How much is enough for a PhD?

Liisa KauppiThere has been much discussion about easing some of the PhD requirements at the University of Helsinki and the Faculty of Medicine. When should a PhD candidate be considered ready to defend their thesis? Key planned measures at the UH level include (1) reducing the ECTS requirements from 40 to 30, and (2) re-wording the rector’s decision on article requirements in a PhD thesis from ”typically 3–5 publications” to ”typically 2–4 publications”.

It is important to note that delineating minimum PhD requirements is different than discussing the criteria for an outstanding PhD. Fulfilling the minimum requirements may suffice for those doctoral researchers who wish to continue directly into jobs outside of academia. However, those who have career ambitions in academia will have to set the qualitative bar high. To be able to land a post-doctoral position in an internationally high-ranked lab, one needs to have a PhD track record to match.

The focus on the number of publications per se is misdirected, however. Instead, we should be discussing the scientific quality of the work, the PhD candidates’ scientific maturity and contribution to field, as well as the skills they should acquire during their PhD journey. For example, high-level critical thinking and problem-solving ability are central outcomes that sets apart a PhD degree from a Masters degree. In biomedical sciences, one often develops these abilities best when faced with unexpected results and/or failed experiments. Such ”failures” (and sometimes even entire failed-and-buried subprojects) are an integral part of the scientific process and of PhD training. Despite their importance, they are not visible as published articles and typically, are not included in the written thesis either.

How can the doctoral researcher get recognition for the sum of their research efforts, not just for those that ended up in a published article? Aside from the doctoral researcher and the supervisor(s), who even knows about the total amount of work that was put in? I would argue that the PhD thesis committee is an excellent but currently underutilized resource for evaluating when the PhD candidate has ”done enough”. Provided that the doctoral researcher organizes thesis committee meetings annually, thesis committee members witness the PhD candidate’s journey from start to finish, including any dropped sub-projects and scientific dead-ends along the way. They will have a good overview of the entire PhD project and of the candidate’s contribution to each subproject. Towards the end of the PhD, they are also well-placed to evaluate the PhD candidate’s scientific maturity. In the process of proceeding to pre-examination, a green light from the thesis committee should be given substantially more weight than it is currently.

From a doctoral researcher’s perspective, it would of course be optimal – from the get-go – to have a clear idea of what is required in order to graduate. From here stems the wish to have precisely defined criteria of what is enough for a PhD. Is one paper in a journal with impact factor so-and-so sufficient? What about if it’s a shared-author paper? What about two second-author papers? Is a bioRxiv manuscript considered a publication? There are endless different scenarios, and an article involving years of heavy wet-lab experiments is very different from a registry-based study. For these reasons, we do not have fixed minimum numerical criteria (only ”typical”) and I doubt we ever will. With PhD requirements in a state of flux, I encourage doctoral researchers to keep an eye on the content of recent PhD theses to get an idea of their current scope (see PhD theses at the Faculty of Medicine and for comparison, see PhD theses at the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences).

While doctoral researchers may wish for a swift PhD degree, most supervisors live in a publish-or-perish world and would certainly like to see the resources they invest in each PhD project materialize as (high-impact) science and publications. It is important that the supervisor and the doctoral researcher discuss their expectations for the PhD project (duration, research output, length of funding, career aspirations) early on, and also along the way. An example of a bad match is a supervisor who aims for a Nature paper from the project and a doctoral researcher who just wants to graduate quickly.

As we move towards lighter PhD requirements, it seems inevitable that in the future much of the hands-on research in ambitious projects will be conducted by post-docs, not doctoral researchers. The PhD degree would serve as a researcher’s driver’s license, and scientific productivity would peak thereafter. Shifting towards post-doc driven research will align our academic system more with that of North America and many European countries. Our whole research ecosystem, especially major funders like the Research Council of Finland (formerly known as Academy of Finland), will need to adapt to this change with increased opportunities for post-doc recruitment.

Liisa Kauppi

Associate Professor Liisa Kauppi is the director of the Doctoral Program in Biomedicine (DPBM) and a board member of the University of Helsinki Doctoral School. In several of our doctoral programs, including DPBM, nearly half of doctoral researchers have a native language other than Finnish. This blog text was written in English to reach also our international employees.