‘Stepping aside in favour of your PhD candidate is also good leadership’

How a supervisor and PhD candidate design a coaching programme varies greatly depending on the individual, the subject and direction. The professor is responsible for monitoring quality. Professor Remco Havermans and PhD candidate Britt van Belkom from Maastricht University (UM) in Venlo are a great example of how to put the perspective of development at the forefront. “I think a broad learning track is more important than full-blooded research,” says Havermans.

PhD candidate Britt van Belkom and her supervisor Remco Havermans.

When asked to identify the most remarkable characteristic of his PhD candidate Britt van Belkom, supervisor Remco Havermans, professor by special appointment of Youth, Nutrition and Health, does not have to think twice. “Britt is optimistic, pragmatic and very orderly,” he says. “In many people, this stems from a desire for control, but not in her case. She loves to have things organised and is incredibly good at switching gears. Which is great because I’m a bit of a scatterbrain.”

We are talking at Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo, which was set up in 2017 on the former Floriade exhibition site in Venlo and where UM also has facilities. Van Belkom has completed four years as a PhD candidate and hopes to complete her doctorate on four different research projects on food perception and youth in a few months’ time at the time of writing. The Youth, Nutrition and Health chair was set up in 2019 with funding from six private parties, with research focusing on children’s eating behaviours, subdivided into ‘the general population’ and ‘excess weight and obesity’. “Tangible topics,” says Van Belkom, grinning. “Easy to explain, and everyone has an idea to contribute. We hope to make some kind of contribution to children living healthier lives and reducing obesity.”

‘At first, the route was far from set. We are shaping the process together.’

A rocky start

Van Belkom met Havermans during her internship at the Prinses Máxima Centre for Paediatric Oncology in Utrecht, where she was collaborating on research into altered taste in children undergoing chemotherapy for her master’s degree in Health and Food Innovation Management. She had not previously met her other supervisor, paediatric endocrinologist Edgar van Mil.

Initially, with a master’s under her belt, Van Belkom did not plan to continue working towards a PhD: “I thought it would be too linear, involve too much solo work and be too specific for me,” she explains. “I function best in a team.” However, she did not enjoy the consultancy job she had started, and after an email to Havermans asking if she might still be able to do a PhD track, it turned out that this chair had just been set up. She seized the opportunity, but was hit with a rocky start. “Twelve days after I began, lockdown arrived. That was challenging. But I’m really enjoying it all, and the process is incredibly multi-faceted. At first, the route was far from set. We are shaping the process together.”

A busy schedule

Van Belkom spends three days a week on the PhD track and works on the same Brightlands organisation campus on the other two days. There, she focuses on consortium formation and grant applications for innovative projects in which UM also regularly participates. It’s a challenging schedule, which she interlaces with work as a board member of the Central PhD Candidates Platform (CPCP).

“I was a bit taken aback when I heard she wanted to do that as well,” admits Havermans. “But I didn’t say that out loud. I knew from her master’s days that board duties energise her, so I thought she should do it. I think it’s really important that a person feels comfortable, not just because of the research work required.”

“Remco is a down-to-earth and considerate person,” says Van Belkom. “He is good at putting the importance of research into perspective. He never forgets that there is more to life than just work.”

‘When there’s a delay, this is almost always because people do not spend enough time with their supervisor.’

Balanced learning

Havermans is currently supervising seven PhD candidates and has supervised six successful PhD tracks in recent years. He is firmly committed to an intensively supervised and balanced learning track. In shaping the process, he considers the broad development of a person more important than full-blooded research.

“It’s a learning track in which the person gets to grips with the different facets involved in carrying out sound research,” he says. “I think it should be manageable. Who am I to introduce all manner of extra goals, which could result in the person being put off academia for good after reaching the finish line? That would be an incredible waste. Doing a PhD is an aptitude test, nott a professor’s prestige project.”

Havermans talks to his PhD candidates every week to flesh out methods, discuss issues, evaluate the working method (“which is never set in stone”) and explicitly because of the collaboration this entails. He has adopted this schedule from his own time as a PhD candidate. “At the time, it felt like a luxury,” he explains. “I thought to myself: ‘If I ever start supervising others, this is how I will do it!’”

According to Havermans, this avoids a common problem in academia, namely that PhD tracks can continue considerably longer than intended. “That is almost always because people don’t spend enough time with their supervisor.”

The importance of supervision

But does this approach not prevent future academics from taking on an independent attitude? “If you’re in training, you have to be supervised, unless you don’t want to be supervised and have good reasons for this,” says Havermans. “Writing a scientific article and knowing how to analyse data is difficult. You are allowed to receive help with this, partly through courses and partly one-to-one. The type of supervision differs from person to person, and each project requires a specific approach.”

