In conversation: Professor Thea Hilhorst

Providing guidance and support to PhD candidates
Thea Hilhorst

As the Chair of the Research Degree Committee, Professor Thea Hilhorst is tasked with monitoring the quality and output of PhDs at ISS by providing policy guidance and support to candidates and supervisors to realize the supervision that enable candidates to thrive.

Seated in an armchair in her office, she explains her mission in her usual calm, poised manner: to design a robust, protective PhD environment that ensures candidates can have the fruitful experience they are entitled to during and beyond their PhD

Progressing with our PhD programme

Having completed her own PhD during a more 'cowboy style' era of research where the words ‘research ethics’, ‘safety and security’ and ‘data management’ were not even in research vernacular, she firmly believes that one of the best developments within the field of academic research is the progress and implementation of ethics and safety. In ISS, she and her team are taking this one step further, creating a series of trainings to improve the art of supervision and overall PhD experience for candidates and staff.

Future of development research

The future of how PhD research is done at ISS, therefore, is quite solidly in her capable hands. But what exactly are we going to be researching? The world is rapidly changing, and according to Thea, one of the most interesting changes taking place is the decentralization of development studies itself. Whereas in the past we discussed the formulas, the business and mechanisms of international development operations, we now see a shift away from what INGOs and donors can do better, and towards what social movements and governments can do better instead. And while some of the biggest issues of the day continue to be poverty, climate change, increasing inequality and migration, we also see a trend towards decolonizing solutions and structures.

'I really appreciate how the PhD programme has grown in momentum and importance in the past few years.'

Collectively, the research being conducted in ISS allows for a combination of these topics to be studied in tandem with ethical research methodologies, and the impact being multiplied with research uptake beyond academia and into the community through applied practice – a particularly significant development that Thea is excited to see happening more often.

Second-to-none PhD researchers

Unique to ISS is the ability to combine all of these perspectives with international exposure: ISS is particularly special within European academia given not just its international student population but its international staff population too. Further enhancing the PhD profile is the fact that most candidates come in after having worked in public service, as activists, in diplomacy and beyond before starting their degrees. This combination is the foundation for a plethora of possibilities in impact: from activist-centric research that allows people to go back into the field to create change on the ground, to academic-centric research that leads to post-docs and future lecturers, to public service-centric research that has provided avenues for students to get into some of the highest echelons of service, where they can do things better.

As proud as she is about ISS reaching this milestone, Thea is always looking for ways to improve. One opportunity she identifies is the development of more joint PhD supervisions and joint degrees with partner universities in the global South. An invaluable opportunity to create solutions across borders, perspectives and fields, ISS has already embarked on several successful collaborations and lessons have been learned. Thea is keen to make this a more regular feature of ISS’s research programme, including making such opportunities easier and more tailor-made for future candidates.

She is also focusing on alumni engagement and the impact a well-connected alumni community could make, ‘It would be a great opportunity from a practical sense to know what everyone is doing – like if we have an MA student who wants to look into a specific field, we can say “hey we have an alumnus in this field who might be good to connect with “. I think in the future we will be able to not only follow PhD alumni but also create a real community outfit that can connect and maximize their impact. It is also really nice to follow these stories, so we are keen on capturing that.’

Underlying her entire conversation is the desire to provide simply the most secure experience possible, to ensure PhD candidates not only find a way to complete their degrees successfully, but come out the other side stronger and able to implement their vision of the future. And of course, in Thea Hilhorst’s words, where else can you do a PhD within 5km of the beach?


Professor Thea Hilhorst

More information

Download our digital booklet: Celebrating 250 PhD graduates at ISS

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