PhDs seeking more than just student status

The position of doctoral candidates in Europe has rarely been more difficult than it is today; this is especially true for scientists working in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The past five years have seen many huge changes that have affected the context in which doctoral training is taking place. The first is the inclusion of doctoral training in the Bologna process as a third education cycle. The second is the announcement that the European Commission is aiming to train at least one million more researchers by 2020. The last, but perhaps, the most difficult aspect, is the financial crisis of the past few years; the worst to strike Europe in past 50 years.

To get a clearer picture of the situation of doctoral training in CEE countries, we need to go back in history. Most of these were Communist countries. Under such regime, the research sector was mainly driven by the defence industry. These countries only started transitioning towards a free market economy 15 to 20 years ago. And some of them are still undergoing this transition process.

Since this transition was painful for the most of their citizens, many governments prioritised social benefits instead of investment in science. As a result, today, these countries of are on the bottom of the list of European countries in terms of research spending as a proportion of GDP. As a result, research institutions are in a very difficult situation, and that is directly reflected in the status of doctoral candidates.

In the most of CEE countries doctoral candidates have a ‘student’ status. This status is very often used as an excuse not to recognise doctoral candidates as first stage researchers or early-stage researchers, which are terms broadly used throughout Europe. As a result, they are not being paid for their work. And they are being denied various social rights. As long as this student status in maintained, we cannot expect that the attractiveness of a research career will improve.

Not being recognised for who they are, doctoral candidates from the CEE strongly support the European Charter for Researchers when it states that: “Member States should…endeavour to ensure that researchers are treated as professionals and as an integral part of the institutions in which they work.”

In addition to the need to change the status of doctoral candidates, doctoral training also requires some attention. The current system in most higher education institutions in the region prepares doctoral candidates to stay and work in academia. With the rapidly increasing number of doctoral programs, it is obvious that most of the current PhDs will not have a place to stay at university or some scientific institute.

Unfortunately most of them are not prepared for such transition. For example, a study by the Serbian associations of PhD candidates shows that about 80% of all doctoral candidates still expect to stay at university or at a scientific institute after defending their PhD thesis. It is echoed by other similar studies in the region. Doctoral candidates in the region desperately need to be offered the training that will provide them with the skills needed to work in a non-academic environment.

One of the best ways for improvement of doctoral training is adoption of innovative doctoral training principles. In addition, there is also a need to improve, or to develop, training for supervisors responsible for doctoral training.

Clearly, issues pertaining to the status of doctoral candidates and the quality of the doctoral training have still to be resolved. They are not the only ones. Poor research infrastructure, low in- and cross-border cooperation and knowledge sharing, have also to be addressed through serious reforms. Until such changes, CEE countries will remain at the bottom of the list of European countries by research spending, and at the top position on the brain drain list, losing the most valuable capital they have.

Slobodan Radičev, former Eurodoc President and PhD Candidate in industrial engineering at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by the U.S. Army RDECOM

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