VUB has a diverse and successful student population. It now wants to make the pathway for doctoral students more inclusive and diverse. This is one striking element of the university’s Report to Society. Vice-rector for Research Pieter Ballon wants to give talented students an extra push to pursue a PhD at VUB. “We want to orient ourselves more internationally, make use of every talent and offer better support. To be more inclusive and qualitative.”

“We’re aiming for a better mix among PhD students. To that end, we have writing scholarships for talented master’s graduates who need a boost, usually because they have no financial or other support to start doctoral studies. We pay such a student for two months as a working student to give them time to write a PhD research proposal. Normally, a professor would ask a good student to make an application to the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) in their spare time. But if you don’t come from a motivating, wealthy background, that can be problematic.

“The condition for a writing scholarship is that you are among the better graduates and that a supervisor supports you. Master’s students who receive a writing grant get not only financial support but also guidance on writing a research proposal and help with preparing for the interview with the FWO, which provides the grants.

“The process itself is already a learning process. For the writing grant, you also have to make a short application: why do you need support? What do you want to use that money for?

“We have a diverse master’s student population, and we want to have that diversity in our PhD students too. In the Faculty of Science, we now have the first PhD student who was helped on her way with a writing grant. Without that push she would not have done so, she says herself.”

2022_Portret_Pieter Ballon_VUB
We want to raise our profile abroad, scout more actively and offer better PhD positions. That too promotes diversity.

“The supervision of PhD students is also becoming more inclusive. This is not only about young researchers from immigrant backgrounds, but also researchers who need special attention, because they stutter or have poor hearing, perhaps. We now have a partially sighted PhD student whom we offer extra support to, for example by making learning material available digitally in advance."

“We essentially want to extend the criteria of a ReFlex student to PhD students. A student with a disability or chronic illness, for example, which makes studying harder, can claim the ReFlex status. ReFlex stands for reasonable flexibility. We want to start looking at whether we can also show a bit more flexibility for doctoral students in terms of supervision.”

Better monitoring of doctoral students

“In general, we want to improve the situation of all our PhD students and monitor them better. Every year they have to make a progress report. Where do you stand? Is the supervisor satisfied? Are you satisfied?

“They are also required to make a research plan. This helps them keep track of their progress. They often panic when they don’t have one. Am I on schedule? That causes enormous stress and eventually dropout.”

“For the writing grant, you also have to make a short application: why do you need support? What do you want to use that money for?

“We introduced those interventions based on the PhD survey, a regular welfare survey of PhD students. We base our policy on that in a structural way. We are constantly taking stock of what is needed. One question that invariably comes up is more collegiality, more inclusion in a group. That is reflected in our research groups policy.”