Doctoral study still lacks a global prescription

PhDs are becoming more programmatic in many countries, but the German one-on-one model retains considerable influence, says Glen Jones

November 29, 2018
PhD student
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The increasing need for highly skilled researchers within both the academy and industry has seen doctoral education prioritised in many national research and innovation strategies over recent years.

Work on doctoral education in 12 developed countries that I have recently carried out with Jung Cheol Shin of Seoul National University and Barbara Kehm of the Leibniz University of Hanover reveals that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of doctoral graduates over the past 15 years. Based on national case studies prepared by country experts, our recent book, Doctoral Education for the Knowledge Society: Convergence of Divergence in National Approaches, finds that the number of doctoral completions has doubled in the UK, Australia and South Korea. The percentage of female PhD graduates has also increased dramatically, reaching 50 per cent or higher in Portugal, the US and the UK – although, of course, this figure varies by discipline.

The majority of graduates continue to be in science (including medical and health science) and engineering; these fields account for 79 per cent of doctoral graduates in Japan and 74 per cent in Germany. The share of total graduates accounted for by these disciplines has modestly increased in many countries since 2000, although Portugal, South Korea and Taiwan are exceptions.

Notwithstanding the assumptions about doctoral graduates’ crucial role in boosting innovation and building knowledge economies, their unemployment levels – while lower than those of bachelor’s or master’s graduates – have raised concerns about whether they are being appropriately prepared for the non-academic labour market. While in some systems, such as Germany, there is a long history of doctoral graduates moving into positions in industry and government, other countries have regarded doctoral education largely as a means to educate the next generation of academics.

To address this concern, there is increasing focus on transferable skills and links with industry. In some jurisdictions, such as Sweden and Switzerland, curricular reforms have led to new coursework requirements focusing on knowledge and skills for the non-academic labour market. Most Canadian universities offer extracurricular courses and workshops designed to prepare students for possible careers in industry or the public sector. In other systems, there is increasing interest in more explicit links between doctoral programmes and industry, through either industry-based research or internships and other experiential learning. Not all the systems in our study have moved in this direction, but the question of how to prepare and transition PhD students into careers outside the academy seems to be a common concern of institutions and, in some cases, governments.

Changes in the labour market, as well as traditional concerns such as time-to-completion and programme quality, have underscored major reforms to doctoral education in some countries. One common development is the introduction of structured “doctoral programmes” that include coursework, as a means of both improving the doctoral experience and reducing completion times.

In the US, tremendous emphasis has long been placed on enrolling students in specialised programmes of study, often involving extensive coursework and examinations, and a committee-based supervision of thesis production. Some other systems can be viewed as variations on this theme, often with less emphasis on coursework (such as Canada) or with different mechanisms for the supervision and examination of candidates. And several European and East Asian countries are transitioning towards such a model.

The assumption is that a programme approach facilitates the emergence of supportive peer learning communities, while coursework ensures that candidates have some common understanding of the field of scholarship and provides options for them to obtain more transferable knowledge and skills for an increasingly diverse job market.

However, only about 10 per cent of recent graduates in Germany completed a programme-based PhD; there, the model of individualised supervision of doctoral candidates, considered to be junior members of the academic profession, continues to play a key role in doctoral training.

For all the common pressures and concerns, there is little evidence that we are making significant strides towards a common global model of doctoral education.

Glen A. Jones is professor of higher education and dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. 

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