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There should be a common introductory course for all PhD students at KTH, say Omar Shafqat (left) and Jana Sochor (right). (Photo: Marc Femenia)

PhD students feel left out

Published Nov 05, 2012

A well-thought-out introduction and an assessment of the third-cycle courses along the lines of the RAE and EAE. These are some of the improvements requested by Jana Sochor and Omar Shafqat, members of the PhD Chapter board.
"It's basically a matter of including PhD students, making them feel welcome at KTH," says Jana Sochor.

"The PhD students number around 1,700 and account for a significant part of research and teaching at KTH. But within the group, the working conditions vary wildly," notes Jana Sochor, who since July is the head of the PhD section of the THS.

"Different schools, different departments and different supervisors means the PhD students have very different conditions," she says.

A fundamental difference is that between employed and non-employed PhD students. Both Jana Sochor and Omar Shafqat are fortunate enough to be employed PhD students, Jana Sochor at ABE, and Omar Shafqat at ITM.

But only half of the PhD students are employed doing doctoral work, the rest finance their studies through other employment, scholarships or as yet incomplete doctoral grants. The difference in financing contributes much to the PhD student's insecure status, says Jana Sochor.

"Sometimes we're seen as students and sometimes we're not, sometimes as researchers and sometimes not. It's good that the doctoral grants have been abolished, but it's not good if they are replaced by scholarships. We want to see more students employed. Ideally, all PhD students would be employed," she says.

But the difference between the PhD students' employment situations also depends on the workplace's organisation and routines. And those variations tend to appear right from day one at KTH. At some schools, departments or individual sections the PhD students get a proper introduction - while PhD students elsewhere are more or less expected to step right into their job.

"Sometimes the introduction is basically limited to assigning a desk to the PhD student – 'this is where you sit, off you go'," says Jana Sochor.

Many practical difficulties

The PhD Chapter calls for a common introductory course for all PhD students at KTH. Since there is no common start to each term for PhD students, it is impossible to offer all PhD students an introductory course as soon as they commence their studies.

But a recurring introductory course that catches PhD students who have started during the last year or 6 months would still be valuable, claims the PhD students' representatives. The PhD students need information concerning many practical aspects of their work, among other things, notes Jana Sochor.

How to contact various government institutions and what rules and what benefits that apply to various forms of financing, are examples of things that are by no means self-evident to the many KTH PhD students (around 60 per cent) that are not from Sweden, she points out. The PhD students also need help understanding the organisation, rules and forms of KTH.

"To seek information via the web isn't all that easy either, especially if you don't know the language. Although I've had time to learn Swedish I have trouble finding the right information on the KTH web," she says.

New PhD students also need to be informed regarding a number of basic responsibilities and rights. What is expected of me, what should the study plan contain, will I be given enough time with my supervisor, what demands does the supervisor have of me and what can I in turn demand of the supervisor?

”Almost like an arranged marriage”

The relationship to the supervisor is of great important for the PhD student's daily working situation, explains Jana Sochor. And she feels that the relationship is quite peculiar.

"It's almost like an arranged marriage - you know very little about the other's intentions and expectations. For example, as a PhD student you do not know how your supervisor views the study plan. Some supervisors see it as a contract whose every letter must be adhered to, others are more casual in their approach," says Jana Sochor.

Just as the supervisor is supposed to monitor the PhD student's work, the supervisor's tutoring should be monitored more, claims the PhD Chapter.  And this check should be conducted before the relationship has started deteriorating.

"We want to avoid these lose-lose situations where things get so bad that supervisor and PhD student can't even work together. It is obviously not in KTH's interest to have a PhD student committed to a research project for several years and then not having them complete it," says Omar Shafqat.

"It is one of the reasons behind the PhD Chapter requesting a review of the third-cycle studies like the comprehensive reviews that have been conducted concerning both research and education. I.e. a DAE, Doctoral studies Assessment Exercise. There are many good initiatives that could be disseminated in wider circles by such a review," notes Omar Shafqat.

And neither the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) nor the EAE (Education Assessment Exercise) have audited third-cycle studies, Jana Sochor notes.

"Few talk about education when you talk about research. The research that PhD students do is included in the RAE but not in the education. But to be a good researcher you also need a good third-cycle education," she says.

Text: Ursula Stigzelius

Read more about the KTH PhD Chapter