Have we got the right kind of PhD degree programme?

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AU's PhD association, AUPA, yesterday participated in a national PhD conference that took a comprehensive analysis of the Danish PhD programme as its starting point. AUPA is satisfied with the analysis, but thinks that the ministry has too much focus on the PhD degree programme in a socio-economic perspective. Let's also discuss the contents of the degree programme, says AUPA.

2017.04.24 | Marie Groth Andersen

Rune Dall Jensen (left), outgoing board member of the Aarhus University PhD Association (AUPA) and a PhD student at the Centre for Health Sciences Education at AU. Helene Halkjær Jensen is the outgoing chair of the Aarhus University PhD Association (AUPA) and a PhD student at the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at AU. Both are members of AUPA's working group on the PhD analysis. Photo: Melissa Yildirim.

Facts: The analysis of the PhD area

In 2006, a political majority decided to increase investment in research in order to strengthen growth and innovation in Denmark. One measure was an increase in the number of PhD students admitted to 2,400 per year. By comparison, in 2006 approx. 1,500 students were admitted to the PhD degree programme. The objective of the analysis was to evaluate the initiative and the effects of an increase in PhD admissions.

The analysis shows that:

  • 90 per cent of the PhD students complete the degree programme.
  • The employment rate for PhD graduates is 94 per cent.
  • 46 per cent of the PhD students state that they are generally satisfied with their degree programme.
  • The self-reported working hours for PhD students is between 37-50 hours per week. 
  • PhD students assess that they spend 54 per cent of their working hours on their own research, 10 per cent on teaching, 10 per cent on PhD courses, and 9 per cent on other people's research.

Read the report: The quality and relevance of the Danish PhD programme: compilation of main results 

AU's PhD association, AUPA, yesterday participated in a national PhD conference held by the Ministry of Higher Education and Science. The background for the conference was an analysis that evaluated the Danish PhD programme. AUPA had sent outgoing chair Helene Halkjær and outgoing board member Rune Dall Jensen to the conference. They were particularly eager to discuss the content of the PhD degree programmes and the possibility of making them more flexible.

“As a starting point, AUPA finds it positive that the ministry is taking a look at the PhD degree programme in general," emphasises Helene Halkjær. She also notes that the analysis shows that PhD students are goal-orientated, committed and contribute to society in general.

Let’s take a look at the content

But AUPA is critical of parts of the analysis. For example, the association believes that in the analysis, the ministry is focused on the PhD degree programme in an economic and societal perspective, including the value that PhD students contribute with afterwards. For AUPA, it is equally relevant to discuss whether the content of the Danish PhD degree programme is good enough and whether it results in the best PhD students.

"The Danish PhD degree programme only makes a few requirements, but these few requirements are quite comprehensive, which means the Danish programme is far more structured than abroad," explains Helene Halkjær. 

She refers, among other things, to the requirement for a change of environment, where the PhD student must be part of a research environment abroad for a longer period to ensure the PhD’s international level.

"But this also applies to compulsory courses, teaching participation and that we must take part in various work at the department. This means that we have many other things to do other than our research, and it’s here that I think it’s possible to have a greater degree of freedom to structure your own PHD programme according to what you will subsequently use it for and what is relevant for a specific employer of PhD students," says Helene Halkjær. She uses herself as an example:

"I'm currently writing a grant proposal for a postdoc project, but the application does not ask me to document my teaching experience at all. That part of my CV is less important to them."

Make room for research

Rune Dall Jensen agrees. He points out that the length of the Danish PhD degree programme can be discussed, because it is shorter than many foreign PhD programmes.

"But the degree programme will not necessarily be better if it takes four years. It's about what takes place in the three or four years that the PhD programme takes. We need to make more room for research and personal development in the PhD programme, and that can be done by removing some of the elements that steal time from research."

The analysis shows that PhD students spend 54 per cent of their time on their own research.

Overfilled courses and poor economy

They both agree that the problem is not the requirement for PhD students to take courses equivalent to 30 ECTS. Halkjær points out that it is a question of content and quality.

"In the AUPA, we hear many stories about the courses people wished to take being overfilled so they have to choose something else that’s less relevant. Or that a department can’t afford to establish PhD courses, so the PhD students are referred to Master’s degree courses instead. So, it's about ensuring real opportunities to take courses and ensuring the relevance of these courses," she says.

Flexible solutions

The conference on Thursday included a panel debate on the quality and relevance of the PhD degree programme.

"I would also like to discuss the purpose of the programme. That’s the foundation for being able to assess its quality and being able to discuss its framework," says Jensen.

The two AUPA representatives would also like to see flexibility of content on the agenda.

"There’s so much talk about relevance for business and industry. At the same time, we have what’s known as industrial PhDs, but they’re not used very much. But is it possible to implement the business-orientated element at other levels of the degree programme?" asks Halkjær.

Jensen adds:

"So that you could, for example, swap the studying abroad with a period at a private company."

Are we really any wiser about the quality of the degree programme?

AUPA also takes a critical approach to the fact that the quantitative analyses will be used to discuss a qualitative concept such as the quality of the PhD degree programme. They also note that the discussion requires interview-based surveys.

"That’s not to say that the analysis can’t be used. I view it as the first step towards a discussion of quality. It provides the conceptual framework for discussing what a PhD degree programme is, but more work needs to be done," says Jensen and continues:

"I fear that the discussion will not develop further after the conference today. That would be the worst outcome. Because then the purpose hasn’t been to improve the programmes."

"On the other hand, the best-case scenario is a discussion where we arrive at a number of core areas that we wish to focus on in the future, for example the framework of the programme. And that we set up a working group where business and industry, the universities, the ministry and the PhD students are represented, which can then discuss the framework we’re working towards," says Jensen.

Good local tool

Halkjær also points out that the report is an excellent basis for further discussions about the PhD programme locally at AU:

"We know much more about the context we are part of. We can make lateral comparisons and use the report for comparisons with our local analyses."

Finished this summer

Both Rune Dall Jensen and Helene Halkjær are currently putting the final touches to their PhD dissertations and will submit them this summer. Even though the work they are doing on the PhD analysis will not end up benefiting them directly, they are both very occupied by the work on the report, which has been going on for almost a year.

Halkjær explains that the PhD students participated in a questionnaire in June last year as part of the analysis. As an association, AUPA began its response to the analysis already back then. 

"The intention was to publish the result of the analysis in October, and we were ready then. So, it’s something we've talked a lot about and been very preoccupied with. Your own view of the PhD programme and the system changes when you become so preoccupied and involved with it," she explains.

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