PhD Training Around the World: Are all degrees made equal?

PhD Training Around the World: Are all degrees made equal?

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By: Anna Badner

PhD graduates are highly mobile and are often willing to migrate around the world, seeking relevant positions and opportunities with the most talented individuals in their field. While very few professional degrees display this level of international recruitment, the limited PhD job market often encourages/forces many graduates to relocate. This type of employment diversity has unique limitations. As the training, education, and requirements of a PhD significantly varies among institutions and even more between countries,1,2 questions arise regarding the competency and qualifications of different doctoral graduates. I often hear colleagues claim that certain countries have “lower standards” and “shorter time requirements” that reduce the credibility of the awarded PhD. In an attempt to evaluate these assertions, the IMS Magazine decided to explore the history of PhD education, how degree requirements vary, and how this confers degree quality.

The PhD – History, Origin, & Nomenclature

The modern PhD, which incorporates original research, a final dissertation, and oral defense, stems from 19th century Germany.3 While many academic institutions in medieval Europe had awarded doctorates, such degrees were primarily knowledge-based and did not require the student to produce any original work/contributions in their field of study. Therefore, by being the first to unify teaching and research in academia, Wilhelm von Humboldt initiated a radical educational reform and established a contemporary education model at the University of Berlin (currently known as Humboldt University).4 The institution’s structure and research-centric model of doctoral training quickly became the standard in Germany and was adopted by most Western countries shortly after. In 1861, Yale University awarded the first research-based PhD in the United States (US)5 and by the 1900s the degree had spread to Canada as well as several institutions in the United Kingdom (UK).6 Nonetheless, there are certain UK universities (such as Oxford and Sussex) that chose to retain the traditional DPhil nomenclature for their similarly re-structured research doctorate programs.7

The Doctor of Science (DSc/ScD) and Doctor of Letters (DLitt/LittD) present another example of nomenclature variation. Although the DSc and DLitt are PhD-equivalent degrees found in a majority of Asian as well as African countries, institutions within the Commonwealth and European Union regard this to be an academic qualification above the PhD on their educational hierarchy. As such, these degrees are only awarded for the most substantial and/or sustained scientific contributions, requirements that are significantly beyond the expectations of a standard PhD. Moreover, certain institutions associate the DSc title with successful habilitation, which is a prominent academic qualification and often a stepping-stone to full university professorship in select universities.8 Habilitation can be achieved through frequent and independent (without a faculty supervisor) publications as well as the defense of a professorial thesis.9 This academic certification, somewhat comparable to tenure review in North America, continues to exist in many countries in Europe and Central Asia (including France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Poland, Czech Republic, Greece, Ukraine, and Russia).10

Through this very brief account of PhD history and the various nomenclature discrepancies, it is apparent that degree requirements have been—and continue—to be largely based on national or institutional conventions and the cultural environment. As there has been little effort to generate international standards, most academic centers are autonomous in program development. For this reason, there is considerable variability in average degree duration, student outcomes, and research contributions. With these issues in mind, there has been an increasing push for higher educational reform and standardization, with the Bologna Process as a leading example.11

Standardization of Higher Education in Europe–The Bologna Process

In the hope of retaining high calibre students, European countries have become increasingly invested in improving the overall quality and reputation of their higher learning institutions. The creation of a harmonized higher education space was sought to make European degrees more attractive and competitive on the international stage. Therefore, 30 countries opted to create the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) via the Bologna Declaration of June 19th 1999.12 The EHEA was meant to increase the compatibility and comparability of awarded degrees as to promote citizens’ mobility within Europe.13 Since its official launch in 2010, the EHEA has grown to 47 member countries.9

Through the application of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), the EHEA aimed to standardize university credits and make degrees compatible. This system categorizes university education into three groups: first cycle (Bachelor’s degree), second cycle (Master’s program), and third cycle (PhD studies). Each “cycle” is associated with a specified number of credits, which are awarded based on an estimated average student workload. While this is fairly feasible for first and second cycle programs, PhD studies present unique barriers. Since each research project is different, no two PhDs are alike and workloads are not easily comparable. Further, degree structures inherently vary between disciplinary domains and individual subject areas. The “Dublin Descriptors” and the “Tuning program,” which provide a general outline for PhD outcomes/competences based on subject area, were designed to target this flexibility.

An example of these third cycle (PhD) qualifications includes:14 1) a systematic understanding of a field of study and mastery of the skills and methods of research associated with that field; 2) the ability to conceive, design, implement, and adapt a substantial process of research with scholarly integrity; 3) original research contributions that extends the frontier of knowledge by developing a substantial body of work, some of which merits national or international refereed publication; 4) skills for critical analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of new and complex ideas; 5) effective communication with their peers, the larger scholarly community, and with society in general about their areas of expertise; and finally, 6) the ability to promote, within academic and professional contexts, technological, social, or cultural advancement in a knowledge based society.

While wide-ranging, these criteria are considerably accurate. Further, they lead me to realize that a PhD cannot be evaluated by a simplistic curriculum. Research is difficult. Each student is placed in a uniquely challenging environment with distinct mentorship and resources. Measures of time-to-degree completion, research publications, and journal impact may not be representative of degree or student quality. Statistics and norms do not truly capture the complexity of doctoral work, which (like research) can be fairly unpredictable.

So, although different journeys can lead to the same destination—and we may be envious of a seemingly simpler path—the lessons, skills, and friends we make along the way are worth the effort. At least, we all hope so.


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