Finishing your PhD

In this chapter you will find an overview of what to do in the final stage of your PhD program, which websites to visit, what forms to fill out and some advice on do’s and don’ts.

Official information from the university

The university provides a website with information regarding the final stages of a PhD programme. The official Doctoral Degree Regulations can be accessed at that link, which includes statutory provisions, information on who will be allowed admission to the doctoral program, how the supervisors and co-supervisors are appointed, how the thesis shall come into being, and how the Assessment Committee shall be composed. A document titled ‘Instructions to the PhD-candidate’ can be downloaded as well from the university website, which contains information about the final stage of a PhD programme. This information will not be reiterated here, but the chapter will focus on those aspects that may be unclear, and on information which is missing on the information-website or in the ‘Instructions to the PhD-candidate’-document. What follows below is a step-by-step description of what to do when and where to find additional information in case necessary.

Forms, assessment committee and the beadle’s office

First of all, and maybe most important, a PhD candidate needs to receive permission from his/her first supervisor to finalize the dissertation. Making a schedule with important dates on it (handing in the final version, getting feedback, getting approval) as well as making sure your supervisor and you agree on which parts of the dissertation have to be finished on these dates is advisable. Note that a version of your thesis at this point in time does not necessarily have to include the front cover, title page, acknowledgement, bibliography and so on. The lay-out should be in order with final adjustments possible. It is advisable to send a hardcopy to every member of your team of supervisors, such that they do not have to print it themselves.

After an agreement between the PhD candidate and the supervisor on a final version of the dissertation has been reached, an Assessment Committee needs to be selected. The supervisor has the final decision on who will be in the Assessment Committee, but the candidate can come up with suggestions.

The thesis defence date should be decided by the candidate and his or her supervisor. After approval by the supervisor, the next step is to ask the Beadle’s Office (in Dutch: Pedel) to assign a provisional date for the defence. Contacting the Beadle’s Office via phone is the easiest way to ensure a date assignment. After the supervisor has filled out Form 1, there is a 6 month time line up to the intended date of the doctoral thesis defence ceremony. During this period, several things will have to be completed and sent at set dates; this includes relevant signatures, Utrecht University provides a time schedule that describes who needs to do what and when.

As soon as the supervisor has agreed with the defence date and the members of your Assessment Committee have agreed to participate, the supervisor will fill out Form 2: Approval of Manuscript and Proposed Composition of Assessment Committee. The information on these forms can be seen by logging in to Hora Est!. Although it is the supervisor’s responsibility to fill out the forms, it is advisable that the PhD candidate regularly logs in to Hora Est! to verify that this has indeed been done.

After these forms have been filled out, it is time to send a copy of the dissertation to the Assessment Committee. Again, it is advisable to send a hardcopy. If you do not know the addresses, try to Google or ask the Beadle’s Office.

The members of the Assessment Committee have a 3 month period to decide upon approving the dissertation. The candidate will receive notification about their decision from the Beadle’s office, however since the supervisor receives this news as well, one may also ask them. Sometimes the committee requires changes to the thesis or in extreme rare cases the dissertation is rejected. If this happens, the PhD candidate should discuss with his or her supervisor on how to proceed.

If the Assessment Committee agrees with the content of the dissertation, the supervisor will fill out Form 3: ‘Assessment Committee’s Decision regarding Admission to the Thesis Defence’ (see Hora Est!). The Assessment Committee might decide on awarding the nomination for cum laude, but the PhD candidate will not be notified about this.

Once Form 3 has been filled in, the official procedure will take place almost automatically. The Beadle’s Office will provide the PhD candidate with all necessary information regarding the official part of the final stage of the dissertation and what to do when. Questions that are still unanswered can be posed to the Beadle’s Office, who are very knowledgeable about graduating.

Although the official documents might suffice, it is recommended to ask colleagues (PhDs, young assistant professors, or post-docs) for more information. There are many best practices which differ from one field to another.

Finalizing your dissertation booklet

While waiting for the final decision of the Assessment Committee on your dissertation you can work on finalizing your dissertation booklet. Both finalizing the content (title page, acknowledgement, bibliography and so on) and the lay-out will take a lot of time, so be prepared!

What to include in your dissertation booklet depends on your field of study. There are of course official guidelines (see the ‘Instructions to the PhD-candidate’-document), and there are obvious sections (index, introduction, chapters describing your actual research, references, bibliography, short curriculum vitae, acknowledgements), but there are differences in content between faculties and departments. There is even some personal freedom to play around with the content of your dissertation booklet. Basically the same holds true for most lay-outs; headings, graphics, front- cover, photos, and so on. For inspiration, consult several prior published dissertations in your own field of study, outside your own field, and maybe even from other faculties.

It might be useful to prepare a short document for your supervisor with an overview of all parts of your dissertation (from cover to cover) with only the section titles or a short bullet-wise list of the content (Note that for the title page and the back of the title page there are strict guidelines and you have to send these to the Beadle’s office for approval). This way, you are sure that you and your supervisor are on the same track and surprises afterwards are kept to a minimum.

