Doctoral education challenges in the pandemic and beyond
And as the world attempts to move forward, under the partial shield of vaccination, it is possible to take stock of the impact upon doctoral candidates and the people and structures that support them and to assess what the experience means for the future.
When the European University Association Council for Doctoral Education (EUA-CDE) published its landmark survey of the state of doctoral education in Europe in 2018, the pandemic was hardly imaginable.
With 311 responses from 32 countries, this was the largest survey of doctoral providers and charted a decade of rapid evolution, including expansion, increasing structure in the form of doctoral schools and programmes, and a growing recognition of the doctorate as a preparation for a wide range of careers.
A follow-up survey published this year has indicated the continued relevance of these findings and highlighted some growing concerns, including research ethics and integrity and open science. The new survey also covered the impact of the pandemic.
Four themes – digitalisation, funding, internationalisation and candidates’ welfare – have dominated this exercise. All of these were already prominent concerns in the preceding years but have manifested in new ways under the stresses and strains imposed by the pandemic.
Responses have been remarkably consistent across Europe despite varied governmental actions. A global summit of doctoral associations hosted (online) by the EUA-CDE confirmed that this commonality of experience held true worldwide.
While all can be thankful that digitalisation allowed activities to continue, some elements were undoubtedly lost. Face-to-face contact facilitates peer learning and exchange and the tacit acquisition of knowledge and skills in a way that is hard to reproduce in the more structured environment of a call.
Effects were differentiated across disciplines. While some laboratory-based subjects were able to continue physical activity under conditions limited in time and intensity by social-distancing requirements, doctoral candidates requiring remote access to infrastructure were generally unable to travel.
This was not confined to scientific instrumentation – the problem was equally true for specialised libraries and archives and more generally for gaining access to research sites needed for fieldwork.
Digital exclusion was a major problem. Some candidates lacked the equipment, connectivity or access to online resources needed to keep up with their work. Even where the technology was available, those with caring responsibilities or without a suitable environment for homeworking also faced exclusion.
There were, of course, also upsides to digital working. At a basic level, the doctoral population has high levels of digital literacy, often exceeding that of their supervisors. Some activities work better online, including easier access to senior researchers or to interviewees for fieldwork.
Virtually the entire population of respondents to the current survey (97%) expect the use of online training to increase and over 90% see similar increases in virtual mobility, online supervision and the online defence of theses (an example of a change where regulation had to catch up with practice in some locations during the pandemic).
Funding and finance are always high on the agenda for doctoral candidates. At an institutional level a key issue during the pandemic was the attitude of funding agencies to the interruption of research.
Extensions were generally granted, but with some key differences as to whether they included additional funding for candidates or for the universities which provided their facilities. For universities there was also the problem of managing cohorts of candidates supported by different funders applying their own interpretations (as well as self-financed candidates).
Broadly speaking, the current survey has reported a neutral impact on funding, with the majority (81%) expecting it to go unchanged.
The personal finances of doctoral candidates were also adversely affected, with some losing part-time employment in universities or in the wider economy during lockdown periods. Some were concerned about the impact on future job prospects although a generally buoyant post-pandemic employment market has allayed those fears.
Internationalisation was clearly an area of vulnerability with large parts of the globe effectively inaccessible and all travel highly constrained. At an individual level, the possibility for doctoral candidates to spend time in another institution and country almost disappeared. International partnerships in doctoral training were maintained, but largely on a virtual basis.
These effects were reflected in the survey response, with 33% expecting reduced outgoing mobility versus 20% expecting it to increase.
Partnerships with international universities were expected to increase by 24%, with only 6% foreseeing a decline and 70% expecting no change. There was a divided view on future access to international facilities, with 31% expecting an increase versus 26% foreseeing a decline.
On the final topic of welfare and mental health, the survey used an open question that elicited qualitative responses indicating that a lack of social interaction created a sense of isolation for young researchers which risked their mental health.
This was already a concern in doctoral education but has become more prevalent. Online meetings also make it more difficult to detect problems and make positive interventions. It should not be forgotten that supervisors and staff also experienced the stresses of the pandemic and may have been equally affected.
All of these issues remain current, and it is too early to use the phrase post-pandemic with any confidence. What is clear is that there is a large and international body of shared experience which can be put to good use in mitigating, if not solving, the challenges facing doctoral education.
Luke Georghiou is deputy president and deputy vice-chancellor, University of Manchester, United Kingdom, and chair of the steering committee of the European University Association Council for Doctoral Education.