In research assessment of doctoral candidates, curiosity will be more important than number of published articles

Most researchers will not have a long-term career at universities after completing their doctorate, and that, according to Alexander Hasgall, from the European University Association (EUA), is also a good thing: they become ambassadors for universities in other sectors. However, it is still important to improve the economic situation of doctoral students and to teach them to openly communicate with their supervisors about mutual expectations.

In June, the EUA published the document Building the Foundation of Research: A Vision for the Future of Doctoral Education in Europe, which presents ten proposals for the development of doctoral education and research training in the coming years.

“We need to explain more thoroughly and with greater clarity that as well as having a significant value for various employers and society as a whole, a doctorate is important for the candidates themselves. And that the research could not work without them,” explains Alexander Hasgall, one of the authors of the document and head of the EUA Council for Doctoral Education.

In the document, you write that we need to rethink how we perceive the doctorate. Why?
The world in which doctorates are done has changed fundamentally over the past two years – not least in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Besides this changing global context, the world of research is constantly evolving. In the last fifteen or twenty years, a lot has been done in different areas of research, such as research ethics and integrity, and the societal outreach of researchers. For doctoral education in Europe, we have developed institutional structures to support doctoral candidates and better embed them in the institutions. Meanwhile, though, new topics have presented themselves, as the context in which we live has changed. This means that the doctorate remains a (fundamental) research-based degree, but we must also start thinking about how it can address challenges that have arisen in recent years and provide for them in future. These are some of the main insights we have made together in the EUA-CDE community, which includes universities from 37 countries.

Could you be more specific about what main insights you mean?
To give an example, an area that is rapidly evolving is digitalisation. I don’t mean only webinars and online platforms, but also the impact of issues like the so-called big data or artificial intelligence. Here, we are talking about both the ethical and technological context of new technologies which need to be thought inseparably. In connection with the climate crisis, we are looking at sustainability and the “greening” of doctoral education. This can also include new forms of mobility and sustainability of research procedures. We will have a workshop on how to develop a strategic approach to greening in doctoral education next January, by the way.

To give another example, we are also addressing the question of diversity of doctoral candidates, particularly when it comes to their backgrounds. In addition, the role of communication has become essential. We must speak very clearly about the value of a doctorate to employers and to society. Also, the doctoral candidates themselves need to be aware of it and able to explain it to others. Everyone must know what a doctoral candidate contributes to the welfare of society by conducting high-quality research and being the highly skilled academics and knowledge workers the world needs. We will discuss different dimensions of communication in doctoral education at a conference in Finland in June 2023, if anyone would like to join us.

We should not forget that the doctorate is very international: in many European countries more than 50 per cent of candidates are from abroad. Europeans need to work together to develop mobility that facilitates this kind of circulation, not least by investment in research infrastructure and research capacities everywhere, East and West. In my view, the importance of this matter should not be underestimated, especially in connection with Ukraine.

Another issue we must look at is academic freedoms, and how to ensure that early-stage researchers – who are often the most vulnerable to external pressures – are protected when following the path of academic curiosity and asking the right questions. Related to the current war in Ukraine, we already need to think about the post-war restoration of the country and higher education, when doctoral students as a new generation of researchers should play a key role in rebuilding and developing the university sector. [In connection with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Union (in partnership with the EUA and Scholars at Risk) is launching a special programme to support Ukrainian PhD and early-career researchers. Ed.].

This means that we need to further develop the established structures and valuable experience we have gained over fifteen years and at the same time look at a lot of new topics that continue to increase in intensity.

In all of this, we need to remind ourselves that a doctorate is not about addressing only a very specific, present-time challenge. By doing a doctorate, you should show that you are able – also in the very long term – to identify questions and challenges that perhaps no one has even considered yet, and to look for answers to them.

You state in the document that most early-career researchers at universities will not have a long-term career in academia after work on their PhD is complete. Isn’t this a shame for universities and society as a whole?
On the contrary. Graduates remain connected to academic thinking. We might view them as ambassadors for universities in other sectors. Discussions with employers and the public have shown us the high value of several years of research experience, involvement in complex projects, the critical thinking developed as a result, a strong connection with the academic sphere and awareness of the latest trends. It is because of high levels of attainment among people who can connect the latest knowledge from research with the needs of business and other sectors that Europe is so strong.

For the doctoral candidates themselves, the investment in the doctorate is an investment in their entire career. We have also seen that having a doctorate and the knowledge related to it can help you get into certain management positions faster. As well as strengthening these sectors as a whole, the involvement of someone with such experience can be beneficial for a particular team.

But would we in Europe have enough researchers to make us competitive? With China, for instance?
What is “enough” is an important and challenging question. And we should not only focus the debate on quantity, since contexts differ. I am sure that having people with this academic and fundamental research experience brings a lot of opportunity for innovation and economic strength. For this, it’s important to keep doctoral candidates motivated and to ensure that they encounter the right conditions.

However, we still need to investigate how to facilitate the transition between different sectors and to ask ourselves what can be done better. It would be a shame not to exploit this potential of the doctorate, because the strength and high value of the doctorate is a clear asset we have here in Europe.

Surveys indicate that up to 30 percent of early-stage researchers leave academia during the first three years. Where do you see the biggest problem here?
You will probably not be surprised that I mention funding. Low income makes it difficult for doctoral candidates to stay in the process and so complete their doctorate. Here, we face the challenge of improving the financial situation of doctoral candidates without reducing their numbers due to lack of funding. This isn’t about some kind of luxury, or a small elite. It is an important sector, an investment in the next generation. It is preoccupying when funding for universities doesn’t allow provision of sufficient resources for doctoral candidates to finish their doctorate in an appropriate timeframe.

Another important topic with which we at EUA-CDE are increasingly occupied concerns how to provide the right support and conditions for postdoctoral researchers, those who already have a doctorate. Many of them will leave academia at a later stage, and there is a need to focus on their further career development and leadership. If we want great professors for our future who can understand current challenges and be good supervisors, then systematic support of this group can make a difference.

Talking of good working conditions, the fixed-term contract is another reason why people leave academia. Would it help to offer doctoral candidates an employment contract instead of student status and replace short-term contracts for early-career researchers with long-term ones?
These are two questions. On the question of status, it is important to differentiate between the legal situation with associated funding and the general understanding. Even where doctoral candidates have the legal status of student, we should understand that they are early-stage researchers. They spend most of their time doing research, not sitting in a chair studying. It is important that we treat doctoral candidates as early-stage researchers who have made a responsible decision to complete a doctorate, and who are aware of the responsibilities this entails.

As for short-term contracts: Yes, it’s an issue, and it is often directly related to the fact that a lot of research is now based on short-term funding of different projects, while basic funding has been decreased. We need long-term, basic funding that will offer people long-term prospects within academia.

Would you say that the mental health of doctoral candidates and early-career researchers is an issue?
Certainly. This topic was first discussed several years ago, albeit not everywhere. Now it has come to the attention of universities all over Europe, and also of the general public. Mental health has gradually become a key issue in society, not least in connection with the pandemic. We are all aware of the negative effects of isolation, and we know that many fear for the future and wonder if they will have appropriate, stable working conditions. While not forgetting structural issues, as universities we need to know how to deal with and prevent problems such as depression and anxiety. Anyone who has ever done research knows that stress is sometimes part and parcel of the work. But you need to recognise where the level becomes unhealthy. In addition to prevention, there is a need for the institution to have support mechanisms in place for when problems arise, and for doctoral candidates and researchers to know where to go for such support.

In the document, you write about another topic which is closely connected with mental health: prevention of conflict in the doctoral candidate-supervisor relationship. Some papers refer to “supervisory abuse and exploitation of PhD candidates”). What exactly do you have in mind?
It turns out that a lot of conflict comes from differing expectations. So, the first thing to realise and clarify is what our expectations are. This may include what your role will be in the team or how often you will meet your supervisor. If you are starting a doctorate and you need to see your supervisor every week, although they think that once every two months is enough, conflict can easily arise.

It is not about saying what is the best thing; there is no one-size-fits-all, but both doctoral candidate and supervisor need to be aware of the other’s expectations, to discuss them beforehand, to find common ground right from the beginning. If after two years you find that your supervisor and you do not fit, it’s very late. You should also know what your rights are throughout the process. These may concern professional development, or further training for so-called transversal skills such as communication, which are an important part of the doctoral experience and a key element in doctoral education. If, for instance, your supervisor refuses to release you from the lab for career-development training, then it’s good to know that there is somebody at the university you can talk too.

A written agreement between the supervisor and the doctoral candidate can prevent many misunderstandings. Increasingly, universities offer supervisor training. Supervisors and candidates profit enormously if everybody in the process is well prepared, with no need to reinvent the wheel. Part of such training may be promotion of awareness of what a single person can do and where limits are set. This is another reason why team supervision is increasingly common.

A major reform of how research and researchers will be assessed is high on the EU’s agenda. How will this affect PhD students? What will change for them?
The point is not to assess the doctoral candidate at every sub-step, or to limit freedom and curiosity in research. On the contrary, reforms to research assessment include a clear signal that the value and impact of a doctorate cannot be measured by the number of published articles.

Current systems of evaluation pose a big problem for doctoral candidates and all other early-stage researchers, because they force them to uniquely focus on the production of a certain number of so called high-impact articles. This also favours certain approaches and contents and reduces the value of the whole research process. As things are really changing, it will be necessary for doctoral candidates to realise what is going on and to contribute to the debate. When their supervisors and peers keep telling them, ‘Just publish in the “right” journal and everything will be fine,’ they need to be aware that this may not be the best way to approach the issue. Also, supervisors too need to learn. We need to develop new perspectives that make visible the huge variety contained within the research process.

To summarise, doctoral candidates and supervisors alike have the opportunity to leave behind a situation in which their work is detached from its content and reduced to numbers. It is about developing an open and flexible approach with a primary emphasis on qualitative evaluation, for which peer review is central, supported by the responsible use of quantitative indicators where appropriate. This can also contribute to ensuring that “a core component of doctoral training is the advancement of knowledge through original research”, as stated in the Salzburg Principles of 2005. This research, not the specific outlet where it is published, should be the focus of attention.