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Athena Graduate School

Welcome to the website of the Athena Graduate School. Our aim is to provide a stimulating scientific environment in which young researchers, experienced staff and international scholars mutually inspire one another. In our research, we address complex societal challenges, with the ambition to contribute to positive transformations.

Research domains covered by our work span everything from environmental policy to global health, from societal aspects of emerging technologies to food systems transformation – and much more. What sets doing a PhD at the Athena Institute apart, is that our PhD candidates not only obtain knowledge specific to the distinct domain their research covers, they also acquire a wide range of transferrable skills, as well as generic knowledge about social and institutional dynamics in organisations and society. In the heterogeneous environments their research takes place in, they learn to deal with different (epistemic) cultures, perspectives, interests, values and needs to adjust their strategies accordingly.

Our Graduate School offers excellent opportunities for engaged graduates leading to a doctorate: supervision by senior researchers, peer support by Athena’s PhD council, and training through our PhD education programme. Currently, we have almost 100 PhD candidates, who are all trained to address real-world problems and prepared for successful careers in research or in public, private and civil society sectors.

Read more about our five research domains.

What is it like to do a PhD at Athena?

What is it like to do a PhD at Athena?

Watch this video to see what it entails to be a PhD candidate at Athena’s Graduate School.

General information about doing a PhD at VU Amsterdam can be found here.

More information

  • Internal and external PhDs

    There are two ways in which graduates can be admitted to our Graduate School:

    PhD candidates can be recruited as an employee. Check our vacancies page to see if positions are available. We have two internal trajectories:

    This trajectory leads directly to a PhD degree, and focuses on doing research (85%) on a contract of max. 4 years, with a 15% teaching load.

    Promovendus + teaching
    This trajectory is for PhD candidates with more teaching ambitions. Next to doing research, it consists of max. 40% teaching, with a contract duration of 5 years.

    Besides internal PhD candidates, there are also those who follow a PhD trajectory at Athena whilst working elsewhere. External PhD candidates generally carry out their PhD research part-time.

  • Support structure and culture

    To optimally support PhD candidates in their trajectory towards a PhD degree, we have the following support structures in place at the Athena Graduate School:

    RESEARCH Since we value team-science highly, PhD candidates will publish with one or more co-authors, and all PhD candidates are supervised by at least two supervisors. (Co)-supervisors from a wide range of inter-, trans- and disciplinary perspectives coach PhDs in their research track and provide academic, professional and personal support to help them become a high-quality researcher.

    PROJECT WORK – During regular team meetings with the project leader and other team members support is provided on project-related tasks. 

    EDUCATION - Every PhD candidate gets the opportunity to deepen their academic skills and acquire more profound knowledge about theories and methods pertinent to their research in the tailor-made 30 ECTS educational programme (see below).

    TEACHING - Course coordinators provide intervision sessions and teaching training to combine competency development with personal growth. A buddy system ensures that peers support each other continuously.

    CAREER DEVELOPMENT - Regular in-depth meetings with a line manager and participation in Athena’s personal development programme guarantee preparedness for successful careers in research or in the public, private and civil society sector.

    PERSONAL SUPPORT AND SAFETY - There are two trust councillors within the Athena Institute who are available for confidential conversations, for instance in case PhD candidates face issues that hinder the progress of their trajectory.

    PEER SUPPORT - Athena’s PhD council provides peer support on matters which PhD candidates don’t know who to contact for. Find more information on the Council below.

    Next to these formal support structures, we have an open-door policy and organise many informal occasions, both to offer and request support and feedback throughout all levels of the institute, and to interact with fellow PhD students and scholars from all over the world, to build a network for an academic career and profession.

  • PhD council

    Peer support
    Athena’s PhD Council is an active network of PhD candidates who represent all Athena’s PhD students to inform the Graduate School’s director and to advise supervisors on matters that affect PhD candidates. The PhD Council provides support on matters which PhD candidates don’t know whom to contact for. The council is often able to provide support themselves, as peers frequently know best how to solve problems as they have come across similar issues themselves. If that is not possible, the council will connect the PhD candidate to the right person. Sensitive questions will always be handled discretely and confidentially.

    Representing PhDs
    The  PhD Council also functions as a sounding board for organisational developments concerning PhDs and contributes to the continuous improvement of the working environment for PhD candidates at the Athena Institute. Athena’s PhD Council is represented in the PhD Faculty Council to ensure faculty-wide involvement. In case the council flags any pressing problems, it communicates these (anonymously) to the Athena Graduate School. The council also helps to organise scientific, career-oriented, social and networking events for Athena’s PhD candidates.

    Council members
    Luka Gudek (
    Room: WN A-653

    Research: Public engagement and multi-stakeholder processes within the area of food system transformation for through the CLEVERFOOD project

  • Education programme

    It is important for every PhD candidate to deepen their academic skills and acquire more profound knowledge in close contact with (inter)national peers from their field of research, enabling them to successfully carry out their transdisciplinary and transformative PhD research and become fully qualified scientists who can position themselves optimally for the next step in their career. Therefore, the Athena Graduate School offers an flexible education programme that allows PhD candidates to largely choose their own set of courses, tailored to their personal needs. All PhD candidates must complete training amounting to 30 ECTS (1 ECTS = 28 hours).

