The value of PhDs has shifted but is still disputed

Doctoral education in Sweden took a radical step forward when it switched to a four-year study period and allowed published articles to replace a single thesis, but the value of the doctorate is still disputed by employers.

These are the key findings of PhD candidate Erik Joelsson, who defended his thesis on 24 March at the University of Gothenburg.

His mission had been to investigate how the doctoral candidate has been portrayed in the seven major public reports on Swedish doctoral training that were produced during the time period 1945-2004.

He describes the public image as a “persona” and has looked at which characteristics are attributed to candidates over time in the public documents.

Erik Joelsson told University World News that when he began researching his thesis, his working hypothesis for the persona of the doctoral candidate in the public reports consisted of five major components, namely: recruitment, study funding, study efficacy, mentoring, and labour market.

The most surprising discovery was that the committees – typically comprising 10 to 15 experts working for up to a year on their paper – are “constantly adding properties to the PhD student, viz, he or she should contribute to innovation, collaborate with external actors (industry and business), and promote economic growth”, he said.

“The committees have had ideas to promote the PhD to a wider labour market, but the employers outside the universities have been somewhat reluctant to employ a research-educated workforce.”

Joelsson said a “decisive shift” came during the extensive reforms of doctoral education in 1969, and the adoption of a four-year study period, broadly adapted from the American PhD programme, which paved the way for a new professional persona, moderated after the laboratorial and clinical disciplines.

“Supervision and teaching would accompany the doctoral candidates through their education,” rather than them being left in solitary to realise a “life project that the dissertation work once reflected”, he wrote.

“The individual who previously had been appointed by the professor shifted to [become] a collective, which by research education would be given the right condition, regardless of social background, to incarnate a scientific persona.”

Dissertation findings

The title of the dissertation is From Selected to Educated: Persona in public reports on research training 1945-2004. The variables looked at are recruitment, study effectiveness, financing, supervision, research impact and the merit value of a PhD degree within different social sectors. This analysis identifies several “ideal type images” of doctoral candidates that are significantly different from period to period.

“During the 1970s, the doctoral candidate was portrayed as an often older person with experience from working life, while a decade later you can see an elite picture portrayed of a well-rounded person with traditional academic values like the German Bildung, and after the millennium a shift towards internationalisation, excellence and innovation ability are the core values portrayed in the public documents,” Joelsson says on the website of the department of philosophy, linguistics and theory of science at the University of Gothenburg.

And there are significant differences that dominate between the different social sectors. In the higher education sector, that is, in universities, there is a positive view towards the doctorate, seen as major competence value, while the doctoral candidate in the private industry sector is often looked upon as less work relevant and aged with difficulty adapting to new working conditions.

In addition to wrestling with the image of the doctoral candidate in public policy documents, the thesis gives valuable information on the attitudes of the lawmakers over time in Sweden, notably on the arguments for policy changes, the professionalisation of doctoral education, the work opportunities for doctoral candidates and in particular how the workforce defines what kind of academic competence they need.

The dissertation has one very interesting chapter on the time to graduation and the role of the supervisor, and how this relationship in particular has changed due to greater equality between the different positions in academia.

The reporting period for Joelsson’s thesis ends in 2004. University World News asked if he expected some significant changes to have occurred after that due to the heavy expansion of the number of PhD students, for instance in Denmark where the number doubled between 2006 and 2012.

“The trend towards better employment conditions [study funding] for PhD students seems to continue, but with a potential conflict between good conditions versus high costs for the universities, which may lead to fewer PhD students admitted,” he said.

University World News asked several researchers who have been involved in doctoral training to reflect on Joelsson’s analysis.

Sverker Sörlin, professor of environmental history at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, who in 2006 chaired a Danish doctoral committee proposing extensive revisions, told University World News there was indeed an “unfortunate” gap in views between the private and public sectors, referring particularly to the sceptical views of PhD competencies in private industry.

Conservative and prejudiced

He said Swedish business and industry stands out as “remarkably conservative and even prejudiced”.

“Over the long term it is also harmful,” Sörlin said. “Industry needs research-trained leaders, not just in their labs but also at CEO level and in other leadership, planning and strategic functions. This is true also for mid-sized and even smaller companies; tech start-ups have of course realised this a long time ago but traditional industry is lagging behind.”

He said in that regard it is not helpful that many academic leaders tend to take the view that PhD training should mainly focus on the reproduction of the academic elites.

“That is a major mistake. PhDs must be trained in larger numbers to cater to multiple needs across society. This is an important study since it helps identify some of the problems of attitudes and role models that we need to deal with in order to expand and enhance graduate training.”

Professor Kåre Bremer, former rector of Stockholm University from 2004-2013, told University World News that when the doctoral degree was substituted by the doctoral examination in 1969, many were rather patronising about the devaluation of doctoral candidates.

“I remember this well, since I started my doctoral training in 1972. Ten years later, the system was well established and no one talked negatively about the new degree.”

He said the new research training system courses were introduced as an integral part, but the major change, and improvement, was that the thesis did not have to be a voluminous book or a lifework, but a part of an education.

“The changes happened most quickly in medicine and the natural sciences but are now also seen in the humanities and even in law.

“Even more important was the change to the publishing of several articles as a compound thesis, instead of a single volume, and that these articles shall be qualified for international publication.”

This gives Swedish doctorate holders a comparative advantage compared to those from countries still practising the single volume, single copy thesis.

He added that some years ago, a government investigation proposed to shorten doctoral training even further, to three years, to make it fit with the Bologna model for higher education. But the universities were negative and the proposal was shelved.

Gauging the value of a PhD

A different issue raised is how the business and the public sectors gauge the value of a doctorate.

Bremer said he believes the business sector is mostly rather positively inclined, while the public sector – excluding the higher education sector – is largely indifferent, particularly the politicians.

“It is sad to see how successive governments of different colours are appointing one minister of higher education and research after another without a doctorate. This should be a minimum requirement for a higher education and research minister," Bremer said.

Hans Pohl, programme director at the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education or STINT, told University World News that Swedish students appear less interested in applying for PhDs than students from other countries.

“This probably has to do with the fact that in Sweden a completed PhD typically does not bring much status or a substantially higher salary,” he said. The share of international PhD students at Swedish universities is high, in some cases above 50% and on average around 40%.

Professor Mats Benner at Lund University, who was the opponent at Joelsson´s defence of his thesis, told University World News: "Erik Joelsson's thesis is a powerful documentation of both continuity and change in the politics of PhD training in Sweden.

“While documenting the tremendous changes that have taken place in 70 years, from a marginal activity to today's massification, it also illuminates how many conceptions still remain – the PhD is still an elite endeavour, not easily reformed or reforged.

“And it also shows how very varied PhD programmes actually are in Sweden – policy reforms have mainly addressed the general framework of the PhD process, leaving the daily activities to the academic environments themselves."