Report working conference Graduate Schools

On Thursday the 23rd of March, the Graduate Schools organized their third Working Conference as a part of the Graduate Agenda. During a sunny afternoon, PhD candidates, deans and vice-deans, policy advisors and more discussed current trends and challenges in PhD education. Developments at Utrecht University were complemented with examples from other universities in the Netherlands and abroad.

Marijk van der Wende, Dean of Graduate Studies, started the afternoon addressing current national and international challenges and issues brought up by PhD candidates, LERU, KNAW and other institutions. PhDs in Life Sciences have written a manifesto to ask for more time to develop themselves, KNAW has published the report “The PhD System Works” about career development of PhDs, the University of Amsterdam PhD Network stated that more than one third of PhDs are clinically depressed. On the other hand, quality of PhD experience and programs are a great priority to European research university, as shown in the LERU advise paper about the quality culture in PhD education published in 2016.

Having started in September 2016, three working groups led by Janneke Plantenga (vice-dean REBO) worked on defining the most important issues and developments in PhD education at Utrecht University. In preparation for recommendations to the Graduate Committee, Plantenga presented the starting point of the working groups, and the three main topics: training and skills, community and identity and quality assurance processes. “PhD candidates are an important part of our university for a rather long period of time, and we – as a university – invest rather a lot in our PhD candidates.”

David Bogle, Head of the University College London Graduate School and chair of the LERU Doctoral Studies Community, elaborated on the LERU advise paper “Maintaining a quality culture in doctoral education” (March 2016) and gave several examples of how he does this at UCL. “Skills development is the cornerstone of the modern doctorate.” Furthermore, at UCL there’s a great attention to the quality of supervisors. For example, there is a supervisor approval process with mandatory training and a PhD supervisors forum.

Another (inter)national development that’s very relevant to Utrecht University as well, is the growing diversity of our PhD population. Next to PhDs that are employed by the university, we welcome more and more (international) bursary PhDs. Jan Fransoo, Dean of Graduate Studies at Eindhoven University of Technology: “At Eindhoven, we want bursary PhDs to be treated basically like employed PhDs. They have the same rights and obligations.” In order to make this possible, every department who wants to invite a bursary PhD to do their research in Eindhoven, should make sure there are enough resources to support the candidate when it comes to participating in courses or conferences.

Roland Bertens, PhD candidate, and member of the Graduate Student Think Tank, shared some PhD perspectives with the audience. He emphasized on the importance of a couple of topics for PhDs: teaching, supervision, courses and training, and the status of international/bursary candidates. He stated there is a great need for better communication about rights and obligations of all PhD candidates, and for bundling courses and training for PhDs ánd (future) supervisors.

With several ‘inspiration tables’ on the first floor, the participants in the working conference were invited to discuss challenges and solutions in PhD educations along the lines of community and identity, training and skills and quality assurance processes. PhD candidates presented their ideas and good practices, but the Graduate Schools, Career Services, Alumni Relations and others were represented as well with examples and Q&A sessions.

The working conference was concluded with a panel discussion with two PhD candidates: Tina Venema (Prout) and Haoran Ye (CUSA), dean Gerrit van Meer, vice-dean Ted Sanders, David Bogle and Jan Fransoo. The panelists realized that there’s a tension because of different interests of PhD candidates, research group leaders, supervisors and the university as a whole. Sanders: “PhDs are learning to become a professional, whereas supervisors have a main interest in the progress of research projects.”Venema: “For PhDs, doing research is the number one priority. That’s why courses for PhDs shouldn’t be mandatory”. Van Meer: “The question is: what are the final objectives of the PhD program?”.

There’s also the argument that skills development affect the progress of candidates negatively. But Bogle and Fransoo refute this view: they believe good progress is encouraged by the mindset of the Graduate School, but also by good and professional guidance. The improvement of the progress of candidates shouldn’t go at the expense of skills development. Bogle: “Career skills are not only expected outside of academia. But PhD candidates are the sole driver of their development.”
Another issue is the different statuses of PhD candidates that exist, as well as differences of rights and obligations. Ye: “There are a lot of differences between employed PhDs and bursary candidates. How can we equalize this more?” Ye mentions examples like the consequences of delay and access to courses. “Chinese candidates aren’t used to discussing about what’s expected from them with their supervisor.” International bursary candidates experience a lack of clarity when it comes to their opportunities to follow courses. Van Meer: “An aspect that hasn’t been mentioned before is money: how do we finance Graduate Schools? This question is related to the availability of courses for different groups of PhDs.”

Plantenga concluded the working conference and summed up the main takeaways for the PhD Agenda. The PhD candidate as a driver of their own development should be open for opportunities, but the university has the responsibility to offer professional supervision, to enhance equality between candidates and to realize a welcoming and transparent PhD community for (international) candidates. The working conference this afternoon has provided important input for the PhD Agenda. In June, the Graduate Committee will discuss the final recommendations of the PhD Agenda working groups.