A new study in Germany aims to map thousands of doctoral candidates in dozens of universities, providing insight into their working conditions, views on supervision, motivation, career goals, and mobility during doctoral studies, as well as possible thoughts on dropping out. As Kolja Briedis from the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies tells us, the results are better than expected.
A new study called Nacaps (National academics panel study) has started in Germany. It aims at picturing the situation and the career paths of doctoral candidates over a timespan of several years. The first wave of surveys took place in the spring of 2019 with more than 80,000 e-mails going out to doctoral candidates at 53 universities. More than 23,600 doctoral candidates completed the questionnaire (resulting in a return rate of 30.5%). The main topics of the questionnaire were:
- basic information on the doctoral studies (subject, start date, cooperation with other institutions),
- study conditions (number of advisors, (written) agreements on supervision, funding, participation in a structured doctoral programme, satisfaction),
- working conditions (employment situation, hours of teaching, stays abroad, connection between employment and thesis topic, scientific tasks),
- career aspirations (scientific career/professorship),
- private situation and personality (relationship status, parenthood, life satisfaction, health, locus of control, risk aversion),
Although the survey took place at German universities, more than one fifth of the respondents were in other countries. Fifty-one percent of the respondents are male, 48% female (less than 1%: diverse). The respondents aim at a doctorate in mathematics/natural sciences (29%), law/economics/social sciences (20%), engineering (18%), medicine/health studies (15%), and humanities (12%). Comparing this distribution with data from several other sources, there seems to be no systematic bias concerning the subject. However, (up until now) there is no reliable official source for the distribution of doctoral candidates across subjects in Germany. Existing statistics suggest that students of medicine/health might be underrepresented (minus 6%), while students of law/economics/social sciences might be over-represented to a minor degree (2-5%).
The majority of the doctoral candidates say that they have enough money to cover living costs (73%). At the same time, 11% state that their financial resources are not (at all) sufficient. Usual sources of funding are an occupation at the university/research institution (60%), an occupation outside the academic sector (17%), a grant (16%) or support from parents or a partner (13%). Two thirds of those who are working at a university are working part-time. In contrast, about half of the doctoral sector with an occupation outside the academic system have full-time employment.
Satisfaction with supervision is surprisingly high, with nearly two-thirds stating that they are (very) satisfied with the supervision during their doctoral studies. Twenty more percent are neither very satisfied nor very unsatisfied. Only the remaining smaller percentage of doctoral candidate states that he or she is not happy with the supervisor or the support from the institution in general. Seventy percent have contact with their supervisor at least several times per semester; one quarter is in touch with the supervisor once or even several times a week.
Many of the doctoral candidates are able to spend quite a lot of time working on their theses: 35% have 20 to 39 hours per week for their doctoral studies. About one quarter can spend even more time than this. On the other hand, every fifth doctoral candidate has less than ten hours per week to dedicate to the thesis.
Dropping out is not a real concern for most of the doctoral candidates. Slightly more than one third (37%) has never thought about giving up. Another quarter (27%) has thought about it only seldomly. Only 14% consider dropping out steadily or often. The main reasons for this are a high workload due to employment or problems concerning the supervision.
Thirty percent of the persons interviewed want to work in the private sector/industry after the doctorate. Occupations at higher education institutions and research institutes are seen as interesting by a similar proportion of respondents (22% and 8% respectively). At the same time, nearly one quarter of the doctoral candidates is still uncertain about their preferences. When asking doctoral candidates whether they aim for an academic career, results provide a similar picture. One third aims at becoming a professor, one third has decided against it – and one third is (still) uncertain.
About one quarter of the doctoral candidates has already been abroad for research purposes for at least one month. The five countries visited most often are the US, the UK, France, Italy, and Austria. However, about 60% of the stays abroad have been spent in approximately 90 other countries all over the world.
All in all, these results show that – although there are also challenges – most of the doctoral candidates in Germany consider their situation as good.
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