Michael Schaepmann and Claudine Leysinger

“Things are changing at doctoral level”

The Graduate Campus (GRC) has compiled guidelines for doctoral degree programs. In the following interview, Claudine Leysinger, General Manager of the GRC, and Michael Schaepman, Vice President Research at UZH, discuss the new recommendations, underlining UZH’s responsibility for its junior researchers and – the most important principle of all – a supervisory culture that serves the needs of doctoral students and supervisors alike.

Interview by Stefan Stöcklin; English translation by Karen Oettli-Geddes

First, a brief review of your own doctorate: What was your experience as a doctoral student?

Claudine Leysinger: I did my PhD in the USA and followed a two-stage admission procedure. I was integrated into a group from the beginning and took courses on methodology. In terms of supervision – my work was based on an expedition photographer in 19th century Mexico – various professors were available to support me and I could get feedback if I wished. I have good memories of the supervision and guidance I received.

Michael Schaepman: I did my PhD at the University of Zurich, following on from my Master’s. My thesis explored new methods in spectroscopy for environmental observation. The program was connected to an assistant position. This gave me a lot of freedom for which I was grateful, but it also meant a lot of self-responsibility. However, for me, it worked well.

The doctoral level is a hot topic at the moment and there’s been much public discussion about controversial cases at other universities. The Graduate Campus (GRC) has now compiled a list of recommendations in a set of best practice guidelines. Is this purely a coincidence?

Leysinger: Yes, it’s just a coincidence. The idea for the guidelines came two years ago from our director Ulrike Müller-Böker; quality assurance at doctoral level is a high priority. We began our work in mid-2017, and recently issued the finished document (see box).

Schaepman: I’d like to make a point of principle: Even if conflict cases with doctoral students are now a subject of discussion in the media, we should keep things in proportion. Of course, we take cases like these very seriously and we mustn’t under any circumstances try to gloss things over. But in view of the particular situation of doctoral students – which is different from most other employment relationships – the number of cases involving conflict is small.

It has to be understood that there’s always a relationship of dependence between doctoral students and their professors and therefore potential for conflict. Changes are also taking place in society too. The universities – with all the traditions they hold – are under pressure to adapt to these processes.

Leysinger: One of the most important changes is that we now have many more doctoral students than in the past. Their number has more or less doubled over the last 20 years, while the number of professorial chairs has not grown to the same extent. This creates pressure in the system, especially in view of the waning prospects for a scholarly career.

Schaepman: As a university, we depend on doctoral students and have an obligation to support their careers. The best practice guidelines are a collection of recommendations and measures that are firmly based on UZH’s experience; they are designed to ensure the quality of studies at doctoral level and guarantee appropriate treatment. They give the faculties enough flexibility to accommodate each faculty’s particular needs.

I’d like to look at three important areas: Recruitment, supervision and career planning. What is the most effective way of selecting the candidate best suited to the role?

Leysinger: From our point of view, it’s important that several people are involved in the selection procedure and that the decision is not made by one single person. A structured procedure has proven its worth. Each of the faculties deals with this in a different way. In some doctoral programs, for example at the MNF (Faculty of Science) or the WWF (Faculty of Business, Economics and Informatics), they follow a highly professional procedure, but this is not always the case in other faculties with smaller professorial chairs. However, even there, it’s important that third parties are involved.

Schaepman: The challenge is to decide after a one-hour interview whether the candidate is up to the challenges of a doctoral thesis lasting several years. In the same short decision-making window, the supervisor also pledges to support the doctoral student through all the  ups and downs they encounter. The challenges are therefore distributed symmetrically on both sides and include a certain amount of uncertainty. Ultimately, the individual decision is always made at "gut level", and it’s important to spread the decision over several heads.

What does it come down to?

Leysinger: In addition to scholarly competence, it’s important to clarify whether the person has the necessary stamina and tolerance for frustration that is required for a doctoral thesis. Often an enthusiastic start is followed by a period of disillusionment and frustration when the work doesn’t go as planned or experiments go wrong. It’s therefore necessary to assess whether the person can cope with the long lean periods, because it doesn’t help anyone – neither the candidate nor the University – if they fail.

How many doctoral students drop out?

Leysinger: There’s no general answer to this question as numbers vary from faculty to faculty. In the cohort that started its doctoral studies in 2013, the average drop-out rate was eleven percent.

Schaepman: The drop-out rate is generally low because doctoral students are highly motivated and want to complete their studies successfully. They have chosen the academic path over a job in industry or government, where they would be better paid. I once worked for a while in a university environment in Holland where – unlike in Switzerland – doctoral students are paid almost a market salary. At over 30 percent, the drop-out rate among doctoral students was significantly higher than here.

On the subject of supervision: With the professor acting as their boss, supervisor and evaluator, doctoral students find themselves in a multi-layered relationship of dependence. To mitigate this situation, it’s recommended that different staff members are involved in the supervision and evaluation of a thesis. Is this the solution?

Leysinger: Of course, not all problems can be solved in this way, but our proposal is recognized as legitimate. For reasons of quality assurance, at least one external person must be involved in the evaluation.

