HotDocs push thesis contract

August 9, 1996

A confederation of research student associations in France has proposed students strike a "thesis contract" with the education ministry in an attempt to alleviate some of the trials and tribulations of studying for a doctorate.

PhD student groups are a recent phenomenon and many of the 31 associations throughout France have been set up since the creation of the confederation earlier this year.

HotDocs began as an Internet discussion group where research students swopped accounts of their experiences. "From that emerged the idea of drawing up a contract setting out the rights and responsibilities of all parties involved," explained Joel Marchand.

Mr Marchand, a computer engineer at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique gave up his own thesis when he could not get the computer equipment he needed. On average, one quarter of France's PhD students do not complete their thesis, with peaks of 55 per cent in some disciplines.

"One problem in drawing up the thesis contract was to take into account the major differences between disciplines," he said.

While a professor in hard science subjects may supervise one or two research students, the most eminent specialists in arts subjects are believed to supervise dozens of theses at a time.

"A philosophy researcher will not need to see a supervisor as often as a scientist needing advice on experiments, so the contract does not specify how often the two parties should meet," Mr Marchand said.

However, the confederation does have a suggestion for ensuring a reasonable limit to the number of theses supervised by one academic by increasing significantly the number of authorised supervisors and enabling lecturers to become supervisors for the first time.

While this would make official what already often happens when busy professors get lecturers to deal with research students, HotDocs has no answer to the problem of students determined to get their theses at least nominally supervised by a big name.

That determination is not to to be underestimated. "I know of one very famous history professor who has 150 research students," commented Mr Marchand. Another "clause" in the thesis contract that is also something of a hopeful wish calls on well-established academics to use the security of their position to tackle the high-risk or marginal research topics themselves and let PhD students take up subjects of more certain value.

The contract states that all research students should publish at least once before completion of their thesis. This clause reflects the very uneven situation in different disciplines.

Currently, life science research students must have three publications in journals, including one article signed as first name, before they can submit their thesis. In contrast, publication is rare in mathematics and simply not heard of in law.

The contract also introduces the idea of a mediator to be named at the outset and able to step in when difficulties arise.

The confederation also wants PhD students forming part of a research team to receive equal treatment, with access to travel funds a matter of course and not dependent on goodwill. Students would also be eligible to sit on consultative and decision-making committees.

The contract drawn up by HotDocs tries to tackle the problem of the erosion of the public image of PhD students, which many feel affects job prospects.

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