'Reality is nothing but an inconvenient circumstance, if you want to defend your PhD thesis at the UT'

| Max Rang

Max Rang, PhD candidate in the TNW faculty, wants to defend his thesis but hits a wall of ‘administrative nonsense’. And that’s why he cannot defend his thesis as a matter of principle, he writes in this op-ed.

Photo by: Gijs van Ouwerkerk

For the past four years I have performed scientific research at the University of Twente. In executing that task I have not been more than averagely successful. I have a number of scientific publications to my name (some more waiting for peer review), I have given talks at international scientific conferences (in the United States, South-Korea, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands), and my thesis is more or less finished. Nevertheless, I currently cannot defend my thesis at the University of Twente as a matter of conscience. Let me explain.

The university makes it impossible for me to defend my thesis in a way that is consistent with my PhD trajectory. For four years, I have been doing scientific research under supervision of a single full professor, and nobody, at any time, had any problems with that. Not my colleagues within the group, not the faculty, not the university at large, including the infamous Twente Graduate School. Now that the defense is on the horizon, the obligation of a second supervisor and/or a second promotor is suddenly sprung upon me.

This obligation was added to the doctoral regulations in September of 2022, two years after the start of my PhD. The reason for the change can be found in a letter that was sent to all promotors in March of 2019. This letter immediately begins with the reason for the change, which is the attention the PhD candidates’ wellbeing is receiving in the national media and politics. The writers of the letter do not seem to share the concern for anybody’s wellbeing, yet gratefully use the opportunity to push through some changes. Evidently the exposition of PhD candidates’ wellbeing in the media is a far more important issue than their actual wellbeing, as far as the university is concerned.

Image management

Though the ambitions behind the regulatory change are not bad, per se, it is clear that the true goal of the regulations is not for the PhD candidates’ sake. The university is performing image management, where presenting rules and enforcing them unrelentingly is the ultimate goal, in an effort not to be accused of negligence. How PhD candidates are actually treated is of no concern, as long as 1) the rules are implemented under the guise of PhD candidates’ wellbeing and 2) the rules are enforce unwaveringly.

Application of the rules is only actually done at the administrative level. To meet the requirements of the Doctorate Board, it suffices to construct an administrative fiction where all rules are neatly met. This is what I did and what many other PhD candidates do. One writes a Training and Supervision Plan which after uploading to Hora Finita is never looked at again. One registers presence at the many different obligatory courses, where nothing is learned and the only proof anything occured is the evidence one is required to upload into Hora Finita. One writes a Data Management Plan, which is inspected once by a Data Steward and afterwards is stored between the other obligatory documents, never to be looked at again. Nobody has any practical interest in how these obligations affect reality.

Administrative retaliation

To name an example from my experience: when the secretary of the faculty asked me to name a second supervisor, I sent in a name in fear of administrative repercussions. Was this person actually involved in my supervision? Nobody cared.

That is, until the issue was raised that I was being obligated to have a second promotor at my defense. The fact that the second supervisor that I had perfunctorily registered, automatically became my copromotor, is something nobody had ever thought to communicate with me. Or with him, for that matter. Despite the size and girth of the documentation surrounding the PhD trajectory (in two languages!) (i.e. the doctoral regulations, the PhD charter, Hora Finita and the TGS website), nowhere was it mentioned that this would happen. In my view, ‘copromotor’ and ‘second supervisor’ are not synonyms at all.

As I wrote earlier, my administative second supervisor did not influence the research that my PhD thesis is based on. No person of practical concern, by which I mean myself, my promotor as well as my administrative second supervisor, ever wanted that. The Doctorate Board, though, is forcing me to admit a second promotor, despite the doctoral regulations themselves stating that they must have ‘expertise in the subject described in the dissertation’.


Do not misunderstand me: my administrative second supervisor is a good scientist, who I would gladly have admitted as my copromotor, were it that his expertise overlapped with the contents of my thesis. This overlap, unfortunately, does not exist. There is little honesty and transparency in pretending there is, for the sole purpose of fulfilling the requirements of the regulations (which apparently can be arbritrarily changed, if the national political climate desires it). It requires a lie that I am not willing to propel. It would require violating my principles of scientific integrity.

Regardless, the doctorate board has no qualms. In fact, they encourage this. They are clearly more interested in the rules that they themselves have made up, than the reality in which those rules are supposed to lead to good outcomes. The four years of my PhD trajectory were supervised by a single person. This is an indisputable fact. This is the truth. This was the reality. To receive a doctorate from the University of Twente I am required to lie about this reality, and to pretend a second promotor contributed to the thesis in a meaningful way. Remarkably, no one has ever asked me if the second supervisor has ever made a contribution. Their administrative existence was proof enough.


We are living through an age where confidence in the scientific method is declining at a scary rate. It is the job of leaders of the institutes that have taken ownership of the phenomenon of science (i.e. universities) to make sure this trend is reversed. They can do this by exalting science, reality and truth above all else.

The University of Twente chooses to do the opposite. Instead of paying attention to the real circumstances of their researches, they choose to apotheosize their own regulations. The rules are thus deemed more important than reality.

The proof is in the pudding: the doctorate board wants to let me graduate, as long as I admit that their rules are more important than reality, by upgrading my purely administrative second supervisor to a true copromotor. The real world, in which I had no second supervisor, is nothing but an inconvenient circumstance to them, as long as the administrative fiction is in accordance with their regulations.

Max Rang

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