Writing a PhD thesis in the Netherlands

This post summarizes the process I went through to write and publish my thesis in 2015 at the Delft University of Technology. From what I understand, my experience is representative for computer science and other technical PhDs in the Netherlands. I am not sure how things generalize beyond that.

PhD by publication

In my department it was standard to do a “PhD by publication”. Although you do have a formal thesis in the end, the goal is to publish four first-author journal papers in the four years of your employment. These papers would go “as is” as four chapters into your thesis, and you would add two general introduction and discussion sections to complete it. You could of course also add other chapters if you have more papers or want to add unpublished material.

Different groups have different guidelines on what counts as “publishing a journal paper”. Peer-reviewed conference papers, or papers that you have submitted and are under review at a journal, could also count. My “thesis” was approved when I had 2 accepted journal papers (but, one of these was a second-author paper), 2 journal papers for which I had submitted major revisions, and 1 conference paper that was under review. I write “thesis”, because at the time of approval I didn’t have a single document called “thesis.pdf”, but an outline of which papers would become chapters, and their status of acceptance.



I think that when I started my PhD, I was aware of the PhD by publication, but I thought I would write a “real” manuscript to satisfy the perfectionist within me. But I changed my mind when I realized that’s the only result I would accomplish – my PhD would count just as little or just as much. Since I spent the last year of my PhD revising papers, I was quite happy to choose the easier (but just as effective) option.

There was not a lot of writing to do – only a general introduction and discussion chapters. I got started about 9 months before my contract ended, but I definitely didn’t work on my thesis full-time. I do think it was good to start early, because it gave me some time to digest what I’ve done in the years before and gain new insights. Perhaps that is a disadvantage of a PhD by publication, because it does not “as naturally” lead to taking a step back, as I would imagine you need to do if you have to write an entire manuscript.

I also appreciated having the 9 months to write my propositions, which I defended together with the thesis – see my earlier post about this.

Next to writing two chapters and propositions, I just put together the papers I had into a single LateX project/template. I spent a few hours battling with incompatible packages, but after it compiled, it was amazing to suddenly see all my papers form 100 or so pages of thesis.pdf.



After getting thesis.pdf approved by my supervisors and the plagiarism check of the university, it could be sent to my thesis committee and I could plan a defense date. I believe this happened around January 2015, and my defense was scheduled for June 2015. I’m a bit foggy on the details on this, but I think at this point it is assumed that you will in fact successfully defend your thesis.

In the time in between, you could get comments from your committee on possible revisions, and when enough committee members approve, you can go ahead and print your thesis. In my case, two committee members had suggestions for revisions. One committee member suggested a few points for the discussion, but also said that the thesis was approved regardless of whether I had time to implement them. The other commitee member essentially wanted a “major revision”. But, this committee member responded way after the deadline, so since all the other committee members had approved, I had already printed my thesis. Talk about a scare though…



Before the defense, you have to publish/print your thesis. There are several companies that specialize in this, and you get a bit of budget from the unversity to do the printing. The main things you need is a thesis.pdf that is formatted correctly (not a problem since my latex template already took care of that) and a cover.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about my cover – since I wasn’t working on a specific application, it was difficult to come up with something that would illustrate my topic. Once I had the concept in mind, my friend Hella Hekkelman made the illustration for me – I’m still very happy about it:

Here is it in action:


To see more examples of cover design, check out another friend Carolyn’s post how she designed her own cover.

With the thesis and cover, I ordered about 120 copies of my thesis from the publisher. This is a a relatively normal number, since you give copies to people from your department or in your field. I have even heard of people printing 300 or more! But, everybody advised me not print too many, so I got exactly the amount that the university budget would cover. In retrospect, I wish I would have invested a bit more into it, because a year after my defense, I had already ran out of copies.


Update April 2019: If you have cats on your PhD cover, definitely order more! Proefschriftmaken.nl was kind enough to give me a discount, and I just ordered 30 more books! 


2 thoughts on “Writing a PhD thesis in the Netherlands”

  1. Thanks for the interesting short read. I am currently looking for Ph.D. vacancies in the Netherlands. I am studying (bio-)physics and have a keen interest in machine learning. Unfortunately, other than the foundation in maths there is no expertise in that in physics. Would you say that a Ph.D. is an excellent opportunity for ‘changing the field’ or is there no way to compete with computer scientists?

    • Thanks! I’m probably not the best person to give advice, but I think there is value in having people non-CS backgrounds, and that your math foundation would really help you and give you an advantage over students who did CS in the Netherlands (I did and I feel like I didn’t have enough math). It’s difficult to predict what will happen to the field and who you will be competing with. If you decide to go for it make sure you enjoy the whole process, even if research-wise you don’t get any groundbreaking results.


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