Leonard van 't Hul

Research Master Alumnus

Currently a PhD candidate at the Department of History at the University of Amsterdam.

Why did you choose for studying the Research Master in Rotterdam?  Was it a choice for a PhD career or did other factors count too? If yes, which ones?

This research master is one of the two remaining sociology research masters in The Netherlands that upholds the academic virtue of paradigmatic pluralism. First of all, the program is set to educate students both in qualitative and quantitative methods of research, while allowing them to choose the research path they prefer. Rather than making that choice for them. Secondly, the theoretical toolbox provided by this master consists not only of classical sociological theory, but of critical theory and media studies as well. That combination is unique, and I found it to be the perfect mix for my ambition of obtaining a Phd.

When did you know you wished to pursue a PhD degree? Could you explain why a PhD trajectory was appealing to you?

I graduated from a regular sociology master at the University of Amsterdam in 2009, on a qualitative study on modern Witchcraft and Wicca in the Netherlands. Doing ethnography and conducting interviews was such an inspirational experience that I really wanted to continue doing research on topics involving religion - especially on new religious movements. Unfortunately, to obtain the necessary funding to do so in the current academic climate increasingly requires one to hold a research master’s degree. The RMA at Erasmus University turned out the best way to obtain the necessary qualifications, while simultaneously deepen my knowledge on contemporary cultural dynamics.

How long did it take you to find your present PhD position after graduation and through which means did you find it?  

I graduated in May 2013, but was working as a junior lecturer at the sociology departments of Rotterdam and Utrecht since the beginning of that year because I was not fortunate enough to receive funding from the Dutch Scientific Council (NWO). Meanwhile I was on the lookout for vacant PhD positions and managed to obtain my current position at the History department of the University of Amsterdam in September 2013 (after finding the vacancy via Academic Transfer).

What is the (working) title of your PhD project? Could you briefly explain what your PhD project is about? Is there any relation to the topic of your master’s thesis or research traineeship or to other elements of the research master’s programme?

The project I’m currently working on is named ‘Religion Renegotiated: faith-based organizations and the state in the Netherlands since the 1960s, and aims to unravel the dynamics of interlocution between the Dutch state and religion by looking at various policy measures vis-à-vis faith-based organizations (e.g. churches, the Humanist League, the Salvation Army, various Muslim associations). The project relates directly to academic debates on secularization and religious pluralism, as well as ‘classical’ foucaultian themes of dynamics of governmentalization and juridicalization of societal issues in contemporary Western societies. These topics were discussed at some point during the RMA.

Is your PhD project part of larger research project/programme or is it an individual project? Did you receive a scholarship or grant for this project?

My research project is part of a larger multidisciplinary project on the relationship between the state, religion and public domain. I conduct the sociological research (content analysis and qualitative research), but my work is complemented by two historians and one legal scholar.

Would you say you were well prepared for conducting this particular PhD project, and for PhD research in general? Why/Why not?

In terms of theoretical knowledge I consider myself well prepared. However, I do feel that I lack hands-on experience to conduct a content analysis of all those policy documents. For one, it has proven hard for me to determine where sources on policy discussions are to be found. Although most official documents are stocked in the National Archives, a vast amount of interesting material is located in archival centers all across the Netherlands. Also, given the vast amount of written material – seldom in lively prose - it proves a formidable task to determine what to extract from this ‘mangrove of paperwork’.

Do you have any tips and tricks for current research master students?

I recommend current research master students to be an academic omnivore. Nourish yourself with insights from sociology, history, philosophy, media studies, etc, and dive into any cultural topic you like during the various courses in the first year of the master’s programme.

That being said, I strongly recommend students who want to pursue a PhD position to take on a more instrumental attitude in advance of the second year. Two important steps you should take are deciding upon one or two research topics to work on for your MA-thesis, and contacting a professor whose work inspires you. Make sure your research topics are clear, and be bold enough to proclaim that you would like to work towards a PhD-position. Together with the professor of choice, you can develop a plan of how this could be achieved. Consider your master-thesis to be a steppingstone in the process of getting a PhD-position, and start working on a research-proposal simultaneously. Even if your own proposal does not result in a grant or subsidy, it is a perfect display of your determination and skill in future applications. Good luck!