A PERSISTENT BUNCH: DOCTORAL STUDENTS AGAINST THE WORLD

Yesterday we spent our working day going through the yearly interviews with our doctoral candidates–it seems, then, a good moment to ponder the use of doctoral programmes. To begin with, a reminder: only a very small minority of the individuals who practice medicine are properly speaking ‘doctors’; most just have a degree (a BA) in Medicine and mandatory professional training. They are ‘médicos’, not ‘doctores’, a distinction that, it seems, is respected in Latin America though not in Spain (https://www.elsevier.es/corp/conecta/medicina/medicos-o-doctores/).

Here, 0’8% of the population (376,000 individuals out of 47 millions) are doctors, that is to say: they have completed a doctorate, after submitting a doctoral dissertation (or ‘tesis’). In 2014, 10,889 persons managed to complete theirs (https://www.weforum.org/es/agenda/2017/03/estos-paises-tienen-la-mayor-cantidad-de-graduados-con-titulo-de-doctorado/), which is not at all a low figure in the context of the OCDE countries. Actually, the number of new doctors is growing all the time in Spain: the theses read in 2015 were 68% more than those read in 2010. This coincided with the introduction of the new 2011 national regulations for doctoral programmes and the extinction of the old ones but, anyway, it’s an amazing increase. Notice, please, that the age of the new doctors was 30-39 in 50% of the cases, with only 13’6% 29-years-old or younger (I assume that the rest, 37’4%, corresponded to persons above 40). 90% of all doctors in Spain are employed though not necessarily in their area and only a minority by commercial companies, which still don’t quite understand the value of having a PhD. A doctoral degree shows, I think, not only that the doctor is question is an intelligent person but also someone constant and capable of organizing his/her own projects. Ideally.

Many questions are being asked in relation this strange thing called a doctoral dissertation: is the world producing too many? (https://www.nature.com/news/2011/110420/pdf/472276a.pdf), how should they be valued socially? (https://www.eldiario.es/cienciacritica/Doctorado-ciencia-fraude-doctor-medico_6_110648947.html), what should we do to improve the situation of tutors and tutorees? (https://www.radoctores.es/doc/INFORME-GRUPO-DE-DOCTORADO-ACTUALIZADO.pdf), what good is in the end a doctoral degree? (http://www.elmundo.es/f5/campus/2017/10/25/59ef61f146163f721b8b465d.html).

I always heard that Cuba is the country in the world with the highest percentage of university students in relation to its total population. This factoid was usually followed by the opinion that this is bad since, as happens in Spain, a country cannot offer all its graduates high quality employment. The same argument is being invoked by those who think that not all doctors can be given satisfactory jobs: here, as we know, we are losing the best generation of Spanish researchers ever for lack of investment in research; many have migrated to richer countries, which in this way benefit from our restricted budgets. What is wrong, then, is not that we’re producing too many doctors but too little opportunities for them, possibly world-wide.

The United States shows, besides, that a country can generate a colossal amount of new doctors without this having an impact on the rest of the educational pyramid (perhaps because half or more of these new doctors are foreigners). I believe, however, that in a healthy educational system, the higher the percentage of doctors, the better all other levels should be. Doctors are not only supposed to do research but to train all the other professionals of education in secondary and primary schools. It might be even the case, then, that we need many more doctors.

Whereas in civilized nations like Germany average citizens understand the value of a doctoral degree, in Spain they don’t. This is no surprise: a barely educated society can hardly be expected to value intellectual effort, which, besides, is totally invisible outside universities. A PhD dissertation is an original contribution to knowledge but this is a definition that does not explain what it really is: three to five years of obsessing over an obscure topic, reading non-stop, trying to generate new ideas and finally writing a thick volume, possibly 400/500 pages on average. I have never seen anyone explain our educational system in any public forum, which means that families with no graduates face a hard time understanding what their children actually do in universities. A doctoral student may simply be an incomprehensible anomaly.

Why, then, do individuals put themselves through a major effort with scarce social recognition and low professional use? The usual answer is that doctoral candidates expect to start an academic career. However, as we all know, the Spanish State decided back in 2008 to suppress all full-time contracts of the kind I myself enjoyed as a rookie teacher (I was first hired in 1991). The cost of producing doctors, it was decided, should be met by the candidates themselves, with the exception of the very few grants and scholarships available. In contrast, all doctoral students, if I recall this correctly, receive a salary in Finland. Please, consider the absurdity of our situation: instead of funding the best brains in Spain to work full-time in producing innovation, we are forcing them to produce dissertations while they are employed elsewhere, often full-time. These are adults over 25 who expect to lead a normal life and who should not sacrifice themselves for the benefit of an indifferent State (and fellow citizens). No wonder then that one third of Spanish doctoral students are at risk of suffering serious mental health problems (http://www.elmundo.es/f5/campus/2017/04/19/58f646dfca4741dc138b461b.html).

