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PhD Interview - An insight in the life of a PhD'er

Recently, the MARUG interviewed two PhD candidates who are active in the field of marketing. They elaborated on what a PhD entails and why they chose to enroll for a PhD track. A special thanks to David Olk & Žan Mlakar  for making this possible. If you have any follow-up questions, feel free to contact David & Žan.

Could you tell us more about a PhD track? What actually is a PhD track?

A PhD track is a four-year employment position or project that allows individuals to work towards earning their PhD degree. During this time, the primary focus is on conducting research and ideally completing and publishing multiple papers, which contribute to the body of knowledge in their field and provide citations. The completion and defense of a master's thesis, along with these research papers, are essential components of earning a PhD degree.

What type of activities are you doing on a daily basis?

On a daily basis, a significant portion of time is dedicated to research activities. This involves generating ideas, discussing them with supervisors and colleagues, carrying out experiments, analyzing data, and writing up papers for potential publication in academic journals. Another exciting aspect of the PhD track is attending conferences. These conferences can vary in topic and location, with prominent ones like the EMAC (European Marketing Association Conference) attracting thousands of attendees annually.

In addition to research, teaching is also a part of the PhD track. PhD candidates are often required to spend a portion of their time teaching undergraduate or graduate courses. The teaching workload typically constitutes around 20% of their overall time, with the remaining 80% allocated to research. Some PhD candidates may also participate in workshops and courses to enhance their skills and knowledge.

Do you enjoy the teaching part of it?

The attitude towards teaching varies among individuals, but many find it enjoyable and rewarding. Teaching familiar courses can be particularly fulfilling, as it allows candidates to build on their prior knowledge and improve their teaching abilities over time.

How much time does it occupy during the week? Is it on a full time basis?

The employment during the PhD track is full-time, generally consisting of 38 working hours per week. However, there is flexibility in terms of how candidates organize their time. They have the freedom to choose their working hours, which can be during normal working days, evenings, or even nights. Some candidates may even pursue part-time jobs alongside their PhD track. The flexibility allows for personal activities and hobbies, but it also places the responsibility on candidates to ensure they meet the required tasks and deadlines.

David: “I play in a beach volleyball team and practice quite often. As I play with a lot of students, I often get a message in the morning to practice during the day. Luckily I have the flexibility to say “yeah, that is fine”. But then I also know that I need to catch up on the hours either in the evening or the weekend.”

Adapting to this flexible arrangement may take approximately a year. Initially, candidates may question their workload and expectations, but over time they become accustomed to the flexibility and develop effective time management strategies to ensure the successful completion of their PhD requirements.

As it is almost full time, 38 hours a week, who pays you?

The employment and funding for a PhD track typically come from the university. As PhD candidates, we are employed by the university and receive a fixed salary, which is a publicly available salary across the Netherlands. The salary, usually between 2000 and 2500 euros per month after taxes, is comparable to a regular job and increases annually. It's important to note that pursuing a PhD is not just an academic pursuit but a job in itself, where candidates are expected to contribute to the university's research efforts while working towards their PhD degree.

What qualifications which you reckon are essential or needed to do a PhD track?

Passion for research is a crucial qualification for embarking on a PhD track. Having a genuine drive and interest in the research topic is considered the most important factor for success. Additionally, research-related skills such as effective writing and statistical analysis are valuable, although they can be learned and developed throughout the PhD journey. While a master's degree is generally a prerequisite, specific qualifications may vary depending on the research area and program requirements.

It is important to mention that usually the way that a position is given out here within the faculty is that you pursue a research master’s degree, which you can do at an independent master’s. You can do a research master in business and then start a PhD or you can do a master in marketing and then add a one year research master. Then basically in the research master you prepare yourself for a PhD. Usually the people who get the PhD positions are the ones who were in the research master. 

Also there are two types of positions: one is a faculty funded position, where basically the university is the one paying the money. Each year there is like a fixed number across the eight departments that we have. Those positions usually go to research master students. Then also professors can have their own funding, so if they pull a big brand where they get a lot of money for their research or they work together with external companies, then these companies pay for it. Then professors can choose who to employ. David: “I, for example, never did a research master. I did the double degree marketing here in Groningen and Oslo. I spend a lot of time on data science and data science heavy positions. That’s why my supervisors decided to choose me because of my skills set.”

Undertaking a PhD involves significant commitment and resilience. Setbacks are common, such as lengthy review processes and paper rejections, which can be discouraging. However, with a love for the subject matter and the determination to overcome obstacles, PhD candidates find the motivation to persist and continue their research. The support systems, both informal and formal, play a crucial role in providing guidance, mentorship, and a sense of camaraderie throughout the demanding PhD journey.

If you go through the process of a PhD and the setbacks that you experience, what resources are available to guide you in your time as a PhD student?

Regarding support, there are various resources available to guide PhD students throughout their journey. The FEBRI Research School, responsible for all PhD candidates within the faculty, organizes regular activities and meetings where students can connect, share experiences, and seek advice. Additionally, the department of marketing, known for its sociable atmosphere, offers informal support and fosters a sense of community among colleagues. The research school also provides formal support, including financial assistance for attending conferences and access to mental health resources. Multiple contact persons are available to address any concerns or issues that may arise during the PhD track.

What is within the marketing department the best pro or advantage for writing a PhD?

The marketing department at the University of Groningen has a strong sense of community among its members. There is a close relationship between professors and students, and it is common to have open and casual interactions with professors. This creates a supportive and friendly environment within the department.

