Changes in PhD Training Proposed

A shorter PhD, featuring better financial support and all-round training opportunities, would result from reforms to the German PhD education system proposed by the Wissenschaftsrat during its November meetings. Germany’s influential science advisory panel gave its full support to plans announced earlier this month by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft ( DFG) to further improve its Graduiertenkollegs and would like to see such doctoral training groups established throughout Germany’s university sector. The Wissenschaftsrat also wants to see PhD candidates relieved of their extracurricular duties and efforts to further the internationalisation of PhD training increased.

According to its chair, Prof. Karl Max Einhäupl, the Wissenschaftsrat is timely in its demands for further reforms of Germany’s academic system. “The competitiveness of our doctoral training on an international level is of crucial importance to the future of German academia,” he points out. And “the introduction of junior professorships and decreasing importance of the habilitation as a means to access a full professorship will put more emphasis on PhD training,” he asserts.

Although the Wissenschaftsrat recognises that Germany’s PhD system is effective in general, it also acknowledges a number of deficits. During the 1990s, the average age at which students completed their PhDs in Germany rose significantly, reaching a new peak of 33.0 years in 2000. Even PhDs in scientific disciplines are ageing, with an average age at completion of 31.8 years. The fact that most German PhDs are older than their European neighbours has long been recognised as a major disadvantage for German graduates. Additionally, shorter training periods are desirable in order to attract foreign scientists to Germany.

One of the problems specifically mentioned by the Wissenshaftsrat is that administrative and teaching duties leave many PhD candidates with too little time to concentrate on their research. Thus, the panel asked universities to ensure that university-employed PhD students carry out fewer tasks that are only remotely related to their research project in order to speed up the PhD process.

In addition, whether or not a student receives adequate mentoring and counselling depends, too often, on chance. “We are suffering from a lack of structure in PhD training,” Einhäupl tells Next Wave. “Mentoring activities by the PhD advisors happen more by accident than on purpose,” and they are too dependent on the goodwill of the individual supervisor, he adds.

This perceived need for more structure in PhD training is one reason for the Wissenschaftsrat’s positive assessment of the DFG’s Graduiertenkollegs, on which its own recommendations for establishing PhD training groups, Promotionskollegs, are largely based. The basic requirements for a Graduiertenkolleg and a Promotionskolleg are the same–for example, the ideas that responsibility for an individual’s training is shared by several university professors and that a comprehensive programme that allows PhD candidates to pick up soft skills should be offered. Nonetheless, the Wissenschaftsrat stresses the need for a “variety of models”–although all future training groups will be based on common principles, the details, such as whether a centre for graduate studies will offer its own stipends for PhD candidates or expect them to find their own money from funding bodies and foundations, will be left to the universities to decide. The panel also recommends that science departments look to the Dutch system of Onderzoekscholen–temporary institutions supported by several university departments or even universities, typically funded for a period of 4 years and training between 40 and 100 PhD students–to get ideas.

Assessing the impact and reform of the Graduiertenkollegs, the Wissenschaftsrat’s panel was particularly appreciative that the programme has acted as a role model for change in a PhD training system that had otherwise stagnated by the time the Graduiertenkollegs were introduced in 1990. The Wissenschaftsrat also stated its support for the DFG’s plans to sharpen the profile of the programme, especially the greater focus on excellence and international co-operation. However it also demanded that all Graduiertenkollegs be placed on a competitive financial footing.

The time is ripe, according to Einhäupl, to spread the advantages of the Graduiertenkollegs to the whole higher education system. “We need these training groups at all German universities,” he asserts. He also sees a big advantage in setting up centres of graduate studies at each university, one purpose of which, he says, “would be to administer and unite all doctoral training groups.” Such an organisation would also help to “institutionalise the representation of PhD students at a university,” he says. However Einhäupl also points out that the installation of doctoral training groups will require an additional financial commitment from the universities. Without extra money, “this model would be difficult to realise,” Einhäupl tells Next Wave. Individual universities need to start building up their profiles in terms of doctoral training, he suggests. Over the next decade, those that pay attention to this area should start to stand out from the rest, he adds.

However, the Wissenschaftsrat knows that doctoral training groups alone will not overcome all the deficits in the current system. So it also stressed the importance of offering attractive salaries to PhD candidates. Like the DFG, it would like to see more flexibility in stipend and salary policy so that institutions can offer higher stipends in disciplines where international and industrial competition for excellent junior scientists is very high.

Having considered the PhD, the Wissenschaftsrat is now turning its attention to the reform of postdoctoral and medical training. “We have just set up a working group on the issue of a collective agreement on tariffs for scientists,” says Einhäupl. Such an agreement would finally allow universities more flexibility in salary negotiations. Currently, scientists’ salaries cannot be negotiated based on performance or other indicators because they fall under the general tariff agreement for the public sector. “Additionally, our committee on medicine is working on recommendations for MD/PhD degrees,” Einhäupl adds. One idea under discussion is to award an MD degree upon completion of a small project at the end of the study programme, while a PhD should only be awarded after the candidate has worked on an additional project that would be comparable to a PhD project in other disciplines in terms of both size and time spent on it.

The Wissenschaftsrat points out that some states, such as Lower Saxony, have already included several of its recommendations in their recently amended university laws. However, for others, reform on this scale still appears far off. It is likely, therefore, that this latest contribution to the argument in favour of change will stir up significant debate in Germany’s federal and state science ministries.

The Wissenschaftsrat’s recommendations will be made available as a PDF file through theirnext week.

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