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Per Aspera — But Headed Where?

Instructors hold differing opinions about doctoral school

Сartoon "Rick and Morty", 2013-Nast. time

Russian doctoral school — that only recently switched to the model of structured programmes — is once again at a crossroads. Which is better: the new model or traditional mentoring? And should postgraduate students be considered young scholars or ‘mature’ students? In her report to the Tenth International Russian Higher Education Conference, Natalia Maloshonok shared the views of doctoral research advisors on these and other questions.

A never-ending transitional period

Russian postgraduate studies are in crisis due to underfunding and the lack of a clear development strategy. The changes implemented since 2013 have not made doctoral programmes significantly more effective — failing, for example, to increase the number of students defending their PhD theses. ‘According to the Federal Statistics Service,’ noted Maloshonok, ‘only 13% of postgraduate students defended their thesis in 2017, and even fewer — 12% — did so last year.’

Many students continue to view their postgraduate programme merely as a 'career accelerator’ and seek jobs outside of academia. This raises questions: For whom are doctoral schools labouring, if not for academia? And, are doctoral schools effective as ‘incubators’ of young scholars?

The problem, of course, is not only subpar recruitment, poor academic guidance and insufficient financial aid for postgraduate students. What, then, is causing this decline in postgraduate school as an institution?

A law On Education in the Russian Federation was passed in 2012 and went into effect in 2013 that granted postgraduate programmes the status of a third level of education. (Previously, it was considered a professional ‘upgrade.’)

Russian postgraduate schools have changed from the model of mentoring — with a minimum academic workload, the development of narrow skills for academic work and only a single academic supervisor monitoring the student’s progress — to the model of structured programmes.

In effect, postgraduate studies are now ‘full-time,’ the educational component is more intense and several specialists share responsibility for monitoring the postgraduate student’s progress. Students are also taught a wider spectrum of skills, including such general subjects as teamwork, planning, etc. In principle, this benefits postgraduate students, many of whom build careers outside of academia.

Finally, defending a dissertation has become optional. Doctoral students can simply earn a diploma as a researcher or a researcher-teacher.

The academic community was far from unanimous in instituting these changes.

Representatives of the Russian Academy of Sciences have repeatedly advocated a return to the old model and emphasized that postgraduate school should be ‘strictly scientific’ in nature. As a new level of education, it ‘does not open the way for postgraduate students to go into science,’ noted Academy of Sciences President Alexander Sergeyev, who called for reducing the number of doctoral students and a return to the ‘system of preparing researchers.’ State Commission for Academic Degrees and Titles Director Vladimir Filippov agreed, saying that thesis defense should again become mandatory for the successful completion of postgraduate school.

But what do instructors who act as doctoral advisors think of all this?

Natalia Maloshonok, Director of the Centre of Sociology of Higher Education at HSE University, with the help of questionnaires and high-quality interviews, surveyed the faculty of HSE University and Nizhny Novgorod State University, who were among the first to introduce structured graduate programmes. The educators were asked to express their opinions regarding three areas that concern both postgraduate school models: the academic workload (how much is taught), oversight of students’ progress (who does the teaching) and the skills acquired (the final result).

The dispute between the two models 

The traditional model to which the Russian academics want to return is based on the German system of preparing scientific personnel. According to this model, an academic adviser guides the student’s work on the dissertation, transferring knowledge and skills to the student in the process. The fate of the dissertation — and the student’s entire academic career — largely depends on his or her relationship with the advisor as an expert.

In the structured postgraduate programme model, students attend numerous courses and have several academic advisors, each of whom is responsible for their area of expertise. Students gain a wider range of competencies and do not risk everything on the relationship with a single advisor. This is the model used in the U.S., Spain and Sweden.

At the same time, structured programmes coexist with the mentoring model in a number of European countries, including Germany, Austria, Poland, Italy and Norway.

The global trend is towards structured programmes. Many studies have found that such programmes satisfy the economic need that countries have to develop competitiveness and human capital – meaning knowledge and skills.

The quantitative part of Maloshonok’s study indicates that there is no consensus between teachers on what they consider the ideal postgraduate school model.

 The most controversial issue — not only among teachers but also among postgraduate students and administrative staff — is the size of the workload. As many as 43% of respondents favour a minimum amount, while 32% or approximately one-third would prefer that doctoral students take 'advanced courses in their speciality, research methodology and pedagogy.' The remaining one-fourth of respondents could not give a definite response.

 Approximately half — 51% — of respondents said they favour multiple academic advisors sharing responsibility for oversight of the work. They felt that university departments and schools should periodically check on whether the student is carrying out his or her plan. Only half as many — 24% — prefer having a single academic advisor, and the same number vacillate between the two options. 

 Those who favour narrowly focused training of postgraduate students and those that prefer education in a wider range of competencies were roughly equal — 42% versus 39% respectively. Another 19% of respondents were undecided.

 And finally, in response to the main question as to which postgraduate school model is preferable, 40% favoured structured programmes, 29% preferred having one academic advisor, and 31% proposed a combination of the two.

