How to be a successful Ph.D. student

Since the start of the fall semester, I am education coordinator for econometrics in the Graduate Program in Economics (GPE) at Tilburg University. In my last column I described the economics Ph.D. program in Tilburg and wrote about the admission process. Now, I would like to write about this program and about my experience as education coordinator.

Let me provide the current Ph.D. students with some advice in this column. Success must always be defined in relation to one’s aims. Some students enter the economics Ph.D. program with the aim of working for the CPB, the DNB or for the private sector. Other students aim for faculty positions. An important decision for Ph.D. students is whether to participate in the international ‘job market’. Ph.D. students should think about this decision early on. Participating in the international job market is necessary for students who aim for a faculty position or a position in an international organization outside the Netherlands.

Students who wish to participate in the international job market will need to send a research paper and three letters of recommendation with their applications. They also have to be ready to give a presentation about their research. Thus, Ph.D. students should have a finished and polished research paper by the time they participate in the job market. This will typically be in the fall of the third year of their Ph.D. contract. Ideally, the job-market paper should be single-authored. However, in past years students with co-authored job-market papers have also found good positions.

Writing a good research paper takes a very long time. It is important to know the relevant research literature very well. Ph.D. students often have to learn new methods and techniques that cannot be learned in a course. It is also difficult to come up with an idea for an interesting project that nobody has done before. In my opinion, it is important that Ph.D. students talk a lot about their research projects. The most important contact is the dissertation advisor. However, Ph.D. students should also talk about their research with professors other than their advisor, with other Ph.D. students, with seminar speakers who come to Tilburg to give a presentation, at conferences, and maybe even with their grandmother. Students should also keep in mind that they will need reference letters not just from their main advisor, but from at least three professors.

In my opinion, it is also very important for Ph.D. students to present their research as early and as often as possible. It is a good idea to present at conferences, but it may be even more important to present at seminars. At seminars, presenters will typically have to answer more questions, and they will receive more feedback than at conferences.

Finishing a Ph.D. program requires a lot of hard work. But it can also be very rewarding. Being able to examine questions of interest is a reward in itself for many people. But the job prospects for Ph.D.’s in economics are also quite good. Starting salaries for new assistant professors at top American and Asian business schools can be above the ‘Balkenende-norm’. Such positions are very difficult to get. However, most of our Ph.D. graduates find meaningful employment which they enjoy and where they can use their skills. This spring, six current Ph.D. students or recent Ph.D. graduates from the econometrics department obtained positions as tenure-track assistant professors.