EP: The Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences aims at China

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The Netherlands will be recruiting PhD students in China. This is to give PhD research the boost it so badly needs, believes Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences President Robbert Dijkgraaf.

The Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences aims at China

In the long run, the Netherlands should recruit an extra one thousand international PhD students, thinks Robbert Dijkgraaf, President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and member of the Innovation Platform. Collaborating with China – Dijkgraaf initially aims at one hundred PhD students – is only the beginning. Top countries average eleven researchers for every one thousand employees, whereas the Netherlands has no more than six according to the Innovation Platform. There are said to be “chronic vacancies” for PhD students.

What are chronic vacancies?

“By that we mean PhD positions for which we have to spend a lot of time and energy to find the right candidates. Eventually, we do find them.”

What is your problem then?

“Research institutes want to recruit the best possible candidate. In some fields, there are so few candidates to choose from that the best possible candidate is not among them. Engineering programmes, for example, suffer from a large shortage of eligible candidates. In China, four million students graduate every year, half of them in sciences. We aim at increasing our visibility, to ensure that the best Chinese are willing to come to the Netherlands. At the moment, they are all going to Harvard and Princeton.”

Is there a point in attracting Chinese students if they leave soon after having defended their thesis? Would it not be better to choose Dutch students, who are sure to stay here?

“There is always some tension between selecting a Dutch PhD student and selecting the best PhD student. Ideally, they are one and the same person. For a knowledge country, it is very important to find the best people and sometimes they have to be recruited abroad.

Not all international PhD students leave the Netherlands, though. Dutch businesses are eager to offer them a position. Take, for instance, the microchip industry, which needs researchers who understand the Dutch corporate culture. The current climate may be different, but for those who start their PhD research now and will be ready in four or five years, we hope times will have changed by then.

PhD students are more inclined to stay in the Netherlands than, for instance, postdocs. PhD students develop relationships in the Netherlands. People who have done their PhD research in Finland and then stay here as a postdoc for two years, will be more inclined to return to Finland than PhDs who have done their research here. In that sense, it certainly is more worthwhile to invest time and energy in PhD students than in postdocs.”

The number of science students declines. Does that mean that the number of excellent students also declines? Perhaps only the most fervent students remain.

“There are always some brilliant students. In my own field (theoretic particle physics; ed.) there are. But overall, their number does decline.”

Will collaborating with Chinese institutions also result in more PhD students for Arts and Humanities and for Social and Behavioural Sciences? Will the Chinese conduct research into Confucius?

“We certainly have to present the whole of the Dutch academic community to the Chinese and it would not be awkward for a Chinese student to conduct research into a non-science subject. In those fields, the shortages are less substantial than in the science fields, but it is a matter of fact that the best institutions always succeed in attracting people from all over the world, whether they are engaged in science or in, for instance, history.”

Natural sciences and technology sectors have the largest number of PhD students, while behavioural and social science sectors have more Assistant Professors. Would it not be useful to create more positions for Assistant Professors instead of for PhD positions?

“In the Netherlands, there are relatively few PhD positions. However, PhD students are an essential part of research activity. Of course, they also need to move on, via postdoc and permanent positions. The Innovation Platform has decided to focus on PhD positions for a start, also because they constitute a fine combination of training and research. We must train more researchers for the Netherlands.”