Change – as usual – in doctoral education in Finland

Recently, I participated in an info session/workshop meant for supervisors of doctoral students. I ended up taking some many notes, that I thought it would be a shame to not to share them with the world. So here goes!  “Random notes concerning doctoral supervision and the financing of doctoral studies in Finland”

There seems to be a lot of talk about the changes in how doctoral studies are funded. The ministry continues to push for more, faster, and with less expenses (it’s apparently the new citius, altius, fortius of the academia). Universities react to this push in different ways. In our university, for example, a so-called 2+2 four-year model is presented as a sort of ideal. In this model two years would be funded by scholarships and two years by the university where the doctoral student is located. At the same time the age-old tension between scholarships and doctoral students who are employed by their university continues. With the masses of doctors that the society apparently expects our universities to produce, it is simply impossible to provide every doctoral student with the option of being employed by the university. Looking from the university’s point-of-view, it is also very clear that doctoral students on scholarships are so much cheaper than those employed that we as supervisors should push for every one to get a scholarship from some foundation or another. Same old, same old.
What is new for us, though, is that from now on it will be impossible to receive university/faculty grants for more than two years in a row. If the doctoral student will receive funding from the university after two years, it will have to be through a working relationship with the university. However, should one receive funding from an outside body such as a foundation, a door for further funding can open anew. This can of course be seen as a positive development from the viewpoint of the doctoral student. No more will it be possible to keep someone hanging on scholarships for year after year -except if those scholarships come from foundations.
The difficulty with the funding system in Finland has also to do with the fact that doctoral students come from so many backgrounds and with such different expectations that it is hard to serve everyone. In my field, communication sciences, it is not at all rare to have people work on their dissertations while they are working full-time somewhere else. For such people, it might be totally impossible to devote even one full year for doctoral studies. Instead, they would need three to six months at certain stages during the process. For some of these stages, such as finalizing the work, there exists funding. For others, such as analysis half-way through, it is not as clear.
In the situation Dr. Tuija Saresma talked nicely about the practicalities of supervising doctoral students at the final stages of the doctorate. She reminded us of the fact that while doctoral students might appear “young” to their supervisors in the academic sense, they are experts as well, having earned a degree from an institution of higher education and being immersed in their topic. Consequently, she said, the role of the supervisor should not be that of an all-knowing teacher, but rather a combination of mentor, expert, project manager, friend, etc. add your own word here. This is in line with the way doctoral students have traditionally been seen in the humanities, that is, not just as cannon fodder to be used in tedious lab tasks (notice my totally non-ironic stereotype about natural sciences!). However, I see here a great turn taking place. More and more, the doctoral dissertation is not seen as the epitome of a life-long learning process, but rather as a starting point for something else. Even post-docs nowadays can have supervisors, and (unfortunately) be treated like students in practical issues. I do not quite know how to feel about this. While it is good that a new post-doc has a mentor, I don’t think it is good that after five years of MA training, and five years of doctoral studies, we still think people are “undone”. And if we do, what on earth does that tell of the education we give to these people?
Tuija also reminded us that the skills one needs to have in order to fare well in an academic career, whether they are related to applying for funding, reviewing academic work, supervising other’s work, project management, etc., do not appear out of thin air once a doctorate is conferred. There should be places and support for learning these kinds of things during the doctoral studies. I want to add here that I think that the very same thing is true also later on. Gaining an academic title or position does not magically confer powers that were not developed before that, and we should not expect that to happen either when we look at ourselves or when we evaluate others. For example, starting to supervise students, or write reviews, or recommendations, are things that we just expect people to be able to do without necessarily ever teaching them. Finally, Tuija spoke of the feelings and support needed during these long processes. There are many positive and negative feelings associated with personal research projects, and we take them too rarely into account at least in the public. Also in this blog post they got only a passing mention at the very end of a long piece of text. Poor feelings. So neglected.
All in all it is always refreshing to talk about such things, and share experiences with other members of the academia with similar work tasks. This is, and can be, a wonderful place to work, but we should be ever interested in making it better and fighting those influences that do not work in its favor.