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Maintaining the rhythm

In this text, we discuss the process during the middle years of the PhD project and give you some tips and recommendations on what to focus during the
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After the first year, both the PhD candidate and the supervisors move towards an exciting and rewarding phase of the PhD project. It is a productive time, in terms of ideas and results. It is also the time when the PhD student becomes gradually more and more independent and able to make decisions on their own. At the same time they still need some of your guidance, coaching and encouragement. Below are some recommendations for these middle years.

Be flexible

Throughout this phase, it is important that your supervision style is flexible and that you adapt the mode of your guidance to the learning needs of the student. Typically, you will have a more directive expert role in the first phase and then gradually let go and take more of a coaching stance, as the students become increasingly confident in using the skills and knowledge they have acquired. At the same time, as time passes, you might need to pay closer attention to PhD students’ motivation, and energy levels. Their backpack becomes heavier and heavier, yet the summit is far on the horizon, and they might not feel they have made the progress they expected.


The second year in particular might as well be a moment of crisis and disorientation for the PhD candidate. A year has passed, and they might have not produced anything yet, which may be different from their previous study trajectory, where coursework and exams were marking the gradual progression of the learning process. It is important in this phase that you encourage the student and reflect with them on how much they have indeed learned, even if the results are yet to be seen.

Stay on the path and clear the way to the summit

In the third year it is important to already have an idea of what the end product will look like, and the path should be clear. It might be the time to stop searching for possible alternative ways to reach the summit, and to instead round up the main research tasks and focus on writing.

Since writing is a part of the creative process of doing research, it is recommended that the candidate start writing early on, and ideally join academic writing courses with data from their own results, so as to make the learning process more efficient. This is why it is important to do some backward planning and start with the time that is left, so as to calculate what should be removed from the scope of the thesis (and possibly postponed to a second phase – a postdoc or a later project, if that’s in the plan).

“We have a year left, what can still be done in a year, and what can we leave aside?” could be a good question to ask at this point.

It might be tempting for you both to add elements and topics to the project. Ideas are expanding, new approaches are being uncovered. But it is instead recommended that, while keeping up the enthusiasm and motivation, you focus on the closing, on clearing the path towards the end of the project – not adding to the scope, and not inserting parallel projects and tasks.

Focus and foster ambitions

As a supervisor, you need to make sure that progress continues, and that the structure is maintained. If the PhD student undertakes too many tasks at the same time they risk losing the rhythm, which might result in delays. This is why it is important to keep holding regular meetings and discussions not only about the content of the research but also about its planning and about the overall process.

On the one hand, you want to foster the ambitions of the PhD candidate, and push them to climb mountains they think are too high for them. On the other hand, you have to have a keen eye in seeing that every student has different needs and learning paths, different from each other and from yours.

Plan together

Together with the student, you keep an eye on the timeline and the goals set down in the training and supervision plan. These might change over time, but it is important that they are revisited and re-drawn. We will talk more about the function of goals in Week 2.

Finding the right equilibrium between being directive at one point and laid back later on, to give the PhD candidate time to develop, is not only important for scientific progress but also for the development of competences. You may be able to read a map better than your student, but in the end it is essential the PhD students learn to read the map themselves to make it to the top on their own.

Enjoy the journey

Enjoy the fact that every journey is different! Your supervising capabilities will be challenged. Scientific setbacks will happen. Rather than seeing this as a hurdle, we encourage you to see it as an invitation to further develop your own supervisory skills. Unexpected outcomes and the need for the development of a plan B (or C and D) are part of the journey. They will stimulate yours and your student’s creativity. It is useful to find a mentor for yourself, as more senior supervisors might advise on many different matters that you run into in your supervisory role.

Reflect on the text above, do you have further advice on how to guide the PhD student in the middle years of the thesis? Please add your comments below.

© University of Groningen
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