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A European view on doctoral education in the United States

In the US, "PhD students" have traditionally focused on classroom time and course requirements, while their European counterparts, "doctoral candidates" followed the apprenticeship model. Now in Europe more institutionalised and structured doctoral programmes have taken shape. However, in the US, overregulation, higher costs and less time for independent research are cause for concern.

I came to the US for the first time in 1986 with a postdoctoral fellowship from the German Research Council after having completed a doctoral degree in natural sciences at the University of Duesseldorf. My graduate education had been Old World style. Nobody would have called me a graduate or doctoral “student.” I was supposed to generate new knowledge rather than study existing knowledge. If I needed more information or training to be successful in my research, I was of course encouraged to acquire it. How, when, and where I would do that, was completely up to me. Since university attendance was free and students weren’t charged tuition, monetary incentives for mandatory course requirements did not exist. Making me sit in a classroom wouldn’t have increased the university’s bottom line, so it didn’t matter to the institution if I went to a seminar, read a book or had a one-on-one tutorial with my advisor or any other faculty member. The assumption at the time in Europe was that doctoral candidates were mature enough to be in charge of their education and identify their gaps and needs.

With that in mind, it was a big surprise to see a PhD student in my new research group in Palo Alto, California regularly leave the lab in the Veterans Administration Hospital and drive to the Stanford campus to attend a physiology class. It seemed to be nothing more than a hoop he was made to jump through since he already had a Master’s degree in physiology. He was in his early thirties, worked completely independently, had published a number of articles in top journals and was a better and far more accomplished scientist than I was at the time.

While course requirements existed even back in the eighties, they did not significantly interfere with the ability of PhD students to freely pursue their own ideas in research and learning. Today, many PhD programs in the US have the flavour of managed care. The individual and unpredictable journey through a doctoral research project has been replaced by an overly structured pathway through graduate school that is loaded with class requirements and leaves little room for choice and autonomy. At least that was the impression I got during my time as graduate dean. When I asked PhD students about research opportunities in their programs, most of them would answer, “Too little, too late.” They would point out to me how much time they had to spend in the first year(s) on “getting requirements out of the way” and how this prevented them from getting a taste of independent research early on. Faculty, on the other hand, seemed more concerned with getting another graduate seminar on the books that would count towards their teaching load and, as a welcome side effect, reduce their undergraduate teaching. Graduate students were less enthusiastic about this side effect - they had to fill in as teaching assistants and deal with growing numbers of undergrads in their classes. Ultimately, this ate up even more of their time that otherwise could have been used for research. It is no wonder that unionisation has become increasingly popular as a strategy among PhD students to be heard and taken more seriously as employees.

What are the forces behind these changes in graduate education in the US? Probably the same forces that are behind changes in undergraduate education – increased dependence on tuition revenue and pompous bureaucracies that cost money and make further tuition hikes necessary. Corporate business models that were introduced to unleash academia’s entrepreneurial spirit haven’t really helped either. In decentralized budget systems, such as Responsibility Center Management (RCM), individual departments get to keep the tuition for the courses they teach. Simply put, forcing students to take more courses means more money for the program that teaches them. This to me is a classic conflict of interest, similar to the doctor who orders more procedures for his patient to make more money. And just like the doctor who does not want to lose a bill-paying patient to some other physician, departments with RCM do not like to see their students take courses and pay tuition elsewhere on campus. This pits entire disciplines against each other and makes the university look more parochial than universal. Not all PhD students pay tuition, but in the world of RCM budgeting, programs need to be reimbursed for every single credit hour they teach. If the money is not coming from students or grants, it has to come from somewhere else, and that is usually some pot of money in the central budget, which means the university pays itself. It also means the university spends a whole lot of time and effort on shuffling money back and forth internally without ever increasing its bottom line. That is what is called “funny money” in administrative circles and could be called “Kafkaesque transactions” by those in the department of comparative literature. 

Students who pay high tuition want tangible returns and the university feels compelled to provide those in the form of student services. In recent years, the academic service sector on American campuses has expanded beyond the undergraduate world and now includes graduate students and postdocs as fee-paying customers. This has led to an astonishing duplication, sometimes multiplication of administrative offices in areas such as student conflict resolution, student wellbeing or career development. All these offices, of course, need visible leaders, so in addition to the vice-provost for student life there is now the vice-president for student success. This is nothing more than outsourcing the responsibility for one’s life and success to university bureaucrats. To me this feels like an eerie mix of helicopter parenting and Orwell’s 1984 - and not the kind of environment that leads to self-guided graduates who are immune to group thinking.

In Europe, doctoral education is still viewed as a separate cycle that focuses on developing intellectual autonomy rather than classroom-based learning. According to the Salzburg II Recommendations, doctoral candidates are “recognised as early stage researchers with commensurate rights and duties - regardless of legal status they are to be seen and treated as professionals.” This makes unionisation unnecessary. University education is not free in most European countries either, but universities do not depend on tuition to the extent that American universities do. The European ECTS credit system reflects learning outcomes and student workload, not classroom seat time or faculty teaching load. Luckily, ECTS credits do not easily translate into euros and therefore have not been used to drive tuition up in the same way the US credit hour has. Tuition in Europe is usually assessed as a flat semester fee at the university level that prevents the interdepartmental feeding frenzy over tuition. In fact, the Salzburg II Recommendations state that: “Applied wrongly, rigid credit requirements can be detrimental to the development of independent research professionals. High quality doctoral education needs a stimulating research environment driven by research enthusiasm, curiosity and creativity, not motivated by the collection of credits.” We need more of that Salzburg spirit in US higher education.

 

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All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA Council for Doctoral Education. If you would like to respond to this article by writing your own piece, please see The Doctoral Debate style guidelines and contact the CDE team to pitch your idea.

About the author

Henning Schroeder is a former vice provost and graduate dean at the University of Minnesota.

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