For HER/HOA willing to start an academic career as junior researchers, the first step should be to follow a PhD programme. Although in many countries PhD can be a higher education that can be made alongside a main profession, in Belgium, PhD is considered a “job” that requires immense dedication of time and effort and as such should come alongside a salary.
There are rare examples where a candidate wants to follow a PhD programme without remuneration. Even in such cases, the researcher is registered in the university as a volunteer worker.
A finished PhD is a success both for the candidate and the Professor. For that reason, in most cases professors in Flemish universities accept proposals of candidates from their classes that they know in order not to set themselves for an adventure with an unknown end. If they sense a certain aspect within the proposal or profile of the candidate will add value or see a shine of success, they accept them to the PhD programme.
So, as a HER/HOA, you are about to set sails into this relatively hard environment. If you want to make a funded PhD below you will find advice on where to look for and what options you have. But if not, in other words if you want to work in a job other than a researcher and make a PhD alongside that, you are doing something uncommon. As this will leave less time for research, it will probably take longer. If you have academic ambitions this is likely not the best option.
You should also note, the professors should see parallels between the professional background or profession you exercise and the potential to successfully finish your PhD alongside daily routine.
If you have the passion to become a researcher or you already were one in your home country and want to continue in this pursuit in Belgium, following information can be helpful to outline a professional / research trajectory.
The Essence of a PhD Programme
For PhD, most universities in Flanders do not require completion of compulsory courses. But the system requires collection of a specific number of points earned across a variety of activities to include publications, lecturing or organizing / joining events, conferences or academic gatherings etc. In this regard, a PhD student can take courses to earn points or as his research requires attaining certain knowledge or competences.
The PhD programs has been based upon writing a thesis as one stand-alone study or as one consisting of chapters structured around three / four (subject to change depending on faculty and department) articles to be published in peer reviewed academic journals in close coordination with the promoter and defending the thesis in the end of the program normally lasting about four years.
Step by step
Get your diploma ready.
Before starting your journey to become a researcher the first thing you should do is to make sure that you are in possession of a master’s degree that will be recognized by the university. If your diploma is outside the European Economic Area, you may apply to NARIC for the equivalence of your diploma. NARIC evaluates your diploma in level or specific recognition, so that you may apply for specific recognition of your PhD, or your master’s degree for both recognitions. Despite individual differences, nearly all Flemish universities recognize diplomas granted by universities in Europe, the US and Canada.
Find a supervisor
The next step should be to find the right professor to support you throughout your PhD. All professors have introductory web pages within their respective university’s web pages detailing their research areas, courses they teach and publications. A survey on those web pages will give you an idea about which professor would be interested in supporting your research.
Prepare an academic CV
Following step is to prepare a CV detailing your prior academic background and works, a thesis / project proposal or a summary of intended research to be sent to the professor. It makes a good impression if your plans are detailed and show a grasp of current literature/scientific debates.
Search for funding
The last element to be completed to start research is to find funding. In many cases, the professor will not accept a PhD student if (s)he has not solved the issue of funding. Or in some other cases the professor will help students find a scholarship from within the research budget of the university or else will show where to look for. Now we will further delve into specifics of the funding options:
a. Government Organizations (Internal Funding Options)
- Research Foundation Flanders (FWO or Het Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek - Vlaanderen)
- VLAIO (Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship or Vlaams Agentschap Innoveren & Ondernemen)
- University Research Fund (BOF)
There are internal funding options that can be found along three main axes. Those are:
Option 1: Working as a researcher on a funded project (FWO, VLAIO, EU, Belspo, Horizon 2020, ISF, ESF, …)
You can be hired as an employee within the framework of a scientific project, which in any many cases leads to a PhD. But those could be short term projects too. Project workers are considered non-statutory academic personnel (BAP-Bijzonder Academisch Personeel). They are employed under a contract and pay taxes like any other employee. What’s more, during applications, there are no prior restrictions concerning the origin of the diplomas of candidates.
In general terms, BAPs are contracted on a 2+2 years basis, meaning initially sign a 2-year contract and are asked to renew the contract at the end of those 2 years. It is good to know that universities have no formal obligation to make announcements for PhD positions available on projects. For some they make announcements and some others do not. So, a candidate should primarily actively seek vacancy announcements of Flemish universities and should also contact professors directly and inquire whether any project funding is available.
Based on the nature of the project (international, regional, local) English may be sufficient to apply / be employed. In other cases, the applicant will be expected to have good knowledge of Dutch. If needed you have to reach a high level of language skill in order to practice your profession, you should follow a course preferably in a university institution. The risk in this option for the candidate is that (s)he may not be able to conduct research in his / her dream field.