After so many years of working on your dissertation, you may have become accustomed to simple mistakes. In other words, it is advisable to allow a third party to check for small errors. It is advisable to not only ask researchers in your own field, but ask somebody not related at all to your topic, maybe even outside academia. You may be surprised how many errors you have made. If you have written your manuscript in a foreign language, it might be a good idea to pay a professional editor to correct language mistakes. Finally, read the ‘Instructions to the PhD-candidate’-document carefully. Especially the guidelines of the title page and back of title page are very strict. You can also find information in this document about propositions (in Dutch: stellingen), copyrights and application for an ISBN-number (which is recommended).

On a last note, make sure to take enough time for finishing the final part of your booklet, because it is your acknowledgement, introduction and bibliography that will be read most (probably in this order). Moreover, the lay-out of the dissertation is an important element of a successful booklet. Ask your colleagues, parents, and friends for feedback as they will probably identify overlooked errors and confusing clauses.

Printing your dissertation

You are only allowed to print your dissertation after the Assessment Committee has approved your dissertation and the Beadle’s office gives you permission to print the dissertation. While waiting for the permission you can already gather information about printing and ask for offers from printing companies.

Selecting the printing company is very important because there are huge price and quality differences between companies. Spend some time searching for information on printing, printing costs, cover design, illustrations, and so on. You can use the internet for this (much information is available on the websites of printing companies) or visit the PrOUt PhD-day where some representatives of printing companies are present. It is advisable to find a printing company that specializes in printing PhD dissertations; they can provide you with more detailed advice based on experience compared to general offices.

Costs are also an important factor. To reduce these cost ask more than one printing office for an offer and compare these offers carefully (it is not only the price that matters, but also, among many other things, quality of the paper/cover, color/grayscale, costs for a second print, number of copies, supplementary sheet with details of your party, delivery costs). In addition, some faculties have budgets for printing dissertations therefore ask your local representative for existing agreements. Your department or your supervisor may also have budgets for printing costs so seeking information from them may help to reduce printing costs. In some cases, it is even allowed to combine subsidies but always inform your supervisor because local, informal regulations may exist. The days before you receive the boxes with hundreds of copies of your dissertation, you can prepare envelopes and addresses for distribution (Make sure to use solid envelopes!) If you have received the copies of your dissertation and you would like to post them, it is possible to use the university service (it will cost you no stamps, but you have to write the university address on the envelope including information of your department and your name). Please notify the post service that you will post several boxes with envelopes, and they will bring a trolley.

Your dissertation is a once in a lifetime opportunity to advertise yourself and your work. So, do not only send your family, friends, direct colleagues and fellow-members of your research institute a copy, but also send a copy to famous people in your field of expertise (even outside academia), researchers who you have cited in your dissertation, professors of other departments/universities, other PhD candidates from your research graduate school and finally to all people of whom you have received a business card (so now you know why you should have kept them).

Before and after your defence

Before a defence, you can organize a laymen’s talk at their own institute, or at the Academiegebouw (contact Oud Londen). Although this is not required, it may make you feel more comfortable with the venue, or at the very least reduce distractions and stress for the real defence. On this note, it is also a good idea to organize a test defence with colleagues. Of course, after a defence, one should plan a couple of free days to relish the memory of a successful defence.

Defense timeline

Here we present in short the most important actions you need to undertake during the last months of your PhD trajectory.

6 months prior to your defence

  • Read the promotion regulations and other information regarding your PhD defence.
  • Fill out Form I for PhD candidates in Metis
  • Decide with your promoter who will be in your assessment committee (reading committee) and who will be your opponents.
  • Ask for information on printing your thesis at different printing companies.
  • Think about the program of the day of your defence and ask for information on receptions, dinner and/or the party.

3–4 months prior to your defence

  • The thesis has to be sent to the assessment committee.
  • Plan an appointment with the Beadle’s office and find a date for your defence, together with your supervisors and (foreign) opponents (sometimes a date can only be set after approval of the assessment committee).
  • After approval by the committee a form has to be filled in by the promoter.
  • Think about the organization of the reception, party and dinner.
  • Make an appointment with a printing company to discuss the lay-out and possibilities of your thesis.
  • Apply for an ISBN-number for your thesis.
  • Apply for grants to cover the printing costs of your thesis.
  • Finish the thesis including front page, title page (approval of Beadle is sometimes needed), summaries and acknowledgements.
  • Do the lay out of your thesis.
  • Think about who will be your “paranymphs
  • Visit the party accommodation and make a reservation
  • Organize the reception after the ceremony (in the Academiegebouw or elsewhere)

1–2 months prior to your defence

  • Send the thesis to the printer.
  • Make an address file for sending your thesis (promoters, daily supervisors, opponents, subsidizing organizations, colleagues, contacts outside the university, people working in the field, family, friends, etc.) The Beadle will ask for a number of copies for professors at the faculty.
  • Distribute the thesis.
  • Buy/rent clothing (a dress suite or something else)
  • Organize a photographer, video, audiotape.

Last weeks prior to your defence

  • If you do a “lekenpraatje”: make your presentation
  • Make sure the appointments for reception, dinner, party are arranged and discuss the details
  • Prepare for the defence by:
    • Reading through the promotion regulations (e.g. how to approach the opponents)
    • Doing a mock defence with your colleagues.
    • Reading recent literature and core literature
    • Reading comments of reviewers and your reply to that.
    • Writing down strong and weak points per chapter.
    • Think of possible questions per chapter.