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PhD students should be managers, not technicians

Over the past year there has been considerable criticism in leading journals about the future of the PhD, with the underlying message that there is an overproduction of PhD graduates and that standards are falling.

The Humboldt concept of PhD education – research training under supervision – goes back over 200 years. Now, the PhD is perhaps the most internationally recognised academic degree, a PhD graduate being perceived as a trained researcher.

Until comparatively recently, PhD training was the route to an academic research position. Some professors would sometimes have a PhD student work with them, and successful students would likely end up permanently in academia. Given the growth in universities, this apprenticeship model was balanced.

In the past decades, however, the position has changed. Now most professors have, and are expected to have, several PhD students. And university growth is modest, if not negative. The large majority of PhD graduates will use their talents outside of academia.

Clearly, the model has become unsustainable.

Two approaches

There are in principle two approaches to solving the problem.

First, that the number of PhD students be drastically reduced. This, however, overlooks the far-reaching consequences for research output, since a large proportion of university research is now performed by PhD students.

The alternative is to ensure that PhD graduates who do not end up in academia are well qualified for the non-academic job market.

PhD graduates are among the brightest of our citizens and their PhD programmes should be an opportunity to develop their powers to solve problems. Such experience should give them the background to make major contributions to society and thus the competing economies of the future.

However, the recent criticism indicates that this is not always the case. Why is this? In our view it is due to the failure in some institutions and countries to recognise that the PhD training itself has to change to accommodate the new reality.

As long as PhD training was just a preparation for academic research, the traditional approach of performing experiments in a laboratory for a number of years and writing these up in detail in a monograph was a good basis for a future academic career.

That, however, is now not the case. If PhD graduates are to be attractive to the non-academic job market then they need to have so-called transferable skills: how to make presentations orally and written to national and international audiences, scientific and lay; how to teach; networking; grant writing; patenting; project management.

These are all aspects that are important for academics, but also of value elsewhere. Indeed being able to set up a three-year project, perform it and present it, is itself a transferable skill. The skills learned would be valuable in any job where creative synthesis, initiative and resourcefulness are needed.

Thus PhD education should be seen as a valuable contribution to the knowledge societies that will form the competing economies of the future.

A new approach is needed

Such an increase in the demands on the PhD student cannot be accommodated by the traditional apprenticeship model, if the quality of the research is to be maintained.

Excellence in research is the sine qua non of a PhD programme, but a new attitude to the PhD is needed, away from the idea that it consists only of learning scientific method and laboratory techniques towards having responsibility for a project.

In future the student will not necessarily do all the work himself or herself – whereas previously such an idea was anathema – but will rather learn to manage the job.

This is the approach favoured in Europe, and that recommended by the European Commission and the European Universities Association’s Council for Doctoral Research (EUA-CDE), where quality is ensured by embedding PhD programmes in a structured organisation within the administration of the institutions granting the PhD degree.

With this approach it is possible for PhD programmes to be completed within three to four years, to have research outputs at least at previous levels, and for the PhD student to develop the transferable skills that the PhD graduate will need to be competitive in the job market.

Over the past seven years, the approach recommended by the European Commission and the EUA-CDE has been expanded in the biomedical and medical fields by the organisation ORPHEUS – Organisation for PhD Education in Biomedicine and Health Sciences in the European System – which represents more than 100 European faculties and institutions.

ORPHEUS has produced a set of standards. The standards combine specificity with the flexibility needed to accommodate quality PhD programmes in different countries. The major points can be summarised in the following ‘seven pillars':

  • PhD programmes require a strong research environment.
  • Admission to a PhD programme requires a level corresponding to a bachelor and two-year masters, and based on research potential rather than past experience.
  • PhD programmes are structured and based primarily on a three- to four-year hands-on, original research project.
  • PhD programmes should include project-related course work covering at most about six months, including courses on ethics and transferable skills.
  • PhD students should have qualified and regular supervision.
  • A PhD thesis should demonstrate an intellectual ability to be expected from completion of a three- to four-year research project at international level (for example, the equivalent of three papers-manuscripts).
  • The PhD thesis should be evaluated by an assessment committee consisting of active scientists, who should be independent of the student’s milieu and preferably international.

These standards are not intended as a straitjacket, but as a way of ensuring the value of the PhD, both to the institution in terms of research output and in terms of strengthening career opportunities for PhD graduates inside or outside of academia.

PhD students should be managers, not technicians.

* Professor Michael J Mulvany is based at the department of biomedicine at Aarhus University in Denmark and is vice-president of ORPHEUS. Zdravko Lackovic is a professor in the department of pharmacology, University of Zagreb School of Medicine in Croatia, and president of ORPHEUS. Professor Roland Jonsson is deputy head of the Gade Institute at the University of Bergen in Norway, and a member of the ORPHEUS executive committee.
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