National Doctoral Education Day 9.10.2018

HYVÄT participated in the National Doctoral Education day in Lappeenranta 9th October 2018. The main theme for the day was working life skills and competencies of PhDs, but many other themes were touched upon as well. This post is a try to sum up some of the interesting discussions we participated in. Because of the many parallel sessions we were forced to pick and choose some themes, but the entire programme can be seen here.

Anton giving a presentation at the National Doctoral Education Day

One informative talk was by Outi Suorsa who presented the national PhD career survey from 2017. Her good news were that eduction still defiitely pays off, because the percentage of unemployed PhDs was small, only between 1-7% depending on the discipline. The number is larger for those with a master or bachelor degree. Furthermore, most respondents had perceived the doctotal degree as a benefit for their career: 60% responded that it had given them more demanding tasks at work and 50% responded that they had got a higher salary thanks to their degree. However, only 40 % of the respondents worked with research, which indicates that universities need to focus more on supporting also other than purely academic career choices of doctoral students.

The question then is: how should career advice and mentoring for doctoral students be organised to best serve their needs?

At the University of Turku, career advice has been integrated into the supervison: the doctoral students have the option of having a discussion of future career options with their supervisor. As support for the supervisors, the university has provided them with material on career councelling. This is a brave try to integrate career coaching into doctoral studies, but are the supervisors, who themselves have a university career, the right persons to give advice also on career options outside the university? Would it be possible to find other solutions? Would career courses tailored for dischiplinary needs and led by university career services be the best alternative?

Another solution that was presented by Essi Huttu was the PoDoCo programme that helps to match academically trained PhDs with companies that need their brain power. It is a joint initiative of Finnish universities, industry and foundations that you can read more about here.

Timo Korkeamäki presented a European survey on doctoral education made by the EUA Council for Doctoral Education. One interesting finding was that the majority of universities who responded couldn’t provide clear answers about the careers of PhDs, which indicates that more attention should be given to how and where PhDs get jobs after completing their degree. A great many suggestions on how to improve things on this point were put forward: career survey’s and follow-ups of graduated PhDs working life, career guidance for those still studying, mentoring networks, contacts to alumni, etc. Over all, there seems to be an agreement among everyone working with doctoral education that academic as well as other career options should be presented as equally good, and that more training on how to build a career should be incorporated in doctoral studies.

The EUACDE survey’s data on Finland revealed that people here graduate way slower than in many other European countries. Of those who started in 2009, only 40% had graduated within 5 years. During the discussion that followed many possible reasons for this were suggested: the difficult situation with funding, the amount/accessibility of supervision, the bureaucratically long process of graduation that can take months and months in Finland, etc. Things like bureaucracy should be possible to change if there is will, but securing enough funding for research unfortunately seems harder to accomplish in these days.

HYVÄT’s contribution was a presentation on the results of 2018 PhD student’s survey. Anton highlighted the key findings:

  1. Integration into the research community is a major challenge for doctoral eduction at UH: 47 % of the respondents do not feel they are integrated into the research community. This result correlated strongly with access to working spaces at the university – those with an office are better integrated into the community than those who work from home or somewhere else.
  2. Doctoral students over all think that the quality of supervision is good, but the frequency of how often they meet their supervisor is not always enough. There are too many people who meet with their supervisor only once or twice a year, which is alarming.
  3. Unsurprisingly, the lack of funding continues to be a major issue that affects doctoral students’ possibilities to do research.
  4. Doctoral students who have funding from different resources (employed/grantee/unfunded) have very different possibilities to do their doctoral studies. Currently only the employed are full members of the research community (access to work space, health care, daily meetings with colleagues, etc.). The position of grantees varies greately: some have working spaces and some do not, some have more support from their community and some have less. The unfunded are more or less left without any support of the community. There are many ways to improve this, for example by offering working spaces, more frequent supervision, more peer-support activities, etc.

Improving things like supervision, equality between doctoral students, community-belonging, and funding – the structures doctoral researchers work in – might well be part of the solution to make doctoral students graduate faster in Finland.

Supervision was a key theme also in a presentation by Tanja Johansson who talked about supervision as twofold, consisting of 1) seeing that the PhD student aquires the necessary research skills, competencies, and finishes the thesis; 2) mentoring and supporting the doctoral student in the process. She suggested courses and training for both present and future supervisors as something to look into. Could training as supervisor even be part of the doctoral training? Mentoring and coaching skills could be wortwhile also in working life outside of academia.

Terhi Nokkala talked about peer mentoring for doctoral students that had been piloted in Jyväskylä University. The mentoring groups were interdisciplinary and consisted of two senior academics who acted as coordinators for a small group of doctoral students. The groups met a few times per term and discussed themes that the doctoral students brought up, such as career paths, various research skills, and worries/anxieties concerning these. Both the coordinators’ and the doctoral students’ experiences of the groups were positive. Coordinators felt reminded of the challenges their doctoral students face and the importance to check how their supervisees were doing. The doctoral students felt they got valuable peer-support from both the peers and the more senior academics in the group, knowlegde of how academia works, and that the non-hierarchical group was benefical for confidential discusssions. Maybe also other forms of mentoring for doctoral students could be developed?

To sum things up, many good suggestions on how to improve doctoral education were made during the day. There are many people around the country who keep working with the benefit of universities and doctoral student in mind. However, it is not an easy task to improve and develop higher education in the current political climate that has been characterised by cuts in university funding.

Consequently, this big question was asked: is the doctoral student to be seen more as a “client” with his/her individual plans and hopes for the future, or as a “product” that the ministry of education has ordered from the university? The answer might be different depending on who you ask. From an academic point of view, the idea that the university’s task is to simply produce what the ministry of eduction has ordered, is higly problematic. I believe that the most reliable knowledge of how the university best can serve the society is to be found at the university.