Doubly good way to get into circulation

March 12, 2004

Cross-border, joint supervision of doctoral candidates can have benefits for everyone, says Ruth Morse.

Mobility has become one of those undoubted goods to which we all subscribe, and it implies some way of making diplomas equivalent. For scientists, mobility is not just desirable, it is the lifeblood of labs, and the postdoc is the glittering prize towards which undergraduate and graduate mobility schemes tend. Double-supervision of doctorates, with doubly validated degrees, is another way of encouraging a new kind of diplomatic dual-nationality. Joint supervision of doctoral candidates is stimulating for the student and for the supervisors. Departments can benefit financially, too, where the national systems subsidise doctoral candidates. The language of the dissertation, beyond its numbers and symbols, photographs and diagrams, is often English, even when neither supervisor teaches in an anglophone country.

In the Netherlands, doctoral theses are regularly written in English because that will be the language of publication. I recently examined a doctoral dissertation at a French university that had been jointly supervised by a French "anchorman" and an Indian specialist who had a command of the literary and social background in the Indian languages that were relevant to not only the argument but also to the research in India. The candidate's research presented work that European scholars would not otherwise have seen, in a style that was unusual in the French context.

As the thesis was in English, the examiners worried that when the candidate applied for posts, he would not get through the vetting procedure of the national committee, because there was no demonstration of an ability to write in French. Accepting co-tutelle (joint supervision) implies accepting flexibility about the language.

From the student's point of view, the advantages of two supervisors are obvious: more attention and advice from different points of view, combining different specialties, spending time in two countries, the prestige of two universities' names validating the doctorate and better access to different systems for research fellowships, postdocs, university and other posts. The information is largely anecdotal, but it seems likely that as more undergraduates do part of their home degree elsewhere, or even another country's diploma within their own course of study, more of them ask for joint supervision.

From the supervisors' points of view, however, the attractions can be more mixed. Taking on a new research student may add considerably to the burden of teaching and administration without automatically guaranteeing recognition of the necessary investment of time and effort. Departments that have funds available may be chary about sharing them with visiting pre-docs, whose capacities, including their language skills, are unknown.

Ideally, there can be a sense of triangulated teamwork.

Universities have concerns too, above all financial. The inward pressure on British universities is already well known from the Erasmus experience. The huge differences in costs can suggest that foreign pre-docs are getting a free ride. Whose rules apply, from fees, to elapsing time, to the conventions of presentation? Trial and error will make these arrangements work in time.

The universities were the earliest multinational companies. That the free circulation of young researchers tends now to follow a market is obvious.

Equally obvious is that the circulated seek a combination of openness, flexibility and money; without parity, circulation may be less circular than once was hoped.

Ruth Morse is professeur des universités at Université Paris VII.

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