Science - February 23, 2012

The final privilege

Text:
Arno van 't Hoog

In the Netherlands, the formal supervisor of a PhD has to be a professor, much to the irritation of young scientists. 'Sometimes the professor's name is only there as a formality.' A new generation is becoming increasingly vociferous in demanding recognition of its work and intellectual achievements.

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Those involved say it is a hot topic but by means everybody is willing to talk about it. Most interview requests meet with a polite refusal because of too much work or the lack of 'a strong opinion'. The question of whether to extend the right to supervise PhDs seems to be rather sensitive. Basically, the question is whether assistant and associate professors should be allowed to supervise doctoral theses, as well as full professors. The supervision of a PhD student has traditionally been the exclusive, statutory right of full professors.
The Dutch Young Academy (DJA) has been protesting against this principle for some time now. DJA, part of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, is a platform for outstanding scientists aged between 25 and 45. DJA listed nine objections to professors' exclusive supervision rights in a position paper published in September last year. The key point is that it is a denial of current practice, say the young scientists: it is often the assistant and associate professors who take on the day-to-day supervision of PhD students. DJA says the current situation means a lack of recognition for their time and intellectual achievements.
What is more, because professors are given formal ultimate responsibility, they are being forced to get involved in something that they are not really responsible for. A distorted situation, says Peter-Paul Verbeek, chair of DJA and Professor of the Philosophy of Humans and Technology at the University of Twente. ‘Suppose a researcher gets a personal Vidi grant for a new line of research. This entails supervising PhD students who investigate his ideas using his personal grant. But he is not allowed to call himself a doctoral thesis supervisor because that title is associated with a professorship. We don't think that's right.' Verbeek says it even makes the Netherlands unappealing for foreign researchers. ‘They don't have this restriction to thesis supervision rights in the US and Britain.'
In Verbeek's view, universities are in a transitional phase. The academic world traditionally adopted the principle of a fixed numbers of posts: you could only become a professor if the current professor left. ‘We are now in a period in which careers are increasingly dependent on academic achievements. It would therefore be appropriate to give someone PhD supervision rights if justified by their performance.'
Honour to whom honour is due
The Wageningen professor of Aquatic Ecology, Marten Scheffer, agrees with Verbeek. ‘Someone who has sufficient academic standing and is capable of independently supervising a PhD student should be granted supervision rights. You could easily set criteria for this in terms of publications, citations and so on. Sometimes a professor is only there as a formality because the bulk of the coaching has been done by a co-supervisor. We need to get away from that. Honour to whom honour is due.'
Johan van Arendonk, dean of sciences, does not think an extension of PhD supervision rights makes sense. He agrees that co-supervisors play an important part but he says the current system offers sufficient opportunities for formalizing and valuing that. 'The doctorate regulations state clearly that a supervisor is able to delegate responsibilities to a co-supervisor, and that is what often happens in practice. It is important to make proper agreements about the division of tasks during supervision and conferral of the doctorate to ensure there is proper acknowledgement of this.'
Wageningen recently abandoned the principle of fixed posts, replacing it with the tenure track system, says Van Arendonk. ‘This offers staff the possibility of being promoted to a personal chair professorship, which gives them supervision rights. It is a good thing that excellent scientists now have that opportunity. I am not in favour of creating yet another new category on top of that.'
Tenure track
At Groningen and Twente universities, the debate about supervision rights has led to such a new category: the deputy professor. Since last year, associate professors on the tenure track in Twente have been able to acquire supervision rights for five years. This allows scientists to develop a research line and at the same time supervise the PhD students in their group. This is a way of getting round the restrictions in the Higher Education Act, which lays down the rules for supervision rights.
Verbeek sees this as a significant step in the right direction but it is still a compromise solution. ‘Twente and Groningen are opting for a hybrid of the old system and the new system. Even so, these are important initiatives as they show that it can be done without any complicated legislative changes, so there is no need to have cold feet about it.'
Van Arendonk says it is not true that only the supervisors get recognition. ‘You will have sufficient evidence of your contribution if you've been co-supervisor several times, plus papers where you are the last author. I don't buy the argument that there is no recognition for this abroad. Each country has its own traditions and titles.'
According to Van Arendonk, the discussion about supervision rights is mainly about giving and receiving recognition for effort and achievements. ‘I intend to take these signals seriously. After all, this concerns the new generation of researchers. I'm interested to hear what the story behind it is.' Van Arendonk thinks it would be a good idea to discuss this issue with DJA and Wageningen's Young Academy.
However, Verbeek thinks it is time for a fundamental reconsideration. He calls the idea that extending supervision rights could threaten the quality of doctorates ‘a bizarre argument'. ‘Supervision is a combination of research and teaching skills. You have to have those skills. And then there is always a committee that evaluates the thesis, and peer review of the individual papers.'
Referendum
Should supervision right restrictions eventually be relaxed, Verbeek does not yet have any pronounced views on the rules that should then apply. ‘In the first place I have in mind people with a PhD who have spent a number of years as a postdoc and now have a permanent post. A tenure-track associate professor for example. We have not yet had that discussion.'
David Lentink says this discussion needs to take place at the national level. Lentink is assistant professor in Experimental Zoology in Wageningen and Stanford, and a member of DJA. ‘I would be in favour of a national poll among university professors and assistant and associate professors - in other words, everyone who supervises PhD students. That would be a democratic way of deciding what the best and fairest solution is. In what phase and based on what quality criteria should a professor, assistant professor or associate professor get supervision rights? Personally, I think the quality argument needs refining and testing. In the end that needs to be the deciding factor, even for professors. That is key to improving conditions for PhD students. As far as I am concerned, the end result should be an improvement for them.'
The level of interest in the debate about supervision rights is demonstrated by the fact that it is back on the agenda for the next Council of University Rectors meeting on 14 March, according to an Association of Universities spokesperson. ‘The topic will be discussed again then.' The university directors' group already responded to DJA's position paper last autumn. Then the rectors said supervision rights should remain linked to a professorship. ‘That is the official position of the Association of Universities at this point', says the spokesperson.
Verbeek does not believe in an overnight revolution. ‘This is a very gradual process. I notice that researchers on the ground often agree with us but we are facing a wall of resistance amongst university administrators. As if they have battened down the hatches. I sometimes feel this is a taboo subject. After all, it is one of the last remaining exclusive privileges of a professorship.'

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