External Ph.D. candidates

Like most academics, I occasionally get mail from people looking for an opportunity to get a PhD from a Dutch university – from two kinds of people, actually. The first type is the foreigner with an academic background, who wants to add a Ph.D. from a good university to his or her titles. The second type are Dutch people who’ve already got fulltime jobs as professionals in the real world but still hope to write a Ph.D. thesis in their spare time.

While I cannot offer the first type of supplicant hope on a place in a Ph.D. programme (because such programmes still do not exist in the Netherlands; the Dutch academic system is definitely not Anglo-Saxon), I can offer both types (very limited: advice only) help in becoming ‘external Ph.D. candidates’ or, in Dutch, ‘buitenpromovendi’. This is an unpaid, unofficial, purely voluntary occupation – you write a thesis in your own time, and from time to time you get irregular and confusing feedback from an unpaid, unofficial, purely voluntary supervisor. (Of course, you can bring your own money. You’re more than welcome to...)

To qualify for a Ph.D., you need a Ph.D. thesis. To write a Ph.D. thesis, you need a good topic, talent, time, money, and a supervisor. Let’s assume that you’ve got talent (you ought to be the best judge of that yourself), a scientifically novel and interesting topic (here’s where I’m probably the better judge), time (the standard time needed for a Dutch Ph.D. is 3 full years – roughly 135 weeks of 40 hours each) and money (e.g. in case you live abroad and want to visit or stay for a longer period). What you still want then is supervision.

In the (surprisingly hierarchical and on this point irrationally conservative) Dutch academic system you ultimately need either a full professor or an associate professor/senior lecturer with ius promovendi as supervisor – that is, not an ordinary associate professor, let alone an assistant professor (US ranks) or an ordinary (senior) lecturer or reader (UK ranks) but (either) the real thing, a full professor, gown and all, or (b) a senior lecturer/reader/associate professor who has, as a rare exception, been given the privilege of being formally allowed to supervise PhD candidates without being supervised themselves. (Yes, complicated, and IMHO idiotic). Most potential supervisors are not all that enthousiastic if you approach them, and none will invest overmuch time or effort in Ph.D. projects, for two simple reasons: (1) no more than 25% of all those who start (in earnest) on an ‘external’ Ph.D. thesis survive the first 18 months, 50% of those stop in later years, and those who finish don’t usually do so in less than 6 years (unless they find extra funds); (2) supervisors do not get time assigned for supervision, nor do they get financial compensation for the time invested. There is a premium paid to the university for each successfully defended PhD thesis but (a) it rarely trickles down to the person who did the actual work and (b) even if something trickles that far down, it doesn't cover even half the costs.

Given that I plan to retire in 2027 (taking a sabbatical at the end, so in practice that'll be 2026) I no longer take on external PhD projects. I can advise you on finding a Dutch supervisor for an external PhD project in political theory elsewhere, but (given that time is a finite and ever scarcer resource) only if you can already provide a well designed project proposal. If you have such a plan, you can contact me at marcel.wissenburg @ ru.nl