Duties of a PhD student

Which activities are expected from a PhD student/beginning researcher?

Official requirements

Officially, the only activities required from a registered PhD student at the VUB are yearly submissions of a 1-2 page activity report in spring, covering the past academic year. The report written by the student must be confirmed by a report from the promotor. In practice, in ECCO we let the student prepare both reports, but the promotor checks the accuracy of the second report, makes corrections if necessary, and then submits the approved version.

The report is used by the faculty committee to check whether the student is advancing well. If for a year or more no significant progress is apparent, student and promotor may be questioned to find a remedy for the problem. In the worst case, if the student really seems unable to produce any significant activities, the student's scholarship may be stopped. (If the problem lies in a conflict or misunderstanding between student and promotor, both are referred to the ombudsperson for PhD students, who will try to mediate between the parties.)

The only other obligation is the final submission of the finished dissertation, and its defense, first at a private meeting of the PhD committee, and if that went well, publically. The student is not officially required to follow courses, take examinations, take part in seminars, etc.

Concrete expectations

While apart from the thesis defense, no specific activities are officially required, in practice a number of academic activities are strongly recommended to help develop your academic skills, ideas and self-confidence. As a rule-of-thumb, in ECCO we expect a PhD student to every year perform at least the following activities:

The actual frequency will depend on the stage of your PhD work. In the first year, students will typically explore the literature and go to conferences or lectures, but have little concrete ideas of their own to present or write down yet. By the third year, they should be up to speed, producing several papers/lectures a year, in order to slow down again by the last year, when all their energy is channelled into the dissertation itself. As a very rough estimate, a typical full-time PhD researcher, working for 5 years, will have produced some 8-10 papers, of which 4-5 effectively published, participated in a dozen conferences, and given half a dozen lectures.

General background activities

In addition to this concrete output, researchers will be busy with various, less easily quantifiable activities: exploring the literature, discussing with experts or colleagues, gathering and processing data, reflecting and organizing their thoughts, taking notes, etc. To deepen their knowledge, they may take specialized courses, follow summer schools, or go for study visits to other institutions.

Depending on their research topic, they may be writing computer programs, performing experiments, analysing data, or observing cases. They may also get useful experience by organizing seminars or conferences, or editing collections of papers by others. They are also likely to get involved in the overall management of the ECCO group, e.g. by looking into funding opportunities, preparing proposals, supporting visitors or other ECCO researchers, setting-up infrastructure, making publicity for ECCO activities, initiating collaborations, etc.

All of these and others may find their way in the yearly activity reports that will build their academic curriculum vitae.

A recommended strategy

Given the complexity, changefulness and ill-defined nature of research activities, it is easy for a beginning researcher to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Many PhD students spend their energy in unending side-activities, such as reading books, following courses, progamming simulations, or organizing conferences, while postponing the essential stage of writing down their results, first as papers, eventually as a dissertation.

To overcome this tendency towards procrastination, which typically results from lack of confidence in one's own researching/writing abilities, we suggest the following simple series of steps, offering a smooth transition from the easy to the difficult:

  • gather inspiration by reading, following lectures, talking to colleagues, thinking...
  • write down your ideas immediately as you get them, creating a collection of notes
  • organize your notes by using the method of outlining or idea processing
  • develop your outline into a (PowerPoint) presentation
  • present this outline as a seminar to the ECCO group (or at a conference), so as to get feedback from your colleagues
  • taking into account the feedback, develop your outline into an ECCO working paper
  • announce your working paper to colleagues/promotor, requesting more detailed feedback
  • taking into account the feedback, improve your paper and submit it for publication

Once you have become more experienced, you will be able to skip some of these stages, e.g. jumping directly from idea via outline to publication.

If you manage to produce 3-5 peer-refereed, published papers in this way, you have in principle enough material to write a PhD dissertation. If the papers are well-structured and investigating different aspects of the same broad subject, it should cost you little effort to elaborate them into a coherent dissertation. You are then ready to defend and get your doctoral degree.

Moreover, you can look forward to a further academic career, safe in the knowledge that in addition to your title you have already gathered an impressive curriculum vitae with several publications, lectures, ...