Option 2: Becoming a member of the Assistant Academic Personnel (AAP-Assisterend Academisch Personeel)
AAPs combine their own doctoral research with assistant teaching tasks alongside one or more professors. As in the case of BAPs, applicants should actively seek vacancies of Flemish universities, and prepare required documents as delineated in the calls to be accepted. As opposed to BAPs, Flemish universities are indeed formally required to publicly announce vacancies for AAP positions
AAPs are contracted on a 2+2+2 years basis and their workload is distributed equally between research and teaching. Calls openly specify the qualifications required in the sought person and define precisely the election process. Some calls also contain a clause requiring the applicant to have a good level of Dutch or the call itself is in Dutch. In AAP positions, based on the burden of teaching, knowledge of Dutch is in most cases an obligation.
Holders of AAP positions are on the payroll (via employment contract) of the university and pay taxes like a regular employee.
Option 3: A personal fellowship/mandate (FWO/BOF/VLAIO)
For this option, there are mainly three sub-options. Those are:
Research Foundation Flanders (FWO or Het Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek -
:FWO option is generally not applicable to refugees due to restriction
and stipulations of the fund. To be more precise, FWO funds fundamental
and strategic basic research of candidates holding a diploma at least equivalent
to a master's degree following a bachelor's degree and this degree should have
been awarded by the competent institutions in one of the countries of the
European Economic Area or Switzerland. The applicant should have finished master
(master-after-master diplomas excluded) three years before submission maximum
and should have no more that 18 months of academic seniority . To be eligible to
apply, (s)he should be affiliated to a university in the Flemish Community or to
the Evangelic Protestant Faculty in Leuven or the Faculty for Protestant
Theology in Brussels.
If you meet those conditions, FWO calls are announced in December and the calls remain open for 3 months (December, January and February). At the beginning of July, the results are announced, and owners of winning projects are asked to join an interview. Final decisions are announced in October. For more information on the call and its provisions please consult the presentation in this link.
(Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship or Vlaams Agentschap Innoveren &
Ondernemen): VLAIO supports academic research in an industrial environment, a
win-win for doctoral students, companies and universities. In this regard, VLAIO
has one type of mandates for doctoral research, Baekeland that could be
benefitted from by candidates.
With Baekeland mandates, VLAIO wants to offer individual researchers the opportunity to carry out a PhD in close collaboration with the business community. The Baekeland mandate involves, on the one hand, a Flemish company that determines the strategic orientation of the project and provides co-financing, and, on the other hand, a Flemish university that is responsible for supervising and awarding a doctorate in accordance with current quality standards. The work can take place at both the knowledge institution and the company.
If you have expertise on a subject and have a proposal of research that you think will offer clear economic added value in the event of success, VLAIO Baekeland mandate can be a right option for you.
In principle, The Baekeland program is open to mandatories from all scientific fields, all nationalities and ages with fewer restricting conditions. So, if you can find a promoter in a Flemish university that will support your proposal and a company willing to hire you to implement the project you can do your PhD and work in that respective company. The company acts as the main applicant for VLAIO. After approval, the company is granted project-based support. The personnel and operating costs of the doctoral student are subsidized to 50% for a large company and 60 to 80% for an SME.
The mandate is interesting in that it allows you to obtain your doctorate, to know the business world from the inside and see your research results immediately applied in business. This type of mandate is basically four years.
- A third option can be said to be the University Research Fund (BOF), an internal resource made available to universities by the Flemish Government. On the advice of their respective Research Boards, the University Research Fund is used to support ground-breaking fundamental research at the university. A PhD candidate cannot apply directly to the BOF. This needs to be done by the professor (future supervisor).
b. NGOs (External Funding Options)
External funding can be found through international organizations specifically dealing with refugee researchers. Below, you will find a list and short description of such organizations.
Scholars at Risk
Scholars at Risk (SAR) works with its global network of higher education
institutions around the world to arrange short-term, temporary research and
teaching positions for threatened scholars. The organization also provides
advisory, referral, and career support services for scholars. The organization
functions in Belgium through
SAR executes its mission partly in conjunction with UAF (will be detailed hereafter). Upon making an application on the webpage of the organization, the applicant is contacted by an employee from the headquarters in USA to answer several questions that will enable them to assess the applicant’s situation in the host country, academic credentials, risks motivating his departure from home country and references. Then the applicant is invited to join a skype call for an interview. Interviewers try to see if the applicant is really at risk and if he is passionate about building an academic career rather than trying to find a source to live in the host country. The applicant is expected to show that even though the problems (s)he went through did not exist (s)he would still follow this pursuit.
