Postgraduate research schools and pre-summer doctoral news

Author: Prof. Derek S. Hutcheson, Vice Dean for Doctoral Education, Faculty of Culture and Society.

This spring, a lot of focus has been on building up our research networks and exploring opportunities for externally-financed research. On 21 May, together with the International Office, MAU Innovation, the Lärosäten Syd Brussels Office and the Grants Office, the Faculty held a well-attended workshop on funding possibilities for transnational research funded by the European Union. On 15 June, I will attend a national hearing (virtually) on the faculty’s behalf. It will be held by Vetenskaprådet, the Swedish Research Council, in preparation for a major investment in postgraduate research schools in the humanities and social sciences that is planned by them for 2022-24.

Photo: Derek S. Hutcheson

Many of you have been involved in early discussions about future postgraduate research schools (in Swedish: forskarskolor), but there are many others who may only have heard about them in the background, and be wondering what they involve. It struck me that it could be a good idea give some more information on how they relate to doctoral education, and what they could offer to us in the future.

Doctoral education is usually based in a particular discipline, department and university.  Historically, European doctoral education used to have two distinct traditions: the medieval idea that a doctorate was the highest scholarly achievement and licensed a doctor to teach at any European university; and the later concept that graduation with a doctorate was a sign that the recipient was ready to be an independent scholar, but not necessarily to become the ‘master’ to new ‘apprentices’ and thus supervise doctoral students him- or herself (a step that is marked with the later Habilitation in Germany or the rank of docent in Sweden). From the early twentieth century, the United States developed a distinct model that focused on structured coursework alongside research. 

To some extent, the last few decades have seen something of a convergence of these into a more globalised doctoral education approach, shifting the emphasis of doctoral education from the ‘product’ (the doctoral thesis itself) to the ‘process’ (the structures, content and training that lead to high-quality research). Within this context, research schools are a further development that moves beyond individual institutions to doctoral-level cooperation between different educational establishments.

Though the exact definition of a ‘research school’ varies, in general it refers to a doctoral programme that is typically organised around a thematic rather than disciplinary base; involves collaboration between several universities; and is wholly or partially funded by external resources, rather than from a university’s own (state-granted) funds.

Based on the experiences in Sweden and Germany, the research school format has been seen to offer many positives for doctoral students, including:

  • Greater critical mass in particular fields of education, through externally-funded programmes with strong administrative support.
  • Socialisation into a wider scientific epistemic community.
  • Better opportunities to be embedded within an interdisciplinary epistemological understanding.
  • Stronger support for personal and educational development – doctoral education as a process of high-level training for early-stage academic careers.
  • A more structured research environment that leads to higher completion rates.

Balanced against the additional resources, institutions with research schools need to be careful to avoid over-dependence on continued funding cycles, and to ensure that the concentration around particular clusters of excellence does not reduce the scope for free-ranging research. But with the welcome emphasis on investment in the humanities and social sciences by the Swedish Research Council, there could potentially be exciting new opportunities for our faculty. We look forward to taking part in the consultation process.

Whilst the cold spring may belie the season, it is only a few weeks to the end of the main academic year. As Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns (1759-96) once said, ‘The winter it is past, and the summer comes at last/And the small birds, they sing on ev’ry tree’.  I end by thanking you all for another year of progress in the field of doctoral studies. This session we have had five doctoral defences and a Lic. seminar, as well as several first-year and mid-term seminars. It is heartening to see so much progress being made in people’s research, despite the pandemic. This year has also seen the establishment of the faculty’s new Advisory Committee for Research Education (KFKS). I am grateful to the departmental doctoral co-ordinators for their attentive work in that forum, particularly when it comes to improving our doctoral courses. We have also welcomed Dr Ewa Lantz as research liaison officer, and built up the administrative structures in doctoral studies, to reflect the new level of decentralisation in doctoral education. There of course remain many challenges ahead.  Next session we will enhance our supervisor and doctoral student mentoring, welcome several new doctoral students, and also be the first faculty in the university to embark on the doctoral education evaluation process. I look forward to working with you all on these and other tasks. In the meantime, I wish you a pleasant summer and hope that you will have a chance to relax for a few weeks after a turbulent and challenging year!

Photo: Derek S. Hutcheson

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