Photo by: Gijs van Ouwerkerk
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5000th PhD at the UT: ‘Only do it if you love the topic’

| Michaela Nesvarova , Jelle Posthuma

There have been 4999 candidates before her. Tomorrow, Anna Priante will become the five-thousandth PhD researcher to earn her doctoral title at the University of Twente. Rector Thom Palstra will be the chairman of the defence committee just for this occasion.

It is a big honour to earn the five-thousandth PhD title at the UT, says Anna Priante. ‘It shows that there is a big legacy behind me and it gives me responsibility to pass on the torch to number 5001. It’s a milestone for the university and it’s a joy for me to be there to witness it.’ 

Priante, who is currently an Assistant Professor at the Department of Business Administration, came to the UT from her home in Italy solely because of her doctoral research. ‘I always liked to study a lot, discover new things. I wanted to get a PhD outside of Italy, so I could explore new places and other university systems. When I saw the vacancy at the UT, I knew it was exactly what I wanted.’

‘Tweet your #Mo and Save a Bro’

Anna Priante’s PhD dissertation is titled ‘Tweet your #Mo and Save a Bro: Micro-mobilization dynamics and outcomes of online social movement campaigns’. It studies the effectiveness of online social movement campaigns via social media. ‘Many campaigns rely on social media,’ explains Priante. ‘I wanted to know how effective they are in achieving any change. In my work, I link what people do online with what they actually do in their real life. I specifically focus on health campaigns, because if such online campaigns are effective it could have a very positive impact on people’s health. Social media is a big part of our lives, after all. This way I bridge the “high tech” and “human touch”.’ 

‘The force behind the majority of research’

Rector Thom Palstra will be the chairman of the commission of the five-thousandth PhD defence. He sees PhD students as ambassadors for the UT. 'The doctoral program is exclusively awarded to universities. It is a distinctive training that we are extremely proud of. I think of it as the cornerstone of our universities. Moreover, Dutch PhD students are known worldwide for their high quality, originality and results.'

As a rector, Palstra signs all the diplomas that are obtained at the UT. In addition, Palstra is chairman of the Board for Doctorates, which is responsible for all PhD defences. Only in exceptional cases, such as the five-thousandth PhD defence, he is also chairman of the committee.

According to the rector, PhD students are of great importance to the UT. 'There are about 250 PhD defences per year in Twente. These are the force behind the majority of research at our university. PhD’s are usually funded externally by NWO, EU, companies or other institutions. The process of obtaining financing is very competitive. The five-thousandth PhD defence at the UT shows that we are strong in this competition.’

Hard work and motivation

‘Doing a PhD is like a personal challenge,’ says Priante. ‘It was a great experience, but it requires a lot of hard work and motivation. There are some difficult times, but the motivation will get you through it. I really liked what I was doing and I had a good relationship with my colleagues and supervisors. It was all possible because I shared the experience with other people.’

There are various challenges to being a PhD candidate, according to Priante. The first one comes right at the start. ‘You have to switch your mindset from a student to an independent researcher. Nobody tells you what to do anymore,’ she says. ‘You also need to be very flexible and ready to rethink your idea. What my thesis description was at the beginning is quite different from what I ended up with. Moreover, it’s all very competitive. You need to learn to deal with rejection.’ For all these reasons, Priante advises: ‘Only do a PhD if you really love the topic. You will need a lot of motivation and strength. It will not work if you are forced into it.’

‘Golden time’

According to Palstra, the PhD defence is the calling card for an early-stage researcher. 'It is the first step in an academic career, but it is also a good preparation for other positions, because a large part of our PhD students end up in business. A PhD requires endurance, originality and perseverance. A student must solve dozens of practical and theoretical problems to understand how beautiful nature works.’

The rector still clearly remembers his own period as a PhD. 'My measurements went on until late at night and my girlfriend came to bring fried eggs at four o'clock in the morning. In my view, it was a golden time. I still see my supervisor and paranymphs. I also still have contact with my own PhD students.’

In the strategy route for the next ten years, 'Shaping 2030', the UT will focus on new developments, says Palstra. 'In addition to PhDs, other forms of work will become important as well. The linear bachelor-master-PhD process may fade. In addition, promotions will not only be for starters, as is customary now, but also for people who want to promote at a later stage of their career. In this way more diversity can arise.’

More excited than nervous

Is there something the University of Twente can do to support the future five-thousand doctoral candidates? ‘PhD researchers benefit from encouragement,’ says Priante. ‘There is P-NUT and other initiative groups, offering help from PhDs to PhDs. I think that is something that should be pushed forward because so much can come from peer support. The UT could therefore support such initiatives as much as possible.’

The scientist believes in the importance of her doctoral work – and of the work of her 4999 predecessors. ‘PhD is not just a career step. Our research can make a real impact in the world. We can take care of the world for the next generation. It is our contribution to society. It might be a small contribution on an individual level, but together we can bring the world forward.’

Photo: Karina Veklenko

Anna Priante hopes that getting her doctoral title is only the first step on a longer academic path. ‘I’m happy that I’m able to stay in Twente for the foreseeable future,’ she says. If it comes to the even more foreseeable future and her PhD defence tomorrow, the scientist is more excited than nervous. ‘Everybody tells me “This is your moment. It’s just a nice opportunity to discuss your work.” So I just want to enjoy it as much as I can. It’s once in a lifetime.’

The first PhD student at the UT

In 1965, Marina Van Damme-van Weele was the first to receive a doctoral degree from the Technical University of Twente, the predecessor of the University of Twente. In 2003 U-Today (then UT-News) visited Marina van Damme (the article in the link is in Dutch).

Every year the Marina van Damme scholarship is awarded to a successful UT alumna. The scholarship consists of a work of art and an amount of 9000 euros.