Eurodoc Open Science Ambassador Training

Bärbel Tress on ‘What makes a PhD candidate complete successfully?’

Dr. Bärbel Tress
Co-founder of TRESS ACADEMIC

Have you ever thought about what sets a successful PhD candidate apart from those who take much longer or can’t finish at all?

During my work as a researcher and university lecturer, I witnessed many PhD candidates struggling with their projects. They experienced significant problems carrying out their research and most of them required extensions delaying their completion, which is a common and well-documented phenomenon among PhD candidates (Rooij , E. van et al. 2019).

After watching several of my friends and colleagues suffer through the pitfalls of a PhD, I began to think that there must be a missing educational aspect in academia that could improve the candidates’ chances of timely and successful completion. My interest in this topic never waned and a few years later, I put my idea into practice and founded TRESS ACADEMIC in 2007 together with my partner. Since then, I teach courses at various European universities and research institutes instructing PhD candidates how to overcome the main challenges of a doctorate among other academic skills. After advising more than 2,000 international PhD candidates for the past 13 years, I’ve had ample opportunity to follow up on my question.

While I acknowledge that there are external factors that also influence the course of a PhD project, I’ve learnt that successful doctorate completion often depends on how proficient the candidate is across a few key abilities and transferable skills, as shown in Figure 1. Regarding the importance of transferable skills in general, see Eurodoc/Zinner 2018. A good scientific foundation is, of course, another critical factor.


Fig. 1

When looking at what distinguishes PhD candidates who complete successfully in the available time, from those who don’t, the successful ones often display several of the following five stand-out abilities:

  1. Mental strength and commitment: they have the ability to focus their efforts like a laser-beam on completing their projects, mobilising available resources to make it happen and overcome setbacks more easily.
  2. Use time as a resource: they have a sense of urgency from the beginning and treat time as a limited resource. They give the highest priority to their doctorate work.
  3. Goal-setting and project management: they formulate a specific goal for their research project early on and never lose sight of it as they go on. They update their project overview, and know what the major steps are until completion.
  4. Good writing skills: they have no major issues with writing. They have the necessary confidence and the technical skills to produce scientific texts when required without procrastinating.
  5. Communication with supervisor: they display the ability to communicate well with their supervisors to get the support they need. Although not everyone is given excellent supervision, they actively shape the supervisor relationship to clarify issues, learn, and improve their work.

If you are a doctoral candidate, there are two take-aways from the above:

  • First, you can influence the factors that lead to PhD success. It’s possible to make this arduous journey easier and more manageable, if you pick up a few key transferable skills along the way. This is often an empowering realisation for doctoral candidates.
  • Second, be on the lookout for transferable skills courses at your university or graduate school in the exact areas mentioned above. This way you can benefit from the knowledge of professionals. If you’re not part of a graduate school yet, see if you can join one. Be a bit picky and select courses that target areas you need to improve and offer great quality, so you spend your time wisely.