CS PhD student in the Netherlands: to be or not to be?

Author: Raphael ‘kena’ Poss
Date: January 2015

You are completing a MSc-level study and feel qualified to apply for a PhD. You are toying with the idea to apply for a PhD position in computer science in the Netherlands. Not sure whether to do it or not. Then perhaps this document will help. (disclaimer: perhaps it won't.)

Contents


Note

The latest version of this document can be found online at http://science.raphael.poss.name/so-you-want-to-apply-for-a-cs-phd.html. Alternate formats: Source, PDF.

Prologue

After I wrote the first version of this document, without this prologue, I received some heat, in the form of comments stating that the text read too “dry” or “cynical” and that I “probably had a bad time with my PhD”. The opposite is true, but the feedback does warrant a little additional explanation.

Usually advice about whether to start a PhD focuses on motivations, with statements of the form “if you like this, then do that” or “if you want to achieve this, then do that” (eg. “if you like doing research and want to do it more later, then you should do a PhD”). This is typically written by people who have gone through the process already, and who reflect back on the motivations they have found on the way.

However this approach is pedagogically flawed: as any PhD can confirm, PhD candidates only discover their motivations after they start. My experience is that most MSc students -- or rather, most people in the typical age group -- have no clear idea of what they really like and what they want for their future.

And that's all right!

However, it does mean that it is not too helpful nor constructive to describe PhD trajects in term of how it serves what you like or want for your future. So I won't do that. Also, it would be patronizing for me to tell you that “you should like this or that” in order to apply to and complete a PhD successfully. So I won't do that either.

Yet I feel it is my responsibility to write about what is usually not written on the topic, because either it is controversial, because it reveals the messy side of the business, or because it could potentially lower your interest for the job. You see, there is a lot of competion between research groups about who can hire the most and brightest PhD students. So a lot of potential advisors have to depict a rosier state of affairs than reality to compete and score the best candidates. Thankfully, I am not recruiting (yet) and can thus write on the topic without too much bias.

So yes the text below reads like plenty of negative things: reasons for you not to apply if you don't like what I have to say. But that's a feature, not a bug. Think about it like potential parents when they think of having their first child. It would be irresponsible for them to not think about things that can go wrong, and you as well should act responsibily by not going through if you know in advance there would be a serious problem. However, as parents usually find out, once the child is there (or you accept a position where you have applied), although you have no choice but to make it work and it will be insanely hard, it is usually possible to eventually draw some satisfaction from the ordeal.

Overview: good and bad reasons

Really there are plenty of bad reasons to start.

Although I promised I won't tell you “do this if you like that” I can acknowledge there are some notable positive correlations between PhD success and personal interests:

Orthogonal issues, not relevant in your decision

Check compatibility with your other responsibilities

Do your personal math properly beforehand. Does a PhD traject fit your lifestyle?

Do you have pets and/or children and/or other dependents under your responsibility? If so you must ensure beforehand you can count on family or other social structures to help you, otherwise something will break in your life (either your PhD or your dependents).

Love & relationships

See the previous section. Given how much time you must dedicate to your research to succeed, your life partner if any will not receive much in comparison. Unless they are sitting in the same boat, they will find it difficult to accept that they will be only a small part of you for 4 years (approx). This in particular will make it very hard to begin and/or sustain a starting love relationship.

If you already have been together for many years, then perhaps it will work, if you negotiate with your partner in advance that the few years of your PhD time will only be a brief obstacle in the long course of your relationship.

If you are looking to start a new relationship and you are a strictly heterosexual male (the majority of candidates), realize that the cards are clearly stacked against you:

In practice it is just extremely unusual to see successful and healthy relationships starting during PhD time and lasting. So if that is important for you, you should probably consider an alternate path.

Health hazards

You will spend between 40 and 80 hours per week sitting in front of a computer.

Just because of this you will run a much higher health risk than the general population for the following issues:

If you are already sensitive to any of these before applying, consider this a serious argument to not start a PhD at all. Otherwise your PhD traject will rob you of what remains of your youth physical health and you may not recover easily (if at all).

If you recognize this risk you will also need to make extra effort next to your work to stay healthy. This includes:

If any of this sounds too complicated, then just don't start a PhD.

Moral hazards

Following a PhD traject will require you to step into a moral system that deviates from the norm:

Be sure you understand the implication here. A PhD traject is not the only position where you are exposed to this moral hazard. If you particularly like this moral situation, you can also achieve the same by working as a freelance software developer.

The responsibility and reward system

In a regular job, you have a mission statement: if you complete the mission you get a reward, if you don't you get a punishment. Think about donkey, carrot and stick.

In contrast the responsibility/reward system of PhD trajects is crooked:

In other words, there is a bunch of things with a stick associated that you will know about, but no carrot to be found there; then another bunch of things with carrots associated which you will have to figure out on your own. The perverse aspect is that in the end, your peers will implicitly measure your success based on the rewards you have obtained, without telling you how to get there.

To summarize, applying for a PhD really is applying to two jobs simultaneously, getting paid for only one of them and only discovering on the way about the other.

If you feel uncomfortable with this double workload and the lack of visibility onto the reward system, probably you should not pursue a PhD.

Conversely, be sure you understand the implication. A PhD traject is not the only position where you can find this double job under the hood. Technical IT consultants are exposed to the same. So if you particularly like this double workload, also consider a career in consulting; it will pay better and you will gain more respect and visibility over time.

Shit you may have to put up with

If any of this makes you uncomfortable, consider this as an argument not to apply for a PhD position.

Also be sure you understand the implication. A PhD traject is not the only way to face these challenges. If you particulaly like these circumstances, you can also obtain the same by working as a journalist, data analyst, high school teacher and possibly other positions.

The secret prerequisites

When you read a PhD job opening, you will find application criteria like “must have studied in a relevant field,” “must be self-driven,” “interested in research,” etc.

The dirty secret of PhD job openings is that your future supervisor does not really care about any of this. There are plenty of reasons why your supervisor needs you (more on this above), which you can use to your advantage. But there are secret pass-or-fail criteria, which you cannot (and may not) discuss openly during interviews:

There two main corollaries to these points:

  1. if you want to base your work relationship with your employer on the merits of your work and its visible outcomes, regardless of social and cultural differences, then don't apply for a PhD; it would be a terrible idea.
  2. if you really want to go for a PhD, you must do your homework first and find a research group where you feel comfortable culturally, and where you properly balance intellectually and emotionally with your future supervisor.

Acknowledgements

This document was stimulated and inspired by conversations with Alyssa Milburn, Arjan Boeijink, Philip Hölzenspies, Jan Kuper, Rob Jelier and Ana-Lucia Varbanescu.

Bibliography

I recommend the following books: