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Waste of time — A new PhD reform at the Faculty of Science is stealing precious time from PhD students and is negatively affecting the diversity of academia. You'd almost have thought this was the Danish government's latest idea to optimize the workforce. But the reform has been hatched at the University of Copenhagen, and has been forced through by the PhD school management after an opaque decision-making process.
PhD students who start at the Faculty of Science, University of Copenhagen (UCPH), in 2024 will be enrolled on a more standardised degree programme. There will be joint, compulsory, courses across the entire faculty, and a built-in option to take part in innovation courses and industrial collaboration.
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The rules, which came into force at the turn of the year, are the result of the so-called PhD Vision Project which was initiated and led by Associate Dean for Research, Lise Arleth. This reform project has distinguished itself by ignoring persistent objections, and has thereby become yet another example of the dysfunctional staff involvement culture at UCPH.
The changes will have negative consequences for many. It is a good idea to offer general skills courses across the Faculty of Science. But generic courses cannot possibly be equally useful to everyone. To impose on all PhD students compulsory courses is a destructive one-size-fits-all approach that will hurt the academic diversity at the faculty.
A good example of a group of people that can look forward to wasting time on the new courses, is the group of PhD students who use a theoretical approach who now have to learn about data management and data legislation. They might be interesting topics. But they are hardly beneficial for their PhD work. Other PhD students may already be experts when they have to learn basic statistics and data science. Others may simply just not like having to be taught career planning. Everyone, in other words, will feel ignored when they are forcibly enrolled on the courses.
Everyone, in other words, will feel ignored when they are forcibly enrolled on the courses
PhD students are not the only people who are sceptical. Supervisors have their heads in their hands also. As Professor Mikkel Thorup puts it, too much time spent on irrelevant generic courses will negatively affect the academic depth of the research and lead to a weakening of the already short Danish PhD programmes.
But that is soon to be the reality for the faculty’s new PhD students who, across all skill levels and starting this year, will be put into classes to complete four-week courses throughout the years of their programme.
Four weeks doesn’t sound like a lot. But time is short on the Danish PhD programme. With its three years duration, it is shorter than the usual four years in the rest of Europe. In many countries – including the US – the duration is even longer, but everyone is competing for the same positions in a tough international academic labour market. In addition, in Denmark you typically have to teach six months out of the three years.
Many PhD student consider it a great privilege to be allowed to specialize and do their utmost to achieve a breakthrough with their research. Unfortunately, there are also many who are affected by stress and other psychological disorders during this process. Should we then take some of their time and give them project management courses instead? If so, they should certainly not be obligatory, I say.
The reasoning behind the new compulsory course package — which turns the PhD degree programme into something more akin to an IBM Graduate Programme — is that many of the faculty’s PhD students find it difficult to meet the 30 ECTS legal requirements. And the main reason why some PhD students find it difficult to find 30 ECTS credits is the lack of specialized courses offered at several departments.
This makes it hard for the departments to align themselves with the legal framework for PhD schools. The problem then ends up back at the PhD School, which is administratively placed under the faculty.
What do you do when the rules cause problems in the system? Make more rules. In this specific case, you add additional requirements on which courses you need to be take in order to obtain the required 30 ECTS credits.
The faculty, as an administrative structure, has time and again shown itself to have limited ability to accommodate its constituent departments. This time it is the faculty’s associate dean for research, who is also head of the PhD school, Lise Arleth, who is the architect behind the solution. The hope is that it will reduce the number of exemption applications.
With the new changes, she can use fine words about setting up a joint skills foundation for the whole of the faculty’s PhDs that gives them more transferable skills so they can better cater to industry. This undoubtedly sounds like a good idea for those higher up in an organization that now brands itself as ‘creating benefit’ in its attempt to adapt to a political agenda where industry and innovation are the main currency.
But the fine words conceal the theft of time from the large proportion of PhD students who experience the new courses as a waste of time. It is a serious thing when this objection has arrogantly been ignored by the PhD school management.
The objections include numerous meetings between the faculty administration and the heads of department, the deputy heads of department for research, and the PhD committee. The latter is a democratically elected committee that is equally composed of PhD students and PhD supervisors from the entire faculty. Like many UCPH bodies, the committee has no decision-making power, but it advises the PhD school.
In practice, routine tasks are undertaken solely by the chairman of the committee, David Collinge, while the head of the graduate school participates regularly at the committee meetings and effectively directs the agenda. Having been an alternate member of the committee for more than a year, it is my opinion that the committee’s function has been reduced to rubber-stamping management decisions.
These tricks whereby employees are disempowered in a management attempt to appear responsible, are disgraceful
Several members of the committee from the period under the PhD Vision Project have stated in writing to present members that the adoption of the mandatory courses was never dealt with, and that they have never approved of the decision.
At the committee’s meeting in September 2023, my request for an explanation of the background to the decision was rejected by Lise Arleth with the assurance that an agreement had been reached through an extensive process. After follow-up questions, she clarified that the decision had been discussed, but that the decision was reserved solely for the head of the PhD school.
So how does it normally go with the generic courses of the type that all PhD students at the Faculty of Science now have to go through? The Technical University of Denmark (DTU) set up a mandatory course on sustainability for all PhDs. Many of them feel like they are wasting their time. In the wake of the Milena Penkowa case, responsible research conduct has become a part of the syllabus at UCPH. But only a few PhD students benefit from it, as it is generic and does not meet a specific need from participants.
Aarhus University subjected all researchers to required workshops and e-courses on research integrity in the wake of the beef report scandal. While this had no consequences for management. These tricks whereby employees are disempowered in a management attempt to appear responsible, are disgraceful.
It is part of the story that there are many PhD students that welcome the new rules – mainly those who find it difficult to find courses to take themselves to meet the 30 ECTS requirement.
The most simple solution would therefore be to make the new courses optional. Why not? Because the compulsory courses are an easy way to remedy the problem of the 30 ECTS credits. Even if it affects a minority of ambitious PhD students.