Digital doctorates ‘cannot replace’ informal community

Experts warn much of doctoral training must remain analogue, as European survey suggests almost all programmes are aiming for quality online

April 7, 2022
Online lecture illustrating US universities plans for autumn classes
Source: iStock

Experts have warned that the informal parts of doctoral training cannot be replicated online, as a survey finds most programmes expect online provision to grow in importance in the coming years.

The European University Association’s (EUA) survey of doctoral education, run between March and May 2021, received 138 responses from universities in 28 European countries. 

Asked what effects the Covid-19 pandemic would have on doctoral education in the coming years, almost all said that online training would become increasingly important, with digital mobility, online supervision and online thesis defence also cited by more than 90 per cent of respondents. 

Alexander Hasgall, head of the EUA Council for Doctoral Education, said that the shift online opened new possibilities for programmes and candidates, such as remote access to archived materials and geographically remote supervision. 

But he warned programme managers not to see online provision as a replacement for in-person education or a way to cut costs when budgets become squeezed. “It’s not taking digitalisation just to make things faster or easier or even cheaper; this is not how digitalisation can work and will work,” he said. 

That was echoed by Pil Saugmann, a board member and mental health lead for the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers, and herself a doctoral candidate at Stockholm University. 

“You can definitely have quality supervision online, but it cannot stand alone,” she said. “You cannot substitute sharing an office and eating lunch [with colleagues] with digital."

Ms Saugmann said that one-on-one video calls with supervisors can work well, but that immersion in the wider community was impossible and weekly lab meetings can become stiffer. “It fell apart when it had to move online because it became something completely else, it became much more formal to give a presentation,” she said of her own lab. 

“Having in principle a situation where the candidates and the supervisor and everybody else would only meet online, this would make it extremely difficult to build up the context of exchange and trust and gathering the diverse knowledge that you can have personally,” said Dr Hasgall.

Even when essential elements are kept in-person, he said there was a risk of a two-tier system where the full in-person experience was only open to well-funded candidates.  

“It may become more difficult in the future to argue for instance that you want to travel somewhere or that you want to go to a conference, because it’s always the question ‘can't you do it just online?’” he said, adding that candidates would have to make stronger cases for travel than their predecessors. 

Online supervisors may be less able to spot the warning signs of a mental health crisis, while online candidates could face greater isolation, an issue exacerbated by the pandemic.  

“Doctoral candidates and junior researchers were the first to be asked to work from home because they share offices typically and they would be the last to return,” said Ms Saugmann. 

Quality of supervision came out as the top priority for survey respondents, while research ethics and integrity was the most popular topic for training.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Related universities