A best practices guide to PhD programs at EPFL

© 2021 Adrien Miqueu

© 2021 Adrien Miqueu

EPFL has published a guide that sets out the rules of its PhD programs, as well as the rights and responsibilities of PhD students and their thesis supervisors.

A large part of a PhD program is the relationship between students and their thesis supervisors. The quality of this relationship has a significant influence on the quality of the work produced and the well-being of everyone involved. Starting a PhD program can be daunting. In addition to their classes and research, students may also be adjusting to different habits and customs, adapting to a new culture, and learning certain unspoken rules. As for supervisors, they have to juggle many different responsibilities at once, are under pressure to deliver results, and must always be familiar with the best practices for overseeing PhD thesis projects.

Since 2017, PhD students have been asked to complete a survey each year. This gives them a chance to express their opinions and share their experience completing a PhD at EPFL. In 2019, three-quarters of respondents said they were satisfied with their experience, but many students also said they were under extreme pressure and were experiencing symptoms of stress and depression. Some students said they felt they had not received enough guidance on managing their thesis projects. This prompted EPFL’s doctoral school to create a best practices guide for both PhD students and supervisors.

Clarifying the relationship between PhD students and their supervisors

"We took all this feedback into account," says Marius Burgat, a scientific advisor and lead writer of the guide. "We raised these issues with the Doctoral Commission (Cdoct), an advisory body that includes program heads as well as PhD candidate representatives." Luisa Lambertini, Associate Vice President for Postgraduate Education, adds: "The 2019 survey and comments we received from supervisors highlighted the need for a guide that summarizes the rules, systems and procedures for PhD programs at EPFL. This information was previously out there, but was split up in many separate documents or had not yet been formalized in writing."

The 2019 survey and comments we received from supervisors highlighted the need for a guide that summarizes the rules, systems and procedures for PhD programs at EPFL

"The aim of our guide is to give everyone involved in PhD programs a useful resource for information and contacts," says Burgat. "It’s intended to be helpful both at the start of and during PhD studies, and can always be referred back to if someone experiences a problem." The guide also offers advice to students and supervisors about settling into a PhD program, achieving a healthy work-life balance and preventing harassment. The paragraphs are color-coded, so it’s easy to see which parts are intended for students and which parts are for supervisors. "Students therefore understand what they can expect from their supervisors, and vice-versa," says Burgat.

Understanding the aims of a PhD program

The guide also clearly outlines EPFL’s position on what a PhD program should lead to and how it should be conducted. Students must of course write a thesis, but there is more to it than that. "PhD students also need develop soft skills, such as project management and networking, which will be useful to them throughout in their careers, whether they decide to stay in academia or not," says Burgat. "It’s important that supervisors encourage students in these skills as well."

A work in progress

"Developing the PhD guide was a real team effort," explains Burgat. Four PhD students and several supervisors volunteered their time to help put it together. "I would like to thank the many people and departments that contributed to this initiative," says Burgat. "Special thanks go to PhD candidate Alice J. Gillen, to Jeroen van Hunen, who was then the Deputy Vice President for Postgraduate Education, and to Juliane Kuntschen and Anikó Borbély, who added the finishing touches and made sure the guide was ready for publication." Lambertini points out that "the contents of this guide are destined to continually change and evolve. We therefore welcome any contributions from members of the PhD community."


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