What should be included in doctoral education?

Kalle Korhonen, our head of research funding, and Kirsi-Maria Hytönen, postdoctoral researcher, discuss doctoral education.

The Aarresaari network published a report on the employment of doctoral degree holders on 1 June, 2016. The report is at the time of writing only available in Finnish. Kalle Korhonen, head of research funding at Kone Foundation, and Kirsi-Maria Hytönen, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Jyväskylä who has finished her thesis with a Kone Foundation grant, participated in the event. Kalle and Kirsi-Maria discussed how doctoral education should be developed. This is a slightly abbreviated translation of the discussion.

When does a job correspond to a doctoral qualification?

Kalle: In my view, it is not true that the only job that corresponds with doctoral degree is research. We should speak about work which, by combining academic and non-academic research, includes mediating information to those who do not have similar qualifications. A doctoral degree can offer its holder wider perspectives and possibilities of gaining expertise outside your own field.

Kirsi-Maria: Current doctoral education includes much more than just becoming an expert on the subject of your thesis. It includes many skills relevant for the acquisition, analysis and transmission of information. The subject of the thesis may provide you with a channel for a specific profession, but doctors can do many other things besides. If you do not want to acquire or use the other skills in professional life, it might even be a bad idea to start a doctorate.

Kalle: The fact that more and more doctorate holders are employed in the third sector is a positive phenomenon. I believe that this development will increase in the future. In Finland, everyone in the administration is just talking about becoming an entrepreneur, but this does not suit all people, and there are other options as well.

Kirsi-Maria: Maybe scholars would be more willing to start an enterprise, if fewer risks were involved. Currently such an activity is a risk for your social welfare status. The third sector is an important employer for those with a background in humanities or social sciences; so far, this has mostly been relevant for the holders of master’s degrees, but maybe more doctors can be employed in the future.

What should be included in doctoral programmes?

Kalle: Many of those interviewed for the Aarresaari report hope that doctoral education would include a period outside one’s own university, in Finland or abroad. This is an aspect that doctoral programmes and funders should develop together. There has been a tendency that going abroad should always belong to the post doctoral phase, but this is too categorical.

Kirsi-Maria: A period outside one’s own university would be useful if you have an elaborate career plan. I must ask, however, who can fund a doctoral student’s stay at another research facility or workplace? The four-year limit for doctoral studies is already strict in many fields of humanities and social sciences, and working outside your own university can make the research last longer. A period as a visiting researcher should not be made obligatory.

Kalle: There is another aspect related to crossing national borders. It is evident that there should be more support the employment of doctoral degree holders who have come from abroad, both at universities and in other sectors. Some foundations have started a programme called PoDoCo, which supports the employment of doctors at enterprises.

Kirsi-Maria: Initiatives like PoDoCo are very welcome, especially if doctoral degree holders in humanities are also included. In a longer term, it would be important to know what the employment effects are. There are worrying issues in the employment of doctors whose background is not in Finland.

Kalle: Research funders have recently become more involved in building  the ”other” skills of their researcher grantees. At Kone Foundation, we try to support their communication skills on a broad scale. Those interviewed for the report would also like to improve their skills of writing for different audiences, as well as oral skills. Such training will support self-confidence.

Kirsi-Maria: It is certainly very important, both for a biologist and for a literary scholar, to be able to describe, in at least two different languages, your own research. My own department of History and Ethnology at Jyväskylä has been very active in this matter. But it is difficult to say who can participate in everything that is considered as significant.

Kalle: Three young academics I have supervised will finish their doctoral studies this year. The report makes it very evident that supervisors should help doctoral students in networking.

Kirsi-Maria: A good supervisor helps the students to begin networking, introduces them to other researchers in conferences, and helps them to get involved in scholarly societies, which in my own field are essential for networking. Those interviewed for the report also brought up the significance of networking outside university, but career academics can hardly be responsible for that.

Do we need to know how many doctoral degrees are awarded?

Kalle: The foundations are constantly interested in the balance between the different levels of scholarly achievement. Are we funding too many doctorates? Kone Foundation, to take an example, has shifted its emphasis towards funding more researchers with doctoral degrees. That the level of employment of doctoral students funded with grants is similar to other doctoral students, as the report indicates, is a very positive finding for us. Foundation grants are highly competitive: in 2015, just 4% of the doctoral student applicants were funded. They produce excellent doctorates.

Kirsi-Maria: In my experience the fact that I completed the doctorate exclusively on grants has not had a negative effect on my employment. On the contrary, it has increased my applying skills. But I have also become used to economic uncertainty and small income.

Kalle: I think the authors of the report are right in concluding: ”Doctoral education gives you many options to create a reasonable working career for yourself”. But a lot of work, by both senior scholars and public and private funders, is needed to maintain this.

Kirsi-Maria: I dislike the word ”career”, it sounds very cold and determinate. Maybe we should talk about ”planning one’s future”? ”A reasonable working career for yourself” is something that you can try to create if you can define what it means in your own case. Career counseling should be obligatory to all who embark on a doctorate, and it should come from outside your own department. In that way, doctoral students could recognize their own strengths and capacities, and plan their future. This is not otherwise self-evident in a scholarly community where everyone seems to have fairly similar skills.

Kalle: Are too many doctoral degrees awarded in Finland? I do not think so. Doctoral education has become more systematic in a way that doctoral students can focus even more, for a certain period, on a set of questions that are significant in a field or between disciplines. The society needs doctors who have developed their problem-solving skills in a good way.

Kirsi-Maria: As a scholar who has focused on 1950’s, I cannot think that there are too many educated people in Finland. Instead of looking at numbers of doctorates, we should focus on the quality. I have been lucky in my research community, but there is still a lot to do to improve the position of grant recipients, which is very variable in different institutions. It would also be important to fund doctoral studies so that they can be pursued without constant economic worries. I sometimes think that current doctoral studies do not favour the most talented scholars, but those who can stand competition and stress, and who are supported by their supervisors and friends in order to survive in the academic world.

There are so many methods in which research can be made, and in developing doctoral education, it is crucial to maintain the diversity and independence of academic research. It should be possible to write a thesis even when employed elsewhere. Many doctoral aspirants start their research towards the end of their career in order to advance their careers or the professional community, or to brighten up the retirement life. At the same time when we are offering more career counseling for doctoral students in a diversifying working life, it must be possible to do research for its own sake, and we should not blame those who wish to pursue a university career. The academic profession can be good, useful and inspiring, both for the individual and the society.