The perfect PhD student?

Published May 08, 2017

Productive and contributing to growth. That’s the image of the ideal PhD student. But how is it affecting research as a whole? Researchers are warning of the risk that research that generates results in the longer term will be forced to take a back seat.

Erik Joelsson, researcher in the theory of science at the University of Gothenburg, has been examining society’s influence on third-cycle studies from the post-war period up until the present day.

His findings are that society has become increasingly keen to exert an influence. Before the war, there were no express demands for research to be of benefit to society – third-cycle studies were a personal project and a male-dominated activity for the well-heeled.

Reforms enacted from the 1960s onwards aimed to broaden the recruitment base and improve gender equality in research, bringing greater demands for excellence and professionalisation. Erik Joelsson describes the typical PhD student through the decades – from the 1940s academic ideal to today’s innovator ideal, with the PhD student being a researcher who contributes to general welfare by developing products and services.

“The ideal reflects the spirit of the age. As third-cycle studies have become more expensive, it’s become clearer that society expects a decent return on its investment,” he explains.

Freedom of research

Educating young researchers has become a key factor in upholding and reinforcing Sweden’s competitiveness.

“By maintaining a high level of expertise within the innovation sector, we can combat the trend of strategically important industries relocating abroad,” says Erik Joelsson.

The downside is that research loses its autonomy.

“More stringent control from financiers reduces the scope for researchers to use their own initiative. There isn’t the same freedom anymore to conduct research that isn’t directly relevant, but that may contribute to key findings in a broader perspective.”

What form will the perfect PhD student take in the future?

Erik Joelsson envisages a more specialised research corps that operates within increasingly limited fields, with the PhD student as a small cog in a large wheel. There will be less scope for working on one’s own initiative, along with greater control from external financiers and dependency on supervisors.

Fewer PhD students

Erik Joelsson fears that growing professionalisation, in which PhD students’ financial circumstances are improved through employment may lead to universities being forced to cut back on the number of postgraduate students.

“With fewer PhD students, there’s a risk of a deterioration in research environments, with watered-down PhD seminars and activities that are less creative and governed more by financiers’ demands.”

Erik Joelsson wants to shorten the PhD programme from four to three years by assigning some modules to the Master’s level. This will allow more students the opportunity to get a taste of PhD studies before deciding whether to progress to that level. Meanwhile, the department is then able afford to employ more PhD students.

“At the moment, several elements of third-cycle studies are less relevant, or don’t particularly benefit thesis work, so they could be transferred to the Master’s programme.”

Secure appointment

Andrea de Giorgio, chair of KTH’s PhD Chapter, is also positive towards the idea of shortening the PhD programme. He refers to the fact that several other European countries, including his homeland Italy, have three-year programmes.

“If it led to lower costs and allowed us to employ more PhD students, that would be great. Financing PhD students via scholarships is a worse option, as there’s less security. A PhD student funded via a scholarship doesn’t have the same rights as those with a doctoral appointment and they also lack the same sense of belonging, which makes them less inclined to contribute to their department’s research in the longer term.”

He also believes it is possible to transfer some modules from PhD level to the Master’s programme.

“But you have to be careful about which parts are moved. Some courses and modules still need to be reserved for PhD students in order to maintain a sufficiently high level in third-cycle education,” adds Andrea de Giorgio.

Erik Joelsson wants it to be easier to interrupt third-cycle studies without it causing too many personal repercussions, for example by ensuring that the credits earned still count. He also believes it should remain possible to finance third-cycle studies in forms other than through doctoral appointments.

“Overall, it would increase the willingness of and provide greater opportunities for more students to try out the PhD programme. I think it would benefit both the individual and research as a whole,” says Erik Joelsson.

Text: Christer Gummeson

  • In his thesis ‘From Selected to Educated’, Erik Joelsson examines the Swedish government’s official reports from 1945 to 2004, with the aim of following the shift in attitudes towards PhD students and third-cycle studies.
  • The 1963 report into third-cycle education and the 1969 reform meant that the normal study period for third-cycle studies became four years. The scholarship system was extended and career-development positions became more common.
  • The 1998 reform tightened requirements regarding financing, supervision and study plans.
  • In 2002, the issue of security in the form of appointments was once again on the agenda. The report also emphasised the importance of third-cycle studies that promote growth, innovation and excellence.
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