Hup Holland! Tales from My Joint Appointment in the Netherlands

I have a unique academic appointment. I spend nine months each year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and the other three months at the VU (Vrije Universiteit)in Amsterdam. What started as a semester on leave developed into a more permanent position: I just finished my first three-year contract and signed another.

My academic home at the VU University is in Communication Science, which focuses on media psychology. Many of my colleagues are social psychologists. Peter Vorderer (Editor of Media Psychology) is the department Chair and the director of CAMeRA (Center for Advanced Media Research in Amsterdam). Because I study the impact of violent media, this is a very comfortable home department for me.

The Pedel in her full regalia for a Dutch PhD ceremony.

There are interesting differences between Dutch and American universities. One difference is the PhD programs. Dutch PhD students are university employees (more like staff than students). Dutch students complete Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees before beginning their PhD. Funding for PhD students is often provided by the Dutch Science Foundation. To secure funding, professors write a short proposal describing a series of studies that will be carried out during a 4-year period. Because funding is very competitive, the number of PhD students per faculty member is quite low in the Netherlands. One disadvantage of the Dutch system is that PhD students aren’t as free to carry out independent research (they often just carry out the research in the grant proposal). The dissertation each candidate produces is a paperback book written in English, usually with a cool cover. The chapters are journal articles, and introductory and concluding chapters are added.

The PhD ceremony is very different in the two countries. The Dutch ceremony is quite formal, including the clothing worn (e.g., male candidates wear tuxedos). Before the ceremony, the Dean (who wears a necklace from the 17th century to the event), promoters (called advisors in the States), and five or six opponents meet together first to discuss what questions to ask the candidate. The defense is a public one, with colleagues, family, and friends gathered together in an auditorium. As a show of respect, the audience stands up every time professors enter or leave the room. The candidate is on stage with two supporters of their choosing, one on each side. In the past, the supporters were strong men in case any fights broke out between the candidate and the opponents. Today, they are often individuals who are knowledgeable about the topic and can stand in if the candidate faints. (One PhD I talked to selected actors that could entertain the audience if she fainted.)

The ceremony begins and ends with the Dean striking a gavel against a sound block like a judge. The opponents ask the candidate questions for one hour. I was told this rule was initiated because in the past defenses would drag on and on. During the questioning, the promoters cannot speak. At the end of the hour, a person called a Pedel, dressed in robes and carrying a wooden pole with a shiny ornamental silver ball on top (the Pedel would look at home in a Harry Potter movie!), pounds the pole on the ground and says “Hora est” (Latin for “it is time”). The professors then meet behind closed doors to discuss whether the candidate deserves a PhD, and whether it should be granted with cum laude honors, which are given to about 10 percent of Dutch PhDs. The professors return to the auditorium, and the Dean announces the results of the deliberations. Finally, the promoters are allowed to speak about the candidate’s work, which they praise excessively (called Laudatio in Latin). The Dean and promoters sign the diploma, which is very large and is written on thick paper containing official stamps and seals. The Pedel rolls the diploma up, ties a ribbon around it, puts it in a tube, and hands it to the candidate. A reception follows, with drinks and snacks. Many candidates also have a huge party later.

My faculty meetings at the VU University are also different than the ones at Michigan. The Dutch don’t like hierarchies. Those in attendance (including all PhD students) discuss the items on the agenda and keep discussing them until everyone has expressed their opinions. The Dutch highly value open and honest communication. Some regard this as rude, but it isn’t meant that way. There is no voting. Those in attendance eventually come to some kind of “consensus” (or get tired of arguing their point).

It is much easier to do research in the Netherlands than in the United States. There is no IRB. I could design a study with a Dutch colleague today, and start collecting data tomorrow. Researchers who use children as participants use passive consent, which is very high (over 90 percent).

Dutch researchers, like American researchers, strive to publish their research in top tier international journals with high impact factors (e.g., Psychological Science), and they do so even though English is not their first language. Often, manuscripts are proofread by a native English speaker before being submitted.

One benefit of being in Amsterdam during the summer is that I am now collaborating with colleagues in other parts of the Netherlands and in other European countries including France, Germany, Luxembourg, Poland, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Exchanges between universities have been mutual. My first Dutch PhD student, Sander Thomaes, visited the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research (ISR) for a semester. My colleague from the University of Luxembourg, André Melzer, also visited me at ISR for a few months.

Having this appointment has not only increased my research productivity, it has also greatly increased the quality of my life. Some of my best friends live in Europe. I love the food, architecture, canals, multiple cultures, bikes, soccer matches, and art in Amsterdam. My perspective has broadened, and my appreciation for international research has increased. It also has been fabulous for our children to be exposed to another culture and language. So, I proudly say “Hup Holland!” with as much gusto as I say “Go Blue!”♦

Observer Vol.21, No.8 September, 2008

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