No more struggling PhDs

UMCG researcher Nikola Valchev is disturbed by the government referring to bursaries as ‘experiments’. He says the way to improve quality is not through adding yet more PhDs but through reform.

Much to my bewilderment, I read the news in the UK about the plans of the Dutch government to increase the number of PhD students in Dutch universities. I will try to explain why I think that this is not something we should be happy about.

In my opinion as a former PhD student of the University of Groningen, this governmental decision is only going to create more problems. Undoubtedly, more PhD students are going to bring more money to the universities and decrease the unemployment rate among the young people in the Netherlands, but I have serious doubts as to whether or not that is going to improve the quality of Dutch science.

Holy Grail

I will start with a simple question: If the issue is that one third of the PhD students fail to finish, then how is increasing their numbers going to help? I think the problem is in the system which is used in academia nowadays. Little to nothing has changed in the structures of the universities and academic careers since the time of Darwin, but science has changed dramatically.

‘If one third of the PhD students fail to finish, then how is increasing their numbers going to help?’

We still have professors who regard their discipline as the Holy Grail and they still feel as if they live in a world apart from the ‘real world’. However, in the old days, to work in science was regarded as some sort of sacrifice that required a great deal of dedication both from the student and the mentor. People have been studying a field of science for an extremely long time by the time they earn their PhD.

Nowadays, speed and the ability to bring funding have become the most important points in science. How fast you can finish your PhD and how fast you can produce a paper are the criteria according to which PhDs are measured. Yet again, increasing the number of PhD students is only going to make things worse.

Much-needed reform

By putting more pressure on students, more of them are going to burn out and develop RSI (repetitive strain injury), and by increasing the number of PhD graduations, more people are going to struggle in order to find a job. Anybody who has applied for a postdoc position in the Netherlands knows that it has become normal to compete for a single position with another 70 to 100 candidates. This is because of the number of students who graduate, despite one third of the total having quit before reaching graduation.

Much-needed reform in academia is yet again postponed by the new politics proposed by the government. Rather than increasing the number of PhD students, an increase of the quality of the PhDs is needed. Additionally, on a more global scale, a new structure for the academic career is needed. Jobs must be created and they must be attractive for the people with PhD diplomas.

On the other hand, the value of the PhD diploma has to increase. Do we want every single PhD student who starts a project to graduate? If that is the case, what would be the value of the diploma? How would we be able to differentiate between a good PhD and a not-so-good one? In the current system, this is done based upon the number of publications, but we all know that a good paper takes time to be published – sometimes years!

Passion and pain

We also know that most of the work of the PhD students results in small papers published somewhere just because they are needed in order to graduate. Additionally, one of the main reasons for quitting a PhD is the poor quality of the mentorship. What we think makes a good professor nowadays does not necessarily a good mentor make.

‘A career in science is unbelievably hard’

Last but not least, by the end of their PhDs, many students have lost their motivation because they realise that a career in science is unbelievably hard and they sense a staggering lack of interest from the University about what happens to them after graduation.

So what would attract more people to start a PhD? Already, pursuing a career in academia is a strange mix between passion and pain. Many people are not very enthusiastic about doing postdocs in different countries until they get the slightest chance of settling somewhere and being able to honestly say that they have a social life and friends who have known them from more than a year who live within the radius of a day trip.

A new ‘experiment’

On the other hand, doing a PhD has become a constant struggle between deadlines and working six days a week for twelve hours a day is now regarded as completely normal. The one way in which a PhD in the Netherlands was actually much more attractive than in most of the other EU countries was the fact that PhD students were employees of the University and not fellowship students.

Now, a new ‘experiment’ is proposed in which new students are going to be hired ‘experimentally’ as just that: students. Setting aside the rather disturbing point that somebody is going to be called an ‘experiment’ and his future career in science is going to be declared ‘experimental’, I would really like to get an answer to this question: how could this situation not cause animosity among the different PhD students? And who is going to select the ones that are going to participate in the experiment? I hope we are not going to once again witness a situation in which most foreign students are fellowship students.

Something special

A career in science has many attractive sides and these are the ones that need to be emphasised by the governmental politics. The fact that a student gets to learn directly from professors and solve problems which have never been solved before is incredibly exciting. To be able to work with some of the smartest people in the world is both stimulating and flattering, but it needs to remain what it is: something special!

A PhD cannot be just a collection of credits and more or less successful experiments. Supervisors need to be educated in order to be able to become inspiring mentors who guide and let students grow rather than just using them. I fail to see why the problem facing Dutch universities is the low number of PhD students. I’d rather see measures which focus on the quality of the offered education. This will definitely create more smart people and better scientists.

Nikola Valchev is a data analyst at UMCG’s Neuroimaging Center.