January 14, 2015

Doctoral students are already fostering collaboration across sectors and disciplines

By Roxana Chiappa

Dr. Beate Scholz is a higher education consultant, CIRGE member and German national. She has spent the last 15 years as a leader and collaborator of cross-national studies and projects sponsored by the European National Sciences Foundation, national governments and universities in Europe, America and Asia. Her multi-national experience working on doctoral programs, innovation plans and talent management projects makes her one of the most highly qualified European expert’s voices to discuss what challenges doctoral education is facing in Europe and how PhD students participate in this process.

The invitation was to identify the most pressing issues for doctoral education and discuss what strategies European universities are implementing to respond to these forces.

Beate Scholz in one of her talks about doctoral education

Beate Scholz in one of her talks about doctoral education

In your opinion, which of these forces will have a considerable impact on graduate education in the next five years in Europe? 

“The first clarification is that when we talk about Europe, we need to be aware that there are different realities across European countries.  There are very small countries, like Luxembourg, where doctoral education is seen as a part and a contributor of the society’s wealth, and there are larger countries like Germany. Small countries are very actively engaged in changing doctoral education because they want to be competitive.  Larger countries and particularly in Germany, but many other European countries as well, are challenged in terms of quality and transparency of the structure of doctoral structure.

In general, there is an increasing awareness about the importance of the quality of education and training. How universities can better prepare the next generation of leaders does not depend uniquely on the quality of the professors. European universities are becoming aware that quality also implies improving the high rate of doctoral education attrition.  In this sense, the idea of having a kind of structure that allows implementing certain coursework becomes very important. Equally, it becomes important to adopt transparent criteria of recruitment, promote international collaboration among universities, and maintain requirements to be formally admitted as a doctoral candidate/student.  These topics have emerged as one of the most pressing issues that European universities are now facing and it will be on their radar, so to speak, during the next five years.

Along this kind of thinking, Germany has launched its “Excellent Initiative” which aims to promote cutting-edge research and to create outstanding conditions for young scientists at universities. Today, there are an increasing number of German universities that are establishing graduate schools and that are assessing their doctoral education processes in order to better prepare the next generation of researchers”.

In this context, Dr. Scholz highlighted the relevance of exposing doctoral students to different experiences of collaboration across sectors and disciplines. She points out that current and future PhD holders are and will be increasingly challenged to solve problems and deal with different environments than former PhD holders.

“I believe that doctoral education in general should be fostering mobility across sectors and disciplines. And when I say mobility, I am thinking of the possibility that exists to collaborate across sectors, fields, and countries.  In work, I aim to increase the flow of doctoral researchers between university, across countries, but also across sectors, that is between university and industry. Todays and tomorrows PhD students need to become intellectual risk-takers. Risk-taking is difficult in the well-trotted path, it requires to look beyond the own path and field, and in this sense, mobility as experiences and interdisciplinary collaboration as a practice is critical”.

What would you suggest for promoting intellectual risk-taking in doctoral education?

In addition to promoting mobility and collaboration across sectors and fields, I really believe that countries and organizations require talent management. People are different, they are talented in different skills; so rather than encourage everybody to study, for instance engineering, we need to understand how people are different from each other, and how they can uniquely contribute to  knowledge production beyond the main streams of academia.

What is the role of doctoral students in the future of these pressing issues?

Increasingly doctoral students find opportunities to collaborate across sectors, in spite of the bureaucratic obstacles established by universities. PhD students are already in ‘bridging’ relationships and, in many cases they challenge the structure and patterns of universities. As administrators and professors, we should encourage students and facilitate those instances of collaboration cross national boundaries and cross sectors if we really want our students to be able to contribute solving the most pressing societal and world issues.