Doing a Ph.D. project at Delft University of Technology.

Supervising Ph.D. students (preferably in projects incorporating some ‘crazy’ elements) is a task that’s right up my street. That is to say, from my point of view… I’m not sure whether or not my victims share this opinion. In the Netherlands a Ph.D. project takes at least 4 years, which implies that the student and the supervisor must at least have some common personal ground (like most people, I find it quite hard to co-operate with others on a purely business-like basis for an extended period of time). So normally during the 4-year period a selection of non-work or science related activities are part of the game, and of course attending conferences and the like abroad provides nice opportunities to get to know each other better, often resulting in more or less hilarious events.
The same holds when confronting people having a ‘theoretical’ preference with the need to perform (field) experiments (‘Wow, wastewater smells’, ‘I didn’t realize pump sumps can be this dirty’, or ‘there are far too many cables coming out of this machine’) are just a few remarks I heard in the last few months from freshly starting students.

I’ve seen my share of Ph.D. students over the last 16 years, and what is still striking me is the rather large differences one can observe in the qualifications people bring in from different universities and different countries. In the Netherlands, a Ph.D. project rarely starts with a detailed project plan, it goes more like this:
There is some rather vaguely formulated problem defined (e.g. ‘we should learn more on the effect gully pots have on the overall functioning of an urban drainage system’). The first task for the fresh Ph.D. student, in co-operation with his/her supervisor and daily supervisor, is to derive from this question a series of precisely formulated research questions from which a more detailed plan has to be made.  At TU Delft this is regarded as an essential part of the training in becoming a researcher and will take about 9 months. Depending on the experience, education and cultural background this can be a rather difficult task for quite a lot of Ph.D. students. Normally the next 2-2.5 years are running smoothly, carrying out the plan as drafted. Towards the end of the course, a certain minimum output has to be generated in the form of Journal articles, conference papers and the like.
Although it is theoretically possible to just write a Ph.D. thesis and defend it, in my group we apply a different manner: during the Ph.D. project 3 to 4 journal articles are written which form the backbone of the final Ph.D. thesis, further along the way conference papers are written and presented (we normally attend SPN, UDM and ICUD (sometimes…….)). I feel this way of working is beneficial for several reasons:
1/ There is external feed-back on the results during the project and not just at the end when the final thesis is judged by external examiners.
2/ The students get to know the relevant research groups in their field during conferences.
3/ And, finally, it speeds up the conception of the final thesis.

With respect to the QUICS project some new elements of supervising Ph.D. students have been added to my experience:
1/ Supervising over a large distance –  Mahmood Mahmoodian is working with Georges Schutz as daily supervisor at LIST in Luxembourg, while I am supervisor for Mahmood. This inhibits my normal way or working with people (frequent personal contact), luckily Mahmood, Georges and I share the same ideas when it comes to research in general and the QUICS project specifically, so as far as I can see things are running smoothly. Although the bureaucratic avalanche caused by the TU Delft graduate school sometimes drives me crazy… They don’t seem to understand that Luxembourg is not a suburb from Delft, and that Mahmood cannot show up at their command. But so far things seem to work out quite well.
2/ Secondments –  Francesca who is doing her project in Bristol has been working with Antonio in Delft over the last months, it was nice to have her over in Delft, and try to make connections between the two students. Luckily they showed a great deal of self-management in this and I feel all of us (students and supervisory team) learnt a lot in this period. A lot of preparations for mutual publications were also made. In my opinion the principle of secondments is very valuable for creating more co-operation between people and certainly has its benefits for the quality of the individual Ph.D. projects and the QUICS project as a whole.
3/ Outreach events – to be perfectly honest with you all, the whole issue of dissemination of knowledge, and explaining to the public what you are doing as a scientist, never really appealed to me (‘Waste of time’). In the QUICS project these outreach events are one of the obligatory activities linked to the training events. During the last training event in Delft we invited a group of about 20 students from secondary school (17 to 19 years old), and I must say I was pleasantly surprised about the enthusiasm and interest they displayed. It must be added to this that the QUICS fellows did a great job in preparing a nice program in which they managed to give a rather broad overview of ‘engineering science’ in general and water related research in some depth. We have at least one result from this: one of the students starts his study coming year at TU Delft!

Francois presenting at QUICS outreach event

Author: Prof. Francois Clemens

Doing a Ph.D. project at Delft University of Technology.