Realities should prompt a rethink of doctoral education

Doctoral candidates, vital elements in a dynamic research and innovation system

Peter Tindemans is Secretary General of EuroScience. This article is based on his recent presentation at the 8th European University Association Council for Doctoral Education Annual Meeting on the future of doctoral education, 18-19 June, Germany.

EuroScience is Europe’s grassroots organisation of scientists, which is working increasingly with similar organisations across the world such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Chinese Association for Science and Technology, the Indian Science Congress Association, the Brazilian Society for the Promotion of Science, and also the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

Advancing science, helping society benefit from science and fully integrating science and innovation as key endeavours in human and societal development are what drive us. That requires a healthy science and innovation system.

This is where doctoral education comes in, or at least should come in. Doctoral education in the past was, certainly in Europe, largely seen as an individual relationship between a supervisor and the doctoral candidate, often without clearly defined rules.

That has changed a lot: graduate schools have been established, mutual obligations are often laid down and university management at different levels follow performance of doctoral training efforts more closely.

Important as these improvements are, they need to be put in a wider perspective. What are we training doctoral candidates for? And do we pay sufficient attention to the fact that doctoral candidates together with post-docs are vital elements in a dynamic research and innovation system, but can only be so if there is a balance with the permanent elements in the system?

The proportion of doctoral holders in the working population differs widely from country to country. Data are somewhat old: OECD, UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Eurostat have collected data for 2009.

Apart from outliers Luxembourg and Switzerland, the proportion of doctoral holders in the working population ranges from two to 13 per 1,000. And as the number of doctoral holders rises in most countries, less than 50% are likely to go into research.

Unsustainable future

Nothing is wrong with this: doctorates may be important for many positions in society. But their ‘production’ is too much the consequence of automatisms in the system.

Why should all or at least very many European universities provide doctoral training? Doing so requires a solid research environment and, as the US example shows, where some 200 universities perform almost all university research, there is simply not enough research funding around.

And as Bruce Alberts, Harold Varmus and others forcefully argued in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014 for biomedical research: the course we are following with increasing numbers of PhDs and post-docs and a declining number of permanent positions, low salaries and a rat race to the bottom, is not sustainable.

We do, however, need better information. EuroScience is working together with several other organisations to establish a European Young Researchers Platform that, in a systematic way through regular large-scale surveys, debates and proposals, could gather data on the views of young researchers, the obstacles they are facing, the conditions under which they are trained and are working, and so on, throughout Europe.

With our global sister organisations we could put together a comparative outlook and discuss necessary changes.

Managing expectations

As the reality is that many doctorate holders will end up in non-research positions, much more needs to be done to manage expectations.

Slobodan Radicev, a former president of Eurodoc – the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers – cited a survey where 80% of doctoral candidates said they knew there were few university positions, but 80% nevertheless expected to land a university job.

It may well be necessary to think in novel ways about doctoral training to cope with this phenomenon. At masters level many universities offer a research track and others prepare students for a career outside research.

Of course, obtaining a doctoral degree requires doing independent research. But a graduate school may well allow for a wider variety of doctoral programmes, thesis subjects and methods of supervision. The supervisors themselves should accept the reality that many doctoral candidates will serve society in many different capacities. ‘Training the Trainers’ is therefore essential and graduate schools could provide the environment to do so.

An essential part of doctoral education is to become part of an international community of researchers. Participating in and presenting to international conferences, stints in foreign laboratories or research institutes, collaborative international projects, are all very good examples of this.

The Knowledge and Innovation Communities of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology bring together universities, research institutes, companies and sometimes government agencies and provide a mechanism to expose doctoral candidates – and masters and even bachelor degree students – to different cultures, different experiences and different approaches.

There is a tendency, however, to formalise such arrangements. It is quite understandable that universities in countries without a strong research tradition seek cooperation with universities elsewhere and organise sandwich degrees or even double degrees. But how much added value is offered by a double doctoral degree from university A in Italy and university B in the Czech Republic?

Let us concentrate our efforts instead on re-thinking doctoral education and scientific endeavour as a whole without giving in to the reflex action of constructing complicated institutional arrangements.

This article was initially published on University World News on 26th June 2015.