Doctoral education matters for Europe more than ever before

It is at the apex of higher education, research and innovation, but issues around integrity and employability must be addressed for doctoral education to continue to thrive, says Luke Georghiou

June 6, 2018
Doctoral students
Source: Alamy

Ambitious targets to tackle economic and social challenges by increasing research spending mean that many more trained researchers will be needed. Doctoral education is a central part of this scenario. Across Europe, doctoral candidates are working at the interface between education, research and innovation. However, the changing nature of research and of how it is used pose new challenges for universities in developing the next generation of researchers. This year, the European University Association Council for Doctoral Education is celebrating its first decade of providing both a framework and practical guidance for its 242 member institutions from 35 European countries.

About 750,000 doctorate holders are now studying across Europe. Universities have set up doctoral schools and programmes to create research environments in which they can grow into future researchers. In 2006, the EUA calculated that 29 per cent of European universities had doctoral schools or other forms of structured doctoral education. According to a new EUA survey, today the figure is closer to 90 per cent. EUA-CDE brings together those who have some of the longest standing and largest doctoral schools with universities that are seeking to systematise and grow their offer.

However, doctoral education also faces a number of challenges, such as preparing candidates for multiple career paths, the impact of open science on early career researchers and increased concerns about research integrity.

Despite the growing tendency for variety in doctoral careers, we are not very good at tracking them. Surveys may exaggerate the number of those remaining in the research system, because many spend up to a decade in temporary posts before settling into a more secure career. As single lifelong careers become rarer, we need to adapt our training to prepare students for portfolio careers.

Doctoral training must build awareness of the broader aspects of research, such as ethics, public engagement and transferable skills. Many will find employment in business and the public sector, ensuring that society benefits from the transfer of research knowledge. Entrepreneurship is an option for those who wish to found a start-up business. All these pathways have implications for training, but we should not forget that their employability is founded in the intrinsic capabilities endowed by the doctorate, such as the capacity for critical and original thought and an openness to evidence-based solutions.

Doctoral education is at the forefront of Europe’s digital transformation in research: not only in mobilising, training and raising awareness among researchers, but also in promoting open science policies and practices that will revolutionise Europe’s scientific potential. Open science is strongly supported by most doctoral researchers, but they are also the most vulnerable to the coming transition, facing hurdles based on journal hierarchies when seeking employment.

Embedding ethics and integrity in research begins with doctoral education. There is an increasing focus in Europe and beyond on the public trust in science. Doctoral candidates need to be trained to deal with these issues to develop and maintain a moral compass that is vital for strong research integrity in the digital age. The many demands made upon doctoral candidates have contributed to a growing concern about their welfare and mental health. Work-life balance, isolation and career insecurity are contributory factors, and it is a challenge to universities and individual supervisors to find ways to mitigate these factors.

Doctoral schools are the places where higher education, research and innovation and society meet. They contribute to training researchers capable of engaging with society and help them to develop innovative solutions to Europe’s industry and other economic sectors. Doctoral candidates make a critical contribution to research, but they are individuals and not instruments. We have a responsibility towards them.

No one can address these issues alone, but Europe’s universities can work together to tackle them, and policymakers need to support them. At a time when European values are under pressure – and digitalisation is transforming the way we work and live – doctoral education matters more than ever in safeguarding a progressive, inclusive society and making sure Europe is ready for a changing world.

University leaders and policymakers will discuss the future of doctoral education and more at the Council for Doctoral Education’s annual meeting on “Excellence through Diversity: Doctoral education in a globalised world” on 7-8 June in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Luke Georghiou is deputy president and deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester; chair of the European University Association’s Council for Doctoral Education and member of the EU Research Commissioner’s High-Level “Research, Innovation, and Science Policy Experts” group.



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