Student - April 5, 2012

Time to dumb down the PhD?

Text:
Joris Tielens

PhD researchers take too long over their research. An average of five years in the Netherlands as a whole and 5.1 years at Wageningen University. One in three never finish at all. Something should be done about this, says Groningen University rector Elmer Sterken. If necessary, lower the bar for some of the researchers or shorten the programme. Is this a good idea or would it devalue the title?

Are you saving PhD points?
Stefan Metz
Chair of the Wageningen PhD Council (expects to graduate in March 2013 after four years)

‘Simplifying or shortening the PhD trajectory seems to me a very bad idea. In our knowledge economy you should be doing the opposite; giving trainee scientists plenty of space to develop into independent researchers. The PhD trajectory in the Netherlands is the highest level of training, and is not suited to everyone. A certain dropout rate is a logical consequence of that. But making the process easier would devalue the title of PhD and the status of Dutch PhD holders. If PhD researchers are taking too long, perhaps admission procedures should be tightened up.'
Martin Kropff
Rector of Wageningen University (did his PhD in four years in the late nineteen eighties, as well as teaching at the Theoretical Crop Science chair group)

‘An average of five years is too long for a fulltime PhD for which four years of funding is available. But it's a somewhat distorted picture, as many PhD researchers get a job shortly before they finish their thesis, so that it takes a while before they are actually ready for the degree ceremony. The quality criteria should not be changed. What is important is efficient supervision. At Wageningen, PhD researchers receive focused coaching, and the supervisors and research schools put a lot of time and energy into that. In the research schools, PhD researchers also learn a lot from each other. Candidates are selected more and more carefully. A few years ago we decided to take the ‘go/ no go' point after one year more seriously, and that proves to work well.'
Dr Nick den Hollander
Receives his PhD this week after 12 years under Martin Kropff's supervision; works at Dutch research organization NWO

‘I completed my PhD alongside my new job, and I am quite proud of that. PhD graduates are important for the Dutch scientific community. There are differences within the EU, and in some subjects a PhD is easier in Germany. In the Netherlands PhD students are usually salaried, whereas in other countries they are often on a student grant.
I don't think it would be sensible to lower the standards. A few applied sciences programmes have been in the news because they were handing out degrees too freely. And now, because it's politically convenient, some people are claiming that degrees are handed out too easily everywhere in higher education. That is not true, but you shouldn't do anything to confirm that idea. We have to show that we keep standards high in academia.'
Dr Luc van Hoof
Manager at Imares and researcher at the Environmental Policy chair group (has been working on his thesis one day a week for two years)

‘I had already been doing research on fisheries for ten years. I used the experience I had gained for my thesis. That is a very different situation to when you have just graduated. You should take a good look at why someone wants to do a PhD and the programme should be tailor-made. Then it is fine if some people take longer over it. But if it is not going well, you should stop before it's too late. At the Environmental Policy chair group we pay a lot of attention to the go or no-go decision after one year. Perhaps you should be even more critical at that point.'
Wilma van Esse
PhD researcher at the Laboratory for Biochemistry; has been working on his PhD for four years and has six months to go

‘Lowering the bar would devalue the title. It's about quality, not quantity. The rule of thumb is four publishable chapters. But that is a vague concept. Publications have varying degrees of impact and research with a high impact can be more time-consuming. Surely a PhD researcher who publishes an article in Science shouldn't always have to publish three other articles in order to graduate? In my view, it doesn't have to be a problem if someone takes more than four years over their PhD. It's better to do things properly, and it's better to take more time over it than to cut corners. With a good dose of realism of course.'
Dr Klaas Bouwmeester
Researcher at the Laboratory for Phytopathology; took 6.5 years over his PhD

‘I can see why a rector would think about the numbers. If you have so many PhD, you earn so many euros, and extra time means a financial loss. PhD research is a market that you can think about in business terms. But at the same time, a PhD is a training for scientists. In our chair group the standards are high, and a PhD researcher is quite rightly expected to produce a substantial book. In general, the standards could be higher still. It shouldn't become a form of mass production. The solution might be to select candidates more stringently and to provide more supervision.'
A statement by the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU):
‘The rectors of the Dutch universities discussed this issue on 14 March. The universities will not change the standards set for a PhD, but intend to intensify the supervision offered to PhD researchers, to tailor PhD trajectories more, and to improve the quality control. The final attainment targets for a PhD will not be changed at all, and are the same for everyone, but there should be scope for more variation in the route taken to reach them. The rectors want to see a PhD much more as an educational trajectory than as a research job.'

Re:act