Europe's National Academic Recognition Information Centres). If in doubt about the recognition of your foreign qualifications, you can contact Nuffic or get in touch with your prospective university.

Additional admissions criteria will usually be set by your university. Many Dutch PhD students are also formally employed by their institutions as researchers. For this reason, universities will be especially concerned to satisfy themselves that you are sufficiently prepared to undertake an advanced research role. They may do this by requesting a personal statement and research proposal as well as potentially inviting you to participate in an interview (in person, or over the phone). More specific information will be available from your university.

The Dutch academic year usually runs from September to June. Due to the relative lack of coursework on a Dutch PhD programme, admission and applications deadlines may be relatively flexible.

Language requirements

You won't necessarily need to learn Dutch as a PhD student in the Netherlands. The Dutch are often versatile linguists and most universities will be able to conduct your training, supervision and examination in English. Some ability to speak Dutch may be desirable, however, particularly if you are employed as a researcher by your university. Also, with most PhDs in the Netherlands lasting at least four years, you'll benefit from the ability to communicate in Dutch during your time living in the country. Universities will often offer some form of Dutch language education to foreign students and, once you've reached the required standard, you can take the NT2 exam. This will provide you with a qualification demonstrating your ability to speak Dutch at a proficient level.

Visas and immigration for PhD students in the Netherlands

If you are a national of the EU or the EEA, you won't usually require a visa for PhD study in the Netherlands. Students from elsewhere will usually need to apply for an entry visa (MVV) and a residence permit.

In most cases your university will assist you with applications for a Dutch visa and / or registration as a foreign resident in the Netherlands. If you are an EU or EEA student, they will register you with the Dutch immigration authorities; if you are not an EU or EEA student, they will often be able to apply for a visa and residence permit on your behalf. In the latter scenario, you will be able to collect your documents from a Dutch Embassy or Consulate (often in your home country) before making your journey to the Netherlands. Most residence permits will only be valid for as long as you continue to make satisfactory progress in your studies.

Whatever your visa and permit requirements, you should register your presence with the local council once you have arrived in the Netherlands. This will require proof of accommodation as well as identification (your passport and a certified copy of your birth certificate will usually suffice).

Exact visa and immigration requirements for students in the Netherlands may vary in some situations. If in doubt you can check the regulations that apply to your country by using the application wizard at the Netherlands' official study portal.

Health insurance

As a PhD student in the Netherlands you will need to hold some form of health insurance, valid for the duration of your degree. For EU and EEA citizens an EU Health Insurance Card (EHIC) will usually be sufficient. Other students may need to purchase private insurance. If you are employed as a researcher by your university, or work alongside your studies, you may need to be covered by a Dutch public health insurance policy. You can find up to date information on health insurance for international students in the Netherlands on the Nuffic website.

PhD fees and funding in the Netherlands

The cost of PhD study in the Netherlands varies between institutions and disciplines. Some places are fully funded as part of ongoing projects, but a large number are offered as paid research positions within a university department. In fact, PhD researchers in the Netherlands are often paid employees of their university, working as part of a wider academic faculty or department. Funding for PhD study in the Netherlands is also available, from a range of providers.

Fees

Where a candidate is formally employed by their university, conventional fees are not always charged. Instead you will be required to fulfil various duties as a researcher, contributing, through your work, to the institution's broader academic agenda and being appropriately remunerated for this.

Statutory fees may still be charged to cover supplementary costs for supervision, examination, administration and access to university facilities. These will vary between individual institutions and disciplines. You will be able to find out the specific costs in your case by inquiring with universities. If your prospective PhD programme is funded, or involves formal employment as a researcher, this should be indicated in its description.

Funding

Various grants to support PhD study in the Netherlands are available and many students are funded in this way. Some fellowships and scholarships are administered by Nuffic, including opportunities supported by the EU and the Dutch government. You can view a range of these here. Another useful source of funding listings is the website of Euraxess, an organisation that promotes academic mobility within Europe. You can view their information on funding for PhD study in the Netherlands here.

PostgraduateFunding.com

Our own postgraduate funding website provides a comprehensive database of small grants and bursaries available to support postgraduate study around the world, including travel bursaries, living cost support, fee waivers and exchange programmes. Click here to start searching for funding to study a PhD in the Netherlands, or elsewhere.

Careers and employment with a Dutch PhD

The Netherlands is justifiably proud of the research its universities produce. Dutch scholars generate the second highest number of publications per researcher in the world and the quality of their output is demonstrated by the fact that this research is rated 4th for impact, globally.

A Dutch PhD is therefore a very impressive academic qualification, testifying to your ability to produce academic work at this internationally high standard. It is also highly likely that your time as a PhD student in the Netherlands will have provided you with excellent professional experience. If you have been employed by your university during your studies you will have gained familiarity with working in a higher education context and will be an impressive early career applicant for academic jobs. Many Dutch Research Universities also offer additional professional training or partnerships with business and industry, meaning that, whatever career you choose to pursue with your PhD, your CV will already be impressive.

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