    Athena courses
    The programme consists of a mix of methodology and general skills courses focused on one’s later career, and substantive courses concerning the research theme. The following course types are distinguished:

    • Scientific integrity (2 ECTS)
        • Mandatory: Research Integrity (2 ECTS)
    • General skills courses and activities  
        • Recommended: Advanced Qualitative Analysis (3 ECTS) and the Work-in-Progress Seminar (3 ECTS)
    • Scientific specialisation courses (combined with general skills courses: min. 8 ECTS, max. 20 ECTS)
    • Research-related activities (min. 8 ECTS, max. 20 ECTS)
    • Teaching (incl. supervising research internships or theses) (max. 3 ECTS)

    Find all Athena's PhD courses here. Next to courses, we offer various other learning activities, such as participating in conferences and attending research meetings.

    External courses
    Depending on individual needs and wishes, PhD candidates can also follow courses outside the Athena Graduate School educational programme. These may be courses and workshops offered at other VU graduate schools and research institutes or at (inter)national research schools, such as STRN, WTMC and EU-SPRI.

  • Career perspectives

    A PhD degree is an excellent stepping stone for careers both inside and outside of the academic world. Athena’s Graduate School offers various opportunities to discuss different career prospects throughout the duration of a PhD trajectory. We offer PhD candidates career orientation courses in the early stages of their trajectory and encourage them to strategically work towards their professional goals.

    A career in science 
    If PhD candidates desire to stay in the academic field after obtaining their PhD degree, they could choose to apply to academic vacancies or acquire a research grant. Most academic positions at Dutch universities are financed by external research funds. The VU’s Grant Desk offers professional advice and dedicated support to all researchers in the acquisition of external funding. 

    A career elsewhere 
    Many PhD candidates continue their career outside academia, for example at NGOs, knowledge institutions or governmental organisations on regional, national or EU level.

  • Example dissertations

    Towards a Practice of Reflexivity
    Lisa Verwoerd 

    The complex and intractable character of today’s environmental and sustainability issues present unprecedented challenges to science and policy alike. In response, there is called for more reflexive modes of knowledge production. With such modes, academic and non-academic actors collaborate in processes of knowledge co-production geared towards societal transformation and sustainable development. Despite knowledge co-production’s increasing popularity, it has been argued that, in practice, it appears to deviate little from conventional technocratic ideas on the interactions between science and policy. Policy researchers in the Global North who aspire knowledge co-production are shown to run into societal, political, cultural and institutional barriers as the respective science-policy systems appear to privilege more classical modes of knowledge production. Consequently, co-production’s transformative power often falls short of its potential to contribute to sustainability. Addressing these barriers, scholars have called for the institutionalisation of reflexive research. Yet, the process by which institutionalisation might be achieved and what its outcomes might look like so far have received relatively little empirical and theoretical attention. This thesis aims to make up for this, and does so by exploring the process by which knowledge co-production in policy evaluation – as an enactment of reflexive research – becomes normalised at a Dutch knowledge institute positioned at the intersection of science and policy, viz. the PBL Netherlands Environmental Policy Assessment Agency. The main research question addressed in this thesis is as follows: How does the process of normalisation of knowledge co-production in policy evaluation at the PBL Netherlands Environmental Policy Assessment Agency take shape?

    Find the full thesis here.

    Global Health security, multi-stakeholder collaboration, and pathogen sharing: Building a New Microbial Commons
    Carolina dos Santos Ribeiro 

    In the first quarter of the 21th century, epidemics and pandemics of emerging infectious diseases are more present and concerning than ever. Due to the globalized and zoonotic nature of such outbreak events, collaboration and sharing across disciplines, sectors, domains, organizations and countries are essential. For collaboration and sharing to have the most significant impact on the ability of the Global Health community to manage infectious diseases, it needs to be open and timely. Nevertheless, there are stakeholder concerns and countervailing mechanisms for such open and timely sharing guided by data protection and appropriation, as well as the establishment of reciprocity and the fair sharing of benefits; which are threatening efficient and collaborative Global Health action. This chapter sets the scene for this thesis by stating the current importance of infectious diseases, the mechanisms in place to fight them, and why collaboration and sharing are unprecedented when fighting these threats. This research is contextualized to the Global Health security environment, depicting the multitude of stakeholders involved and introducing the difficulties they encounter when collaborating and sharing resources to contribute to infectious diseases management. Ultimately, the aim of this thesis is to contribute to Global Health security by providing insights on how to foster multi-stakeholder collaboration and enhance the sharing of pathogen resources. These insights are produced through the investigation of how collaboration and sharing take place in this context, the existing barriers as well as proposed solutions to address such barriers.

    Find the full thesis here.

    Wading through the Mud: Reflections on Shaping RRI in Practice
    Jantien Schuijer

    Over the past ten years, the framework of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) has gained traction in Europe. It captures the ambition to make research and innovation processes more inclusive of societal perspectives, attentive to social, ethical and ecological impacts, and flexible in adjusting courses of action when needed. Although broadly discussed in theory, many questions still exist about RRI’s translation into the “muddy” context of real world settings. This book aims to shed light on the shaping of RRI in practice. It reflexively studies action-oriented work that was conducted within a European RRI project on public engagement and nanotechnologies. The analyses provide lessons that are particularly valuable in relation to the shaping of public engagement processes, multi-actor sense-making of RRI, and the adoption of new roles by actors working at the science-society interface.

    Find the full thesis here.


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