Life of a PhD Student

Dr. Jeanette Mostert
About the Author

Dr. Jeanette Mostert specializes in Cognitive Neuroscience and Biological Psychiatry and is the Dissemination Manager for several Horizon2020 projects, including CoCA, PRIME and Eat2BeNice/New Brain Nutrition.

PhD research students

Four first year students of Biomedical Sciences at Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands, spent a full week shadowing PhD-student Babette Jakobi. In this blog they tell you what they found out about ‘life of a PhD student’ and their discovery on the relationship between sleep and ADHD.

What does a PhD-student do?

A PhD-student is someone who is doing a large research project that can take 3 to 6 years. At the end of this period, the PhD-student has to defend his or her work to a committee of senior academics, and is then promoted the PhD degree.

We followed PhD-student Babette Jakobi. Her research is about ADHD and emotions. For her research she collects questionnaire responses from individuals with and without ADHD. She also makes brain scans while these individuals see images of people expressing different emotions (happy, angry and afraid).

Sleep and ADHD

Our assignment was to formulate a research question concerning one of the datasets of Babette’s research. The questionnaire that Babette uses is very, very long so it was very difficult to decide on just one item and one research question. In the end we decided to focus on the question: what is the difference in time to fall asleep at night between individuals with and without ADHD? We discovered in the dataset that there really was a difference! On average, individuals with ADHD take twice as long to fall asleep at night compared to individuals without ADHD.

Our highlights

Anne Smeets: What I learned from this week is how much freedom a PhD-student has in determining which research direction to take, but also how much they have to figure out themselves. I also found it striking that even PhD-students use Google a lot, and that they drink a lot of coffee. This week has made me very excited to continue with research and investigate similar research questions myself.

Vivan Schuurman: I learned a lot from formulating our own research question. That was challenging and we had many discussions about what makes something a good research question. The things I learned from this assignment will be very useful for future research assignments. This week has been a valuable experience for me.

Ilsanne van Noorden: Babette has shown us all the different aspects of PhD trajectory. We’ve experienced what a typical workweek of a PhD-student looks like, which different phases there are in a research project and what the possibilities are after a PhD. For me the highlight of this week was when we were analysing the data to answer our own research question, and that we actually found a difference between individuals with and without ADHD. This feeling of ‘wow we really found something’ was very unique, especially as we’re still in an early stage of our studies.

Thomas Gielen: After a full week of new experiences, the last day was for me the most exciting. On this day we attended a PhD thesis defence of a colleague of Babette. This is the final ‘test’ before a PhD-student is awarded the PhD degree. Although I have attended PhD defences before, this one was super interesting. The person defending his thesis was very good at formulating answers to the questions he got from the opponents in the committee. 

This blog is written with the help of Anne Smeets, Vivian Schuurman, Ilsanne van Noorden, Thomas Gielen, and Babette Jakobi.

More information:

Babette explains more about her research in this episode of Pint of Science -NL:

You can read more about sleep and ADHD here:

You can read more about early vs late sleepers and mental health here: