Doctoral Education in Europe

Overview of Doctoral Education in Europe

Doctoral Education in Europe, This includes the organizational structures, training and activities, career development, funding, mobility, time to completion, supervision, application, and admissions, decision-making process, completion rate and time to complete. This descriptive part of the report is followed by a more in-depth analysis in chapter 3.

Organizational structures

The organization of doctoral education in Europe has undergone a rapid transformation in the past decade. As universities have increasingly assumed institutional responsibility for early-stage researchers, a wide diversity of practices, policies, and structures have been implemented to deliver more robust training and support for various aspects related to doctoral research.

To get an up-to-date insight into where this decade-long process has left the organization of doctoral research in Europe, institutions were asked questions about the type of structures that have been implemented and the institutional level on which they typically reside. The results clearly speak to the great diversity of structures across Europe, while all of them nevertheless point in the same direction: that of a more comprehensive approach by universities.

Respondents were asked to what extent doctoral education in universities is organized in programmers, managed through an organizational unit (i.e. referred to as a “doctoral school” in this report), managed through an inter-organizational unit or led by individual supervisors with no institutional oversight. Looking at the European aggregate results, the survey shows that doctoral programmers and schools are now by far the dominant form of organization in Europe.

Doctoral programmers with specific elements such as taught courses, milestones, mobility options, etc. are present in 73% of responding universities, either “to a great extent” (24%) or “always” (49%) (cf. Figure 2). Organizational units such as doctoral schools which oversee the development of programmers, ensure quality, develop regulations and guidelines, etc. are present in 62% of responding universities, either “to a great extent” (17%) or “always” (45%).

Doctoral Education in Europe

Training and activities

Doctoral education is first and foremost about the training and support made available to doctoral candidates as they navigate the research process. Universities were asked to what extent they have rules or guidelines in place to manage training activities for doctoral candidates and which competencies are the focuses of those activities. In addition, they were also asked which activities early-stage researchers spend most of their time on. The survey results reveal that training activities for doctoral candidates are well-regulated and predominantly focus on developing their research competencies, which is matched by the results on the time allocation of early-stage researchers.

Survey outcomes show that a large majority of universities have rules or regulations in place for key aspects of doctoral education. This is the case for the definition of required courses (80%, with 69% having this in place “in all doctoral programmers/schools” and 11% “in most doctoral programmers/schools”), assessment of training activities (e.g. examination) (74%, with 65% having this in place “in all doctoral programmers/schools” and 9% “in most doctoral programmers/ schools”), course contents (71%, with 59% having this in place “in all doctoral programmers/ schools” and 12% “in most doctoral programmers/schools”), or credits (71%, with 64% having this in place “in all doctoral programmers/schools” and 7% “in most doctoral programmers/schools”) (cf. Figure 4). These results are another clear indication of the enhanced professional approach universities have adopted towards doctoral education, i.e. assuming institutional responsibility for the training and support of early-stage researchers.

Concerning doctoral training activities, there was a clear focus on research competence training, albeit complemented by significant attention to transferable skills training. Dominating doctoral education are training activities focused on specific research competencies (e.g. advanced methods, up-to-date data knowledge, new techniques) (97%, with 75% finding it “extremely important” and 22% “important”) and generic academic competencies, which are not discipline-specific (e.g. grant writing, publishing, ethics) (82%, with 35% finding it “extremely important” and 47% “important”) (cf. Figure 5).

Transferable skills training, while still significant, follow at a distance behind specific and generic research competencies. Knowledge valorization (e.g. intellectual property rights, entrepreneurship, product development) is a focus for 47% of universities, finding it either “extremely important” (11%) or “important” (36%), and management and leadership competencies (e.g. teamwork, conflict management) is a focus for 37% of universities, finding it either “extremely important”( 6%) or “important” (31%). In addition, teaching competencies (e.g. pedagogy, didactics) are a focus for 45% of universities, finding it either “extremely important” (11%) or “important” (34%).

Beyond the stated importance universities attach to different aspects of doctoral training, universities were also asked which activities doctoral candidates spend most of their time on. The survey results clearly indicate that doctoral candidates are early-stage researchers and predominantly spend their time on research activities.

Doctoral candidates first and foremost spend their time on scientific and academic research, with 95% of responding universities indicating that this is either “always” (47%) or “to a great extent” (48%) what they spend their time on (cf. Figure 6). To a far lesser degree, doctoral candidates spend their time on research-related administration (e.g. proposal writing, report writing) (20% of responses indicating either “always” or “to a great extent”) and teaching (13% indicating either “always” or “to a great extent”). Even less time is spent on science communication (e.g. blogs, activities oriented toward a lay audience) (8% indicating either “always” or “to a great extent”), internships, workplace training or experience (e.g. private/public sector, NGOs) (10% indicating either “always” or “to a great extent”) and teaching related administration (e.g. exam supervising) (6% indicating either “always” or “to a great extent”).

Career development

Driven by increased access to higher education and the growing number of doctoral candidates, career development has become an issue of strategic importance for doctoral education in Europe. The number of doctorate holders has seen a marked increase in line with growing student numbers on every level of tertiary education. While only a small percentage of the population holds a doctoral or equivalent degree, their number “[…] across OECD countries significantly increased over the past decade, growing from 158 000 new doctorates in 2000 to 247 000 in 2012, a rise of 56%.

As a result, academic leaders and doctoral education professionals are focused on how to develop career development support for the growing number of early-stage researchers.

From the results of the survey, we can clearly see that universities in Europe offer support measures for early-stage researchers pursuing a variety of academic and non-academic career paths. Doctoral candidates are (mainly) seen as future academics and scholars, but also increasingly as the research professionals of tomorrow.

Asked to what extent doctoral candidates are prepared for a variety of career paths, 78% of responding universities replied that doctoral education is “always” or “to a great extent” preparing the future generation of academics/scholars (cf. Figure 7). Importantly, career paths outside of academia are also taken into consideration, with 53% underlining the importance of preparing high skilled knowledge workers, and 52% preparing for research positions outside academia. Preparing the future generation of leaders/managers is noticeably lower on the radar, although 29% of higher education institutions still report that they “always” or “to a great extent” prepare doctoral candidates for this type of role.

Career development is commonly understood to include support for a variety of academic and non-academic career paths. Regarding the former, the evolution of the academic profession has led to a broad consensus on the need for more structured support for early-stage researchers with academic ambitions.26 For example, the introduction of the tenure-track model in countries such as Austria, Switzerland, Finland, and others reflects an attempt by universities to counter the challenges, such as short-term contracts, that have come to characterize early career stages in academia.

In the survey, institutions were asked if doctorate holders can continue their academic career at the same institution. A clear majority of institutions answered with “yes” (i.e. 94%) (cf. Figure 8), with the “no’s” because of institutional rules (4%) or traditions (2%) being negligible. No higher education institution indicated that continuing at the same university is not possible because of obstacles in the national law.

Support for non-academic career paths is also increasingly common in doctoral education. Universities have become aware that, depending on the country, a sizeable minority, or in some cases of doctorate holders, go on to pursue “alternative careers” that differ from “traditional” research positions in the university.27 Transferable skills training and intersectoral mobility schemes28 are two widespread examples of universities facilitating the transition of doctorate holders into non-academic career paths.

Importantly, the growing importance of career development signals a broader, more diverse scope for doctoral education.29 As it was shown in section 2.2, doctoral education remains firmly focused on advancing knowledge through original research. At the same time, career development goes beyond the pursuit of original knowledge. Universities preparing early-stage researchers for a broad variety of career paths, including in non-academic sectors, signals a broader scope that looks beyond research output and takes into consideration doctoral candidates themselves and their role in society.

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