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Doctoral students- a bit of everything?

Doctoral students are important for KTH. Not only are they members of research teams and perform tasks that advance research, but they are also future colleagues at KTH or somewhere else in the world. But what exactly is a doctoral student? A student, a researcher, an employee – all of these or do they occupy an area somewhere in the middle?

Last week, on 5 May, the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF), the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) and Sweden’s Combined Students’ Unions (SFS), arranged a conference that focused on this grey area of third cycle education.

It had two themes and shed light on how doctoral students feel, based on a report from ST and SFS  (in Swedish) that provides statistics on their working environment and on the status of doctoral students and their terms and conditions. These are issues of interest to many people and the conference aimed to generate ideas and support for how third cycle education can be made more attractive by presenting good examples and highlighting difficulties, such as the views of Mid Sweden University.

Third cycle education is part of KTH’s education contract and for the past ten years it has been structured into doctoral programmes with programme directors. The aim is to create clear goals for this education and to build a critical mass of students and achieve a certain uniformity in choice of courses. The pieces are starting to fall into place but there is still room for improvement in many areas.

Being a doctoral student at KTH entails both having an individual research assignment and being part of a larger or smaller research environment . As with all education, it is naturally demanding and sometimes stressful. Doctoral students are important for KTH. Being a citizen of the academic community includes training the next generation of researchers and it is exactly this that third cycle education does, you are learning under supervision to become a researcher. Doctoral students are not glorified lab assistants there to support their supervisors in qualifying but individuals independently resolving a research assignment and doing this under supervision. At KTH, supervisors are to have completed the KTH supervisor programme or equivalent course at another university.

Just as there are goals for Master of Science in Engineering degrees, for example, there are goals for third cycle education. When these goals are achieved, the doctoral student is ready to defend their thesis. Sometimes there is a focus on time, whether it has or has not taken four years (five with departmental duties). It is not this that is important, it is goal fulfilment itself that is the key.

One challenge in third cycle education at KTH concerns financing which is largely external. In normal cases, financing is obtained for three years. This also means that a supervisor or supervisor group has formulated a research project within which the doctoral student should work. Sometimes, this is perceived as more controlling, that is to say that the degree of independence for the doctoral student can be challenged. On the whole, this works well enough though.

However, there is a big difference between third cycle education within technology (and in science and medicine) and education in the humanities or social sciences. Within the latter areas, there is normally greater scope for a doctoral student to formulate their own research proposal. But even here, this can be related to the degree of external financing as it is not the doctoral student who applies for financing.

KTH is continuing to develop its doctoral programmes and individual study plans (ISP) under the leadership of the Vice President of Education. ISP ought to become more of an educational support than a to do list to tick off, and both doctoral students and supervisors will benefit from this.

No matter how doctoral students are categorised in the higher education landscape, they are  an asset and absolutely vital for the repopulation of know-how and future research.