EUA Council for Doctoral Education


Towards a global doctorate?

Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 crisis, EUA-CDE Steering Committee Member Hans-Joachim Bungartz looks at the world of doctoral education and reflects on the importance of location, the institutional context and local supervision as meetings can be organised online anywhere. This piece briefly depicts the issue and launches a very relevant discussion on global doctorates.

As in almost all sectors, the experiences of the higher education system in the Covid-19 pandemic are manifold and ambivalent. As an example, at a first glance, internationalisation suffered, with so many guest invitations, conference visits, or research exchanges and internships being suspended. At a second glance, however, the introduction of online defences almost overnight suddenly allowed for the inclusion of experts from more or less everywhere as examiners. Beyond the question “Should online be the new normal” – a question intensely discussed in one of the online sessions of this year’s EUA-CDE Annual Meeting – there is a, maybe even more provocative, second one: How important is the location and the institutional context, how important are the local supervisors, if supervision meetings can be organised ad-hoc, involving the candidate and the leading experts in whatever is currently on the agenda of the doctoral project?

Doctorates have always been something special – for science and for society. There was a time when doctorates where just kind of a “pair product”, based on the close scientific collaboration and exchange of an experienced researcher and his, or her, eager-to-learn counterpart. At that time, the latter went to the university or institution where the former currently had a position. If it was a renowned institution, the better. Later, the institutions took over, introduced some structure, moved to a more study-like scenario of “doctoral studies” – typical in the Anglo-American education system and broadly introduced in Europe in the Bologna context (“third cycle”). In that world of doctoral studies, candidates apply to a doctoral school or a doctoral program, and the “pair finding process”, i.e. the assignment of the supervisor of an admitted candidate, frequently happens later. Hence, here, the eager-to-learn young researcher primarily goes to a university or to one of its doctoral schools.

In Germany, the situation is a bit in-between. In principle, doctoral education is not considered as the third cycle of studies, but rather as a first activity in professional life. And from the organisational point of view, the bilateral construction still clearly dominates structured programs. However, in the last decade, many graduate schools have been introduced, coming along with at least some structure (frequently with a particular focus on transferable skills training).

Hence, there are different models – probably with different levels of identification: It would be interesting to see who answers the question, “Where did you do your doctorate?”, by responding “with Professor Einstein”, “at the Princeton University Department of Mathematics”, or “at Princeton University”. Moreover, throughout all the models, two (maybe a bit contradictory) issues of quality assurance are present. On the one hand, a lot of emphasis is put on a high-quality local supervision, meaning the regular and intense contact of supervisor and candidate. A strong local interaction is seen as most beneficial for the scientific outcome of the doctoral project. On the other hand, when it comes to the thesis evaluation, a lot of regulations require some or even all examiners to be external or even international – now, non-local interaction is considered as most beneficial for the scientific quality.

But to come to the point: Why not further extend that external evaluation regime in a consequent way to a variable ad-hoc supervision regime? That would mean that a university would just play the role of the home institution of a doctoral project, which includes handing out the certificate and issuing the degree at the end. The candidate, however, would not have to be physically located at that university. A team of supervisors from different universities could be formed, with the intention of gathering leading experts of the respective field, dynamically in the sense that if a new sub-topic pops up, additional supervisors may join the team. This extended collaboration on a regular basis could increase the quality and bring in external expertise during the doctoral project, not in the “post-mortem” style in the review reports.

At first glance, this looks similar to what we already have in collaborative formats – all the joint, dual, double, or other schemes, including cotutelles. But the depicted idea of a global doctorate goes one important step further: There would be no limitation to a specific university partnership or alliance; the team of supervisors could dynamically change; the focus would shift from institutions to individuals; and there would be some increased level of democratisation. A candidate from the community college of Nether Addlethorpe who did not get admission to Stanford could, nevertheless, build from his location a supervision network including a scholar from Stanford. He or she would still get the degree from Nether Addlethrope only, not Stanford; but the thesis and the underlying research might become far less local.

Of course, this could probably not become the “new normal” format, since we all know that face-to-face guidance is important. And, also obviously, this regime would fit less in fields or topics with a strong lab or facility component. And there are many evident questions – including the one of whether and why institutions or researchers should want that. Nevertheless, the idea of “global doctorate” came up during the EUA-CDE discussions on online defences – and I think it is worth taking notice.

“The Doctoral Debate” is an online platform featuring original articles with commentary and analysis on doctoral education in Europe. Articles focus on trending topics in doctoral education and state-of-the-art policies and practices. The Debate showcases voices and views from EUA-CDE members and partners.

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Hans-Joachim Bungartz

Hans-Joachim Bungartz is Professor of Informatics and Mathematics at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) in Germany and holds the Scientific Computing chair in TUM’s Informatics Department. He has degrees in both Mathematics and Informatics. Since 2013, he has been both Dean of the Informatics Department (with about 6,500 students) and TUM Graduate Dean, with the responsibility of doctoral education for about 8,000 doctoral candidates TUM-wide.

Hans-Joachim Bungartz has served on various editorial, advisory, and review boards. Currently, he is chairman of the German Research and Education Network (DFN), a board member of Leibniz Supercomputing Center, and a member of EUA-CDE’s Steering Committee.

Credits: Technical University of Munich.