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A Successful Route to a Ph.D.

The recently published "Guidelines for Good Supervision of Doctoral Candidates at the University of Freiburg" provides tips for along the way

Freiburg, Jun 25, 2020

A Successful Route to a Ph.D.

Photo: Minkus Teske

A nationwide study has indicated that 37 percent of doctoral candidates surveyed were either moderately satisfied or dissatisfied with their doctoral supervisor. Yet the quality of support these advisors provide on the road to a dissertation plays a major role and can prove decisive for the success or termination of an attempt to get a Ph.D. The University of Freiburg is aiming to strengthen the relationship of both parties by creating more objectivity, transparence, and commitment. The new guidelines are among the tools for doing this.

More orientation and reliability: The newly published guidelines contain, among other things, a check list for supervision. Photo: Minkus Teske

Doctoral candidates – at least from a statistical standpoint – are the least known members of a university community. What is certain, is that everyone seeking a research career needs a doctorate. And with the exception of candidates whose primary jobs are at the university, all doctoral candidates have to enroll. Yet there are less reliable numbers about how many students terminate their quest. There can be many reasons for failing to complete a dissertation. Financial reasons can play a major role, or perhaps an offer from the world of business and industry is more attractive. But sometimes, a doctoral candidate gives up because of supervision issues. That was reason enough for the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW) to ask doctoral candidates about whether they were satisfied with their experiences. Information on this came from a National Academics Panel Study, which surveyed 20 thousand students in the spring of 2019. When the respondents were asked about how satisfied they were with their supervisor, 63 percent gave positive answers, while 37 percent were either moderately satisfied or dissatisfied.

At the University of Freiburg, they know these results are no reason for complacency. For a few years now, the International Graduate Academy (IGA) – led by Dr. Silke Knaut – has been focused on supporting good supervision as students work towards their Ph.D. Now the "Guidelines for Good Supervision of Doctoral Candidates" has been published containing ground rules on this topic. In addition to the faculties, the deans' council, and the rectorate, ombudspersons for doctoral candidates and supervisors and the Joint Working Committee of the Doctoral Candidate Councils. as well as the network of junior researchers took part in compiling the guide. Minkus Teske of the IGA says this intensive exchange was needed to ensure the greatest level of acceptance of the recommendations.

More communication and transparency

But what directions do the recommendations take? On the one hand, they summarize the framework in which the supervisory relationship is incorporated, such as the binding acceptance of the doctoral candidate to the faculty. On the other hand, they aim to improve communication, increase transparency, and strengthen the responsibilities between all those involved. "Many are really unaware of their rights and duties," observes Teske. The recommendations that have been worked out for all faculties with the exception of medicine, envisage clarifying expectations and speaking with candidates about their personal and financial situations. These should then be set down in the doctoral stipulations as per the State Higher Education Act. They should also be checked in talks that are to be held at least once a year. At the same time, the guidelines document the tendency to distribute responsibility within the supervisory relationship among several parties.

The ombudspersons for doctoral candidates and supervisors also triggered this initiative in 2017. A professor emeritus of psychology, Hans Spada, has been an ombudsman for five years. "It would be helpful for our work if we could refer to these guidelines," says Spada. Emeritus status is desirable for ombudspersons. As a psychology professor, Spada supervised many Ph.D. candidates himself. He knows the structures and can ensure independence as a result.

The central ombuds procedure at the University of Freiburg has two levels. Before Spada and his colleague Prof. Dr. Irmgard Merfort or her deputy become involved, those seeking advice should contact the Office of the Central Ombuds Process as rule. It is staffed by a male and a female employee of the IGA. They have completed training in mediation and have years of experience in conflict management. If it is then considered necessary, the ombudspersons are brought in. The contact to the office is close. Four times a year, the group meet to discuss anonymized cases and find solutions for problems, that go beyond individual cases. Reports on general questions are also given in the senate. "There can be difficulties in any phase of getting a doctorate," says Spada. He adds that there is often a lack of open communication, or that the doctoral candidate feels undervalued or is being misused to supply data.

Variable paths, binding guidelines

The spokeswoman of the Doctoral Candidate Status Group in the senate, Eva Rüskamp, sees the guidelines as an important, first step for changing the culture of doctoral studies. She herself is writing her dissertation within the Department of English and is a research assistant for the EPICUR project. At other universities, Rüskamp points out, similar guidelines for good supervision are obligatory. There are many routes to a Ph.D. and they can evolve in many different ways. Rüskamp knows such this thanks to her own experience and from the committee work where many doctoral candidates have entrusted her with their stories.

Not only do the requirements for getting a doctorate differ from faculty to faculty, the financing models vary as well. Many doctoral candidates work in positions tied to projects, others in the faculty, and some in other areas outside the university community. Some already have families, others have careers and do research during their free time on weekends. Yet Rüskamp would advise all of them only to become involved in such an all-encompassing research effort if they really want the title of Ph.D. Women in particular, she says, still hide their light under a stone too often. "I've met few women junior researchers who view getting a doctorate as the first step to a professorship or a key move towards leadership positions, she explains.

Eva Rüskamp says she has no concerns that "Guidelines for Good Supervision of Doctoral Candidates" could limit diversity. On the contrary, she welcomes that they will bring more objectivity and clarity to the relationship between doctoral candidates and their supervisors. "Revealing areas of tension and resolving them is very important," says Rüskamp. Far too often, it's still pretty much down to luck if a doctoral candidacy is successful, she adds. That can lead to a great deal of unnecessary frustration as well as technically and contextually unfounded terminations. Minkus Teske points out, "It is a very powerful signal in higher education policy that the University of Freiburg has given these guidelines to itself. In that, it is showing that promoting junior researchers is one of its core tasks."

Annette Hoffmann


"Guidelines for Good Supervision of Doctoral Candidates"