Don't retrench, rejuvenate

August 2, 2012

Concerns about UK doctoral education ("Local difficulties: are UK PhDs really second-rate?", News, 12 July) are part of a wider and sustained wave of international criticism. The underlying message is that there are too many PhD holders so standards are slipping. For students following the traditional apprenticeship model, this may be the case. However, such criticism misses the point.

In many institutions, particularly in continental Europe, doctoral training has been rejuvenated. Here it is recognised that the increased focus on PhD training in recent years means that most doctorate holders will end up using their talents in non-academic jobs. Thus, in addition to performing research (and contributing substantially to the output of their supervisors and institutions), students need to develop other skills, such as how to make written and oral presentations to national and international audiences; teach; network; write grants; and manage projects. These aspects are important in academia but are also relevant in other walks of life. Indeed, the skills learned in setting up and completing a three-year project are valuable in any job where creative synthesis, initiative and resourcefulness are needed.

The traditional doctoral apprenticeship model cannot accommodate these demands. Although excellence in research is the sine qua non of the doctorate, a new attitude to the qualification is needed: one that means students taking responsibility for the project itself. They will not necessarily do all the work themselves (previously such an idea was anathema), but they will learn to be managers as well as scholars.

This is the approach recommended by the European Commission, the European University Association-Council for Doctoral Education and Orpheus (Organisation for PhD Education in Biomedicine and Health Sciences in the European System). Experience shows that this approach allows PhD programmes to be completed within four years, with research outputs at least matching previous levels; it also means that doctoral students gain the skills they need to be competitive in the wider job market.

PhD graduates in general are among the brightest of our citizens, and it is important that their studies give them the skills they will need to make major contributions in an increasingly competitive economic environment. We believe the approach recommended above strengthens their career opportunities while safeguarding the reputation of the doctorate as a research degree. The PhD is in need of redevelopment, not retrenchment.

Michael J. Mulvany, vice-president, Orpheus; professor, Aarhus University, Denmark

Zdravko Lackovic, president, Orpheus; professor, University of Zagreb School of Medicine, Croatia

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