Unlike a BA or an MA, then, which are supposed to have immediate professional application, a PhD appears to be an unnecessary addition to one’s education in our current circumstances, in which there is no guarantee at all that it leads to a career in research. If things are bad in science and technology, just imagine what they are like in the Humanities, an area of diminishing importance in the university and of no interest for employers outside it, except schools. Even though I have seen half of my doctoral tutorees abandon their PhD (usually after three years and when writing requires concentration they could not find), I know that this type of student is immensely self-motivated. I would have written my doctoral dissertation even if not employed by my university, and so they are doing. Completing a PhD dissertation, as I saw it and as they see it, is a challenge, a test of endurance and the culmination of the process of pulling yourself up by your intellectual bootstraps. The Victorians valued self-improvement above all else in education and a PhD dissertation is the ultimate step in that sense.

Naturally, what makes PhD dissertations so hard to sell in social terms is their specificity. BA degrees are already difficult to explain to those who don’t have one: my father used to call my degree ‘English Philosophy’ rather than ‘Philology’ although I find the idea of a BA specifically on Locke, Hume, Russell and company positively eccentric. An MA is simply understood to be a specialization course and possibly makes rather good sense at a grassroots levels because it is short: one or two years at the most. But just think of a PhD!! I always tell my doctoral students that they should be able to summarize their dissertation in a catchy sentence for conversational purposes: you immediately get a glassy stare the moment you go past three sentences whenever someone asks ‘so, what’s your thesis about?’

I assume that doctoral students working in labs, or in research groups that meet frequently (never the case for the groups I’ve been a member of), enjoy the luxury of sharing their progress and doubts. In the Humanities, however, producing a PhD dissertation is, most often, a lone-wolf affair. In my view, this is the worst effect of suppressing full-time contracts in Spanish universities. The doctoral students in my Department meet once a year in February in a workshop where they offer samples of their ongoing work to fellow students and teachers. They have no other regular meetings (we don’t have doctoral courses) and, so, basically no chances to socialize in our facilities. If they do that outside, this is on the basis of personal affinity and not necessarily in relation to their research. Since most doctoral students work outside the university they are not given free days to attend conferences; at most, they spend one day at the event to present their paper, perhaps just the morning or the afternoon. The generational networking that should be happening is thus curtailed (as is the generational replacement, of course), and conferences might be facing inevitable decay.

What is it like for tutors, then? Frustrating… The frustration begins the moment a good MA student, perhaps your own dissertation tutoree, walks into your office to ask for advice about writing a PhD thesis. What used to be ‘Of course! How can I help you?’ has now become ‘Why? Are you aware that there are no openings for young scholars?’, hardly a nice way to start. I have supervised so far six dissertations but have failed to complete the supervision of four others–they are thorns in my side, because the topics were very good and because they took time that counts for nothing in my CV. I have, then, become more cautious, less enthusiastic. Even in the best cases, what should be a three-year investment of energy is now lasting up to five or even six years. I like very much the company of my PhD students but tutoring for so many years is just not what it should be, for me and for them.

In practice, then, currently all doctoral students are part-time (like, incidentally, more than 50% of our teachers) and run, thus, the risk of ‘losing cohesion’, as one of the students who abandoned me explained. One might find this counterintuitive because it might seem that research carried out in five years should be more solid than that carried out in three. This is not true: researchers get tired even of favourite topics and need to move on after a while. A PhD is, besides, mentally exhausting in a way that writing later monographs is not because it is your first battle with a very extensive piece of academic writing. Better be done with it in a shorter, more intense period than over many years–yet, this is what we have now and must put up with.

I’ll end where I started, with the yearly interviews. I find them a great idea, one of the few useful improvements in all the arbitrary changes introduced into higher education in recent decades. They are at the same time an occasion to commiserate with the poor students, who, with very few exceptions, do all they can in an almost impossible situation. I cannot help reaching the conclusion, however, that interviews have become necessary precisely because our doctoral students are not where they should be: working with us full time.

Funny how I never made an appointment to see my supervisor: I just knocked on his office door, three down the corridor from my own office… Gone are the times when this was common for most doctoral students…

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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