The time difference between first application and the interview may take up to 6 months. If this step is also passed successfully, the headquarters in the USA contacts UAF to agree on how you will be funded. This phase, the period between interview and receipt of first payment may take some 6 months. So, you should know it takes about one year until you receive payment after making an application.
The UAF has been providing support to refugee students and professionals in
their studies and in finding suitable employment on the Dutch labour market
since 1948. The organization is convinced that anyone who can use their
knowledge can make a meaningful contribution to society. That is why it makes
such an effort to assist them. They advise refugees based on their knowledge and
experience, and build bridges between refugees, educational institutions,
(local) governments and employers.
As mentioned above, UAF is the bridge between refugees in the Netherlands and Belgium, and SAR. The organization functions in Belgium through Flemish universities.
The UAF offers the following types of modules as well:
- (Specialized) language
- Preparing for your studies
- Combining work and study
- The pathway to a career
- Medical assessments
The Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara)
(the Council for At-Risk Academics) provides urgently needed help to
academics in immediate danger, those forced into exile, and many who choose to
work in their home countries despite serious risks. Cara also supports higher
education institutions whose work is at risk or compromised.
The Network aims to facilitate cooperation and collaboration between UK higher education institutions in support of persecuted and at-risk academics, and in the defence and promotion of academic and university freedoms worldwide. In partnership with universities and research institutes, learned societies and other like-minded organizations, as well as many academics and other individuals, Cara offers them practical and financial help, and assistance to reach a place where they can continue their work in safety.
Cara is a unique charitable which is firmly embedded in the UK higher education and research community. Sixty-five percent of UK higher education institutions are actively engaged with Cara’s work. It has a growing number of international partners too, giving it a global reach. Cara is the leading organization of its type based in Europe. It is unique in its focus on helping those who are still in immediate danger, and in providing 2- or 3-year award packages as standard. Cara is also very interested in building partnerships with universities and similar institutions outside the UK, who might be able to host an academic at risk. Cara already has active partnerships with universities in France, Germany, Canada and Australia. Researchers having difficulty for funding in Belgium or recognizing as a refugee can submit applications to this organization.
- The Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund® (IIE-SRF) is the global program that arranges and funds fellowships for threatened and displaced scholars at partnering higher education institutions worldwide. At the heart of IIE-SRF is the idea that each scholar we support is a beacon of hope in our world. Catholic University of Leuven and Hasselt University are host partners of IIE-SRF in Belgium.
c. Academia (Universities)
Tuition Fee and Educational Credits
The payments for PhD education are made in two instalments. Initially a tuition fee is paid during enrolment and another tuition fee is paid before defence of thesis, at the end of your PhD. The tuition fee is subject to little increase each year. To give you an idea, this fee was €461 for 2018-2019 academic year and it is € 469,80 for 2019-2020. So, you will pay around € 950 in total. This amount is universal across different Flemish universities. However, you will get more than that during your education in terms of educational credits.
Example: PhD students who are enrolled at the University of Antwerp and who are following the complete doctoral study programme are entitled to receive educational credit worth 1500 euros in all during their PhD. The educational credit is available till the end of the academic year in which the public defence takes place.
Each academic year, 500 euros is added to your balance, so you'll have 500 euros at your disposal during your first year, (max.) 1000 euros during your second year, and (max.) 1500 euros in your third PhD year. When you use money to fund an activity, this amount is deducted from your educational credit.
Tips and facts
- Belgium offers good opportunities for researchers and researcher aspirants. In this regard, you may want to follow a PhD or postdoc program.
- Before starting your journey to become a researcher the first thing you should do is to make sure that you are in possession of a master’s degree or PhD that will be recognized by the university. If your diploma is outside the European Economic Area, you may apply to NARIC for the equivalence of your diploma.
- You can apply to NARIC by yourself or by way of your Integration Office. You have to make your diploma translated into Dutch by a sworn translator. All other documents that you provide should be in Dutch or English. But you can translate all these documents into Dutch or English by yourself (except diploma), official translation is not needed. If possible, try to get English version of your original documents from the university that you graduated in your home country. Getting the equivalence from NARIC can take up to 1 year after you provide your complete file to NARIC.
- It is very important to find the appropriate professor to assist you during your PhD or postdoc program. Some professors read mails from outsiders and some do not. It is better to network or find inventive ways to attract attention from a targeted professor.
- After finding a right professor, it is essential to prepare a CV detailing your academic background and project proposal in order to forward to the professor. Most e-mails professors receive from aspiring PhD candidates are too vague as regards project proposals or research ideas. A well-thought-out idea for a PhD project will make you stand out.
- Upon completion of those steps, an applicant can start the admission process. For admissions, the general policy is to demand -although changing on yearly basis – about €470 both at the beginning and at the end of the PhD, making the total some €940.