The supervision of doctoral students has long been the subject of intense debate both within and beyond the walls of our university. In January this year, ETH played host to an international symposium on this very subject. Antonio Togni, Vice Rector for Doctoral Studies, highlights the most significant findings and explains what ETH could do to improve its own doctorate.
Professor Togni, "doctoral studies" has suddenly become the topic on everybody’s lips - why is that exactly? ETH has offered doctorates since 1909. The university has gained an excellent reputation in the areas of research and teaching, but since then, it has also had to undergo continuous development. I think we’ve now reached a point where the doctorate needs to be adapted to the developments of the 21st century. The world and society are changing at breakneck speed. In my experience, young people nowadays are more ambitious, but they also have greater demands. That’s a good thing, but it can also lead to conflict. That’s why it’s important that we continue to develop the doctorate here at ETH.
At the start of the year, ETH hosted its first international symposium on the supervision of doctoral students. What surprised you most about that event? The fact that we had over 400 people sign up to take part! The huge level of interest shown by all participants - from doctoral students to professors, as well as administrative staff - highlights the need to communicate with each other and work together to improve the doctorate.
Don’t you think that an international symposium is a very academic way of approaching an ETH-specific concern? The symposium revealed to us all that the supervision of doctoral students is not just an ETH-specific concern - quite the opposite, in fact! Research is being carried out on this topic all around the world. There are experts who have been grappling with these issues for years, and there’s even a specialist magazine dedicated to the subject. The purpose of a symposium is to exchange ideas and learn from others - and that was exactly what we wanted to achieve in this case, too.
What did you learn from the speakers who were invited? I was particularly impressed by Anne Lee, who showed us a simple table which can be used to clarify the expectations of both sides. It’s a fairly basic instrument in itself, but it’s something that can be used to effect a great deal of positive change in the relationship between supervisors and doctoral students. Throughout the symposium, we kept coming back to the same point, which made it abundantly clear that the key to success is to consciously and deliberately improve communication.
"The aim is to introduce our doctoral students to the culture at ETH and to prepare them for life in their new surroundings." Antonio Togni, Vice Rector for Doctoral Studies
From what you learned at the symposium, what is ETH currently doing well in terms of the supervision of doctoral students’ We offer an exceptional environment with extremely high standards in terms of quality, infrastructure and remuneration. Around 4,000 people are enrolled as doctoral students at ETH. That’s a big number, and these students make a significant contribution to ETH’s research output. We also have an excellent success rate, with 85 percent of doctoral students completing their doctorate at ETH. On top of all that, we’re working intensively throughout the university to improve the supervision we provide to our doctoral students, perhaps even more so than other institutions. That gives us an edge that we can quickly develop further.
And where might there be room for improvement? For me, it’s clear that we can make significant improvements in terms of the communication between our doctoral students and their supervisors. That would need to happen right from the get-go: and by that I mean already when selecting new doctoral candidates. We also need to work on developing the availability and approachability of staff, for example, by working more with tutors. Last but not least, the doctoral students need to have a better understanding of their rights and obligations, as well as where they can get support.
Have you already taken any concrete measures to achieve these goals’ Yes, we have. We’ve decided to design an introductory course for our new doctoral students. In fact, we’ve just created a new post within the Doctoral Administration team for this very purpose. The aim is to introduce our doctoral students to the culture at ETH and to prepare them for life in their new surroundings.
Will there also be an introductory course for new professors’ That’s the plan! Of course, it also makes sense for supervisors to be introduced to the ETH culture and receive more training on how best to structure a doctorate and what it’s all about. We’d like to work out guidelines for this which we can then share with everyone.
"A dual supervision system will do more than simply reduce dependency: it will also encourage interaction and increase diversity. Antonio Togni, Vice Rector for Doctoral Studies
What will you do with the findings from the symposium? We’ve prepared a paper on the further development of the doctorate which incorporates the findings from the symposium. We’re currently in the process of evaluating the feedback from the consultation. The goal is then to amend the doctoral regulations as soon as possible and close up some of the gaps in the current regulations.
Which gaps are those? To give one example, we need to strengthen the research plan as a tool. The plan isn’t just a formality; it is in fact a brilliant way to clarify common goals, crucial steps and the responsibilities of each individual. That’s why I would say we need to make research plans more binding. We suggest, for instance, that students defend their research plans at a colloquium after one year - and that the definitive admissions decision only comes afterwards.
How does the dual supervision of doctoral students work? That’s also an extremely important point. We’ve already implemented this in part, but the specific goal is that all doctoral students at ETH should work with two supervisors. This kind of dual supervision system will do more than simply reduce dependency: it will also encourage interaction and increase diversity.
Could changing the doctoral regulation cause the doctorate to become "overregulated"- I completely understand why that might be a concern, but I can guarantee that that won’t be the case. Ultimately, the proposed changes are sensible adjustments to the existing doctoral regulation, or perhaps supplements if necessary. That’s also why we’re working so closely with the departments: we want to know what their needs are, and we also want to show them how everyone can benefit when individual aspects are clarified and institutionalised.
What would your ideal doctorate of the future look like? Carefully selected and highly motivated doctoral students exchanging ideas as part of small, well-integrated research groups. The students have intensive contact with their supervisors, as well as with researchers from other disciplines and universities. They’re satisfied, but also independent and critical, meaning there are lots of doors open to them in terms of how they can shape their future careers, be it in the private sector or the world of academia. Sounds good, doesn’t it?