Prof. Remco Havermans and Britt van Belkom doing research about nutricianity and children.

Organising feedback meetings properly also makes the process more effective. “Putting your head together with someone is one of the finest elements of our profession,” he continues. “It’s far more satisfying than just putting your name to a publication, regardless of whether or not you want to go so far as to agree on every comma. I’m not a fan of working solo.”

That was not something Havermans was familiar with as a PhD candidate anyway. “At the time, I threw myself into research and analysis like an idiot. Looking back, it would have been really useful if I’d looked into time management and project leadership as well. The quality of research will not be impaired if you broaden your development. What matters is that you complete a good PhD thesis, in the most enjoyable way possible and within the given time.”

‘Looking back, it would have been really useful if I’d looked into time management and project leadership as well.’

Overcoming some shortfalls

Van Belkom is “very happy” with the weekly schedule and the easy and accessible contact she has with Havermans. “I’m an extrovert; the more feedback I receive, the better. I had expected more hierarchy on the shop floor and that I would be the one carrying out an assignment, but collaboration is key.” She also appreciates the weekly hour-long video call with the other PhD candidates, supervised by Havermans. They use this time to exchange experiences about their work and how they are doing. “We started doing this during the pandemic,” says Van Belkom. To which Havermans adds, “And once in a while, we see each other in person and enjoy some flan – because, well, why not?”

Both, however, are less happy with the way PhD tracks and supervision are embedded in academic practice. They would welcome it if criteria were laid down for supervision and quality of the process. “My committee work and participation in sounding board groups at UM’s Faculty of Science & Engineering meant that I knew the rules and knew that I could also free up time during the PhD period to be a committee member,” says Van Belkom. “But I don’t think everyone is so well informed.”

“I never have an organised discussion with other supervisors,” adds Havermans. “There is no course or peer supervision. Which is a shortcoming, not least because of the vulnerable side: the power relationship. Who can you turn to if you can’t get along? Will you be giving up your career by bringing up something like that?”

To address the latter aspect, Havermans and a colleague have drawn up a ‘Lab Handbook’ for his own laboratory, containing practical information for staff members and trainees, including who has been appointed as a confidential adviser and what steps to take for people wishing to make complaints or give compliments. “We always explicitly say that we attach great importance to everyone feeling safe and comfortable.”

Small steps towards big changes

When asked whether he receives sufficient external recognition for his role as PhD supervisor, Havermans briefly falls silent. “The best thing about this job is that a PhD candidate will come to you at the end of the process to tell you how something should be done, after having been utterly timid when they first came to see you a few years earlier.” He would like to see broad-based support for this intrinsic appreciation. “In fact, money is currently the only incentive we supervisors receive for supervision – purely and simply to enrol more PhD candidates. But from what perspective? And under what conditions? I think it’s a perverse incentive, and it needs to go.”

According to Van Belkom, the fact that the conversation about taking a nuanced approach to a PhD track is now taking place is “perhaps” because more and more women have leadership roles. “Although I still see many examples of hierarchical leadership, I can see that relationships are changing,” she says. “Gender might be influencing this; women, in particular, tend to take a broader approach to development. That would be nice.”

Remco Havermans is a professor (special chair: Youth, Food, and Health) working at Maastricht University Campus Venlo of the Faculty of Science and Engineering. In Venlo, he researches the psychology of eating, particularly how to establish healthier dietary habits in children. Remco is also the founder and research leader of the Laboratory of Behavioural Gastronomy of the centre for Healthy Eating and Food Innovation.

Britt van Belkom is a part-time PhD candidate at the special chair Youth, Food & Health at Maastricht University Campus Venlo. Besides, she is working as a Business Developer Food & Health at Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo. Within her PhD, her research focuses on the promotion of healthy eating behavior in children and the analysis of factors that play a role in the onset of overweight and obesity in children at the Jeroen Bosch Hospital in Den Bosch.

It’s not only in the Netherlands that a great deal of thought is being given to the development and career prospects of PhD candidates and postdoctoral researchers. In September 2023, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a report entitled Promoting diverse career pathways for doctoral and postdoctoral researchers. One of the key policy questions of this project was: ‘What recognition and reward systems are required in academia to ensure that personal development, acquisition of transferable skills and different career trajectories are taken seriously and as an integral part of ensuring research quality and impact?’ The OECD’s recommendations included: ‘Provide doctoral and postdoctoral researchers with experience and skills for diverse careers within and beyond academia’. In the conversation with Havermans and Van Belkom, we are given a fine example of how to do that as a supervisor and a postdoctoral researcher.

Promoting diverse career pathways for doctoral and postdoctoral researchers. OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Papers, September 2023, No. 158, OECD Publishing, Paris.