It turns out that on the main issues related to postgraduate school, quite a few respondents — from one-fifth to almost one-third — took a middle position without fully committing to either option.

Qualitative interviews document the arguments supporting these points of view.

Study, but only as necessary

The respondents advocating a heavier course load reasoned that doctoral students need additional education because 'they are unaware of even simple things' and because it would develop their erudition and general cultural awareness. This, they argued, would help the students grow professionally.

At the same time, the university teachers had no clear idea of what format or even content the courses for postgraduate students should have. Some suggested a deeper immersion in their speciality while others spoke in favour of lectures that would broaden their outlook. Many did emphasize, however, that advanced, ‘concentrated’ and special courses that deliver knowledge at a higher level were needed.

Respondents noted, however, that such courses are often underfunded. Not all universities, they said, can offer ‘some subjects in a qualified manner,’ and professors are not always compensated adequately for teaching such classes.

Proponents of a minimum course load for postgraduate students gave the following arguments:

 Academic courses should not be ‘obligatory.’ Students should be able to able to attend lectures as wanted or needed. ‘Perhaps a student feels that he lacks courses in a particular discipline, he has trouble speaking with others in the lab, he doesn’t understand the terms being used or how an experiment is set up so that he could choose and receive some sort of short intensive instruction in a certain course,’ one respondent wrote.

 Students can obtain knowledge and skills through alternative forms of education such as conferences, summer schools, etc.

 Attending classes can interfere with research: ‘Studies sometimes take a huge amount of time away…from work on the dissertation.’

‘Schoolkids’ and ‘collective irresponsibility’

Giving doctoral students a heavier academic load changes their status: having compulsory courses makes them ‘students,’ with the result that other members of the department will not look at them as young researchers and colleagues.

‘[Doctoral students] are seen a little too much as still being in school,’ one respondent explained.

Postgraduate students can be supervised in one of two ways: several academic advisors work ‘in parallel,’ or else one ‘chief’ and several consultants carry out that responsibility. It makes sense for different people to monitor different aspects of the graduate student's dissertation work per their respective competencies.

As one respondent noted: ‘Ideally, of course, [two academic advisors] would divide responsibility for the intellectual and academic aspect from the organizational,’ one respondent noted. One would answer for the content of the research and the other would help organize an article in a journal or look for reviewers. And, of course, several advisors would be necessary if the postgraduate student is engaged in interdisciplinary research.

Opponents of this idea argue that ‘collective responsibility’ often devolves into ‘collective irresponsibility.’ They added that postgraduate students are adults and do not require additional oversight.

Acquired skills

Some respondents said that the purpose of postgraduate school is to transfer scientific knowledge and develop research competencies. Students must have a command of the main theories and know how to use them, formulate and solve problems, analyze data, and so on. The ability to write and speak to others is also important. ‘Plus, they [postgraduate students] must fit into the scientific community,’ added one respondent. ‘The only obligatory competency,’ said another, ‘is the ability to do research.’

Adherents of this viewpoint argue that the dissertation or published articles are the necessary results of postgraduate studies because they show that the student has taken his or her place as a researcher. 'The [postgraduate student’s] contribution to the progress of society is the science that he or she discovered, presented, put on the table and that people use,’ explained one respondent. In addition, it is through their defence of their dissertation that postgraduate students demonstrate the competencies necessary for a career in academia: 'the ability to withstand a blow,' put forward a coherent argument, and so on.

The opposite position holds that postgraduate school is, in practice, a forge of personnel not only for academia but also for people with a wide range of skills. According to this argument, someone completing postgraduate studies should be a ‘highly-qualified specialist’ with universal skills.

‘Even if he [the student] doesn’t defend a dissertation, he should have the skills to look at reality with a critical eye,’ said proponents of this view of postgraduate school. They also pointed to the importance of the ability to work as part of a team, focus, managerial and planning skills and creativity — that is, everything needed in a wide range of professional fields.

Combine the two models

A significant percentage of the teachers surveyed voted for combining the two postgraduate school models and could not settle on a single option as ideal.

The results of the study can be explained by the ‘anomie’ (lack of a single standard) in postgraduate education, suggests Natalia Maloshonok. This she attributes to the fact that the ‘period of transition has not ended’ and that no key priorities for Russian postgraduate studies have been established. As the researcher points out, ‘Many programmes have only now completed the transition to the new model of postgraduate studies and begun issuing the first graduates trained by this new approach.’ For this reason, she said, it is still difficult to evaluate the result fully. 

At the same time, it is clear that the lack of agreement among instructors as to the goals of postgraduate school training can limit the effectiveness of the educational experience itself. However, there is no consensus about which educational results are needed.

Thus, Ms Maloshonok concludes, Russian postgraduate programmes need to ‘either clearly enunciate the role of academic advisors or else make adjustments for the demands the labour market places on those who hold advanced degrees.’


Study author:
Natalia Maloshonok, Director, Centre of Sociology of Higher Education Centre of Sociology of Higher Education
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, November 24, 2019