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Defining the competences for a successful PhD candidate

In this step we show the competences used by the Association of Universities of the Netherlands (VSNU).
© University of Groningen

As promised in the previous step, we will provide some practical steps that will help you define the profile of the best candidate.

According to Lovitts (2008), graduate students that are most successfully transitioning to research and scholarship display the following characteristics: practical and creative intelligence (rather than analytic); informal knowledge (procedural knowledge about the specific field of research); perseverance in the face of frustration or failure; tolerance of ambiguity; self-direction; a willingness to take risks; intrinsic motivation. Do you see these as important characteristics to be successful in the research culture of your university? If so, you can add these to the list of what you will need to find in the candidate.

The VSNU Competence Instrument of the Dutch Universities identifies the 32 competences that employees of the Dutch universities need to perform their jobs successfully.

VSNU competences

Among those, four are seen as key ones for the job profile of the PhD student: Conceptual capacity (ability to formulate views, ideas and concepts based on complex information, and constructing conceptual frameworks and models); Presenting; Planning and Organising; and Monitoring.

In addition recently, the European Union has issued the European Competence Framework for Researchers, which contains a framework of 38 competences in 7 cluster areas for researchers.

Do you agree with these? Or are there other competences that you consider most important for the specific PhD student you are selecting? Think about the research culture of your university, faculty or group as you select these competences. Please share this with other learners.

Now look again at the list of competences you have now formulated for the PhD position that you are planning to fill. You probably have a long list. Select 3-5 key competences that would really make a difference.

Once you have identified what you are searching for, how can you find out if the candidate has these competences? What kind of questions will you want to ask during the interview? The VSNU document has a useful slide for each of the competences, listing behavioural indicators as well as questions that you can use during the selection process to determine if a candidate possesses the competence at hand. You can start from there to make a list of questions to ask the candidates during the interview.


Lovitts, Barbara E. 2008. “The Transition to Independent Research: Who Makes It, Who Doesn’t, and Why.” The Journal of Higher Education 79 (3): 296–325.

© University of Groningen
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