The department has seen significant success in recent years, largely due to its focus on working with big data. The department has a program called the CIC (Collaboration in Marketing), which connects researchers with companies. Many professors and researchers in the marketing department have collaborations with companies that provide funding and data for their research projects. This offers a wealth of opportunities for PhD students as well. For example, the interviewee mentions that their project involves working with all the supermarkets in the Netherlands, which provides them with real-life data and valuable flexibility for their research. Such collaborations with industry partners allow researchers and students to work with rich and practical datasets, enhancing the relevance and impact of their work.

The department's success is evident in its reputation within the academic community. When attending conferences or introducing themselves as part of the University of Groningen marketing department, people react with admiration and recognition. This recognition highlights the department's achievements and the quality of research being conducted there.

In terms of research areas, marketing is a broad field with various segments and opportunities. PhD students can specialize in different areas such as consumer behavior, strategic marketing, influencer marketing, sustainability, robotics, or big data analysis for large companies. This breadth of research areas reflects the diverse range of interests and expertise within the department. As a result, there are ample opportunities for PhD students to explore and contribute to different domains within marketing.

Overall, the combination of a supportive community, strong industry collaborations, and a wide range of research opportunities makes the marketing department at the University of Groningen an exciting and successful environment for pursuing a PhD.

If you want to do a PhD, do you have to apply or does someone have to ask you to do it? How does that work?

When it comes to pursuing a PhD position, there are two main ways to find opportunities: actively searching for vacancies and being approached by professors. In the context of the University of Groningen and other universities in the Netherlands, the interviewee provides some insights.

Firstly, job vacancies for PhD positions are typically published on the university's website under the regular job listings. This is the primary source for finding available positions within the university. Additionally, there is a website called Academic Transfer, which serves as a centralized platform for academic job vacancies across the Netherlands. This platform can be a useful resource for finding PhD positions not only at the University of Groningen but also at other universities in the country.

On the other hand, it is not uncommon for professors to approach students who show exceptional talent or a particular interest in a specific research topic. This often happens when students have completed their thesis or demonstrate a strong aptitude in their field of study. Professors may reach out to such students and offer them the opportunity to pursue a PhD under their supervision. Being approached by a professor in this manner can be a great opportunity for students who are specifically targeted for their skills and interests.

What do you want to do after the PhD track?

Žan: I have applied for positions that are specifically designed for individuals who have completed their PhD or are nearing its completion. These positions offer a temporary period of two to three years, during which I can focus on publishing my research papers in academic journals. The aim is to enhance my publication record and prepare for future career advancements, such as applying for a co-assistant professor position. This opportunity allows me to establish a strong research portfolio and gain recognition within the academic community by accumulating citations for my published work, which is crucial for progressing in academia.

Having a PhD opens up diverse career paths for me. I can choose to pursue an academic career and work my way up to a professorship, or I can explore practical fields and industry. The value of a PhD varies depending on the type of positions I am interested in. In roles that involve data-driven analysis or consultancy, a PhD is highly advantageous. It demonstrates advanced research skills and expertise, which are highly sought after in such domains. However, in more practical marketing or management positions, the worth of a PhD may be questioned, and the focus might be more on practical experience.

David: Currently, I am in the process of wrapping up two research projects. Having dedicated significant time and effort to these projects, I believe that completing and publishing them will provide me with a sense of accomplishment and renewed motivation to continue my academic journey. I am also considering the possibility of a career in academia or private business. Academic positions offer certain advantages, but they often require flexibility in terms of location. Since I am originally from Germany, I may consider returning there, but the availability of positions aligned with my research interests would need to be assessed. On the other hand, I am also intrigued by the prospect of collaborating with companies in my research and engaging in more fast-paced and practical research. This could involve data analysis, data science, and shorter-term projects within a corporate setting. Both options remain open to me, providing me with a breadth of opportunities to choose from as I progress in my career.

What tips would you give students who want to do a PhD track?

carefully considering whether a PhD is the right path for you is crucial. The experience gained from completing a bachelor's and master's thesis can provide valuable insights into your compatibility with research and academia. If you excel in those projects and find the process enjoyable, it's a good indication that you might be well-suited for a career in research.

Undoubtedly, the journey of pursuing a PhD has its ups and downs. However, with a positive mindset and the ability to make the best out of it, the experience can be incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. Even if you decide not to pursue a long-term academic career, undertaking a PhD is not a waste of time. The process allows you to learn a great deal about yourself, develop essential skills, and expand your knowledge base. It holds tremendous potential for personal and professional growth.

If you're still uncertain and have mixed feelings about certain aspects of the thesis process, I would encourage you to give it a try. Ultimately, you have nothing to lose by applying and exploring the opportunity. It's worth noting that some individuals begin a PhD journey and later decide to discontinue after a few months. So, don't hesitate to take the leap if you believe it could be the right path for you.

It's important to recognize that pursuing a PhD is a job, and you do earn a salary. This is often overlooked, as many people may worry about their financial situation once their student grants expire. However, as a PhD candidate, you are compensated for your work. Although the salary may not be as high as in certain private sector positions, it is still a solid income, especially when considering the cost of living in Groningen. It's essential to understand that a PhD is not just a degree but a professional job with financial benefits.

If someone is interested and wants to know more about the PhD track, is it possible to grab a coffee with you and discuss certain things?

Absolutely, the sense of community and openness among PhD candidates in the department is a valuable aspect. The willingness of fellow PhD candidates to engage in conversations and offer support creates a positive and collaborative environment. It's beneficial to have peers who are going through similar experiences and can relate to the challenges and triumphs of the PhD journey.