In the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, for example, doctoral students can decide for themselves whether all members of the supervisory committee should also be members of the doctoral committee that reviews and evaluates the thesis – although, in principle, an external person must also be involved. In the event of conflict, it makes sense to separate supervision and evaluation. However, it can also be helpful to know the background and history of the thesis and not to change committees. Doctoral students can now decide for themselves.

Schaepman: It’s important to understand that the tensions involving a conflict of priorities between doctoral students and their professors is in the nature of things and is difficult to resolve. On the one hand, the idea and money for the work don’t usually come from the doctoral student, but from the supervisor. On the other hand, doctoral students are supposed to prove their scholarly independence and write their own paper. This tension can be reduced by separating supervision and evaluation to a certain extent.

Are you saying that doctoral students find themselves in a situation that wavers between subordination and freedom?

Schaepman: Exactly. There’s an imbalance, because, in the natural sciences, the scientific questions are often not raised by the researcher alone. In this situation, it’s important in any case that doctoral students have the opportunity to speak to third parties about their work or supervision, without this resulting in any consequences for them.

Leysinger: The situation in the arts and social sciences is somewhat different from that in the natural sciences. In the arts and social sciences, you usually deal with your own ideas and are your own boss. The danger is rather that you work too hard for yourself and rarely see your supervisors. That’s why we suggest regular discussions and evaluations. The Graduate School of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, which opened at the start of 2019, ensures this exchange.

Schaepman: I think UZH is well equipped in terms of graduate schools. There are several, the largest being the Life Science Zurich Graduate School. In conflict situations, doctoral students can speak confidentially with the committee without the supervisor being present.

Given the specialization in the sciences, is it at all possible today for outsiders to be able to evaluate a doctoral thesis correctly from a technical point of view?

Schaepman: Yes, it’s primarily a question of clarifying to what extent the work was carried out according to current scientific standards and whether the results can be defended. For this, there are external experts in all areas. The problem lies more in the competitive aspect, in that we reveal our scientific ideas to external persons. The decision to grant access to third parties always incurs a certain risk.

During their doctoral studies, students should be able to establish whether they are suited to an academic career or whether they want to seek a career outside academia. How can doctoral students be assisted in this decision?

Leysinger: More than half of doctoral students choose a non-academic career after completing their doctorate. Not necessarily due to lack of ability, but also because there are simply no vacancies. That’s why it is important to inform them at an early stage and to support them along their path. The Graduate Campus, and also other institutions such as Career Services or UZH Alumni, offer training and guidance on this topic. Our courses for interdisciplinary skills are in great demand. But even more could be done.

In what way? By offering more courses?

Leysinger: Yes, we have to be better at showing people what opportunities and possibilities there are outside the University. I’m thinking, for example, of a project from Holland where doctoral students work in companies. At the GRC, we are also planning to expand our advisory services by offering small coaching sessions to review where each doctoral student stands. However, this is still in its infancy.

Schaepman: I fully support the activities of the Graduate Campus. The interdisciplinary courses and continuing education opportunities for doctoral students are highly valuable. They assist doctoral students in their decision-making, be it with regard to an academic career or a career outside the University.

Implementing the recommendations set out in the guidelines also entails costs. Does UZH have the resources for this?

Schaepman: In supervising doctoral students, the question of financial resources is less relevant. We have to convince people to take advantage of our assistance and are aiming to develop a supervisory culture together that meets everyone’s needs. The University is responsible for advancing young researchers and allocates funds for this.

Leysinger: I see it the same way. We would like both supervisors and doctoral students to reflect on their role. The guidelines are also a means for them to insist on certain standards. Cultural change affects both sides; both are always involved.

The new guidelines consist purely of recommendations. Is that enough?

Schaepman: We can of course ask ourselves whether, by setting recommendations, we are exerting enough pressure. I would say yes. The guidelines also take our diversity into account. With its various disciplines, the University has a broad scope and this requires different approaches. We cannot use the same approach for all doctoral students.

Why were the guidelines not made binding?

Leysinger: It’s simply not our culture to prescribe guidelines from above. There are seven faculties at UZH with different cultures and practices and each with its own ordinance on obtaining a doctoral degree and doctoral agreements. It’s essential that this diversity be preserved.

Schaepman: We attach great importance to academic self-responsibility. If we in the Executive Board were to set regulations for all the faculties, that would be bad news. The way in which supervision is professionalized must come from within.

Conversation Partners:

Claudine Leysinger, Head of UZH Graduate Campus

Michael Schaepman, Vice President Research and Professor for Remote Sensing at the Department of Geography

Recommendations for a Successful Doctorate

The “Best Practice for Doctoral Education at the University of Zurich” guidelines are a 20-page compilation of recommendations designed to ensure and reinforce the quality, attractiveness and internationalization of doctoral studies at the University of Zurich. Divided into eight subject areas, the Graduate Campus recommendations propose a series of principles to be observed along the various stages of a doctorate. The recommendations cover recruitment and supervision, the doctoral agreement and doctoral programs, quality culture and evaluation, plus funding and career advancement. Listed under each subject, are the criteria to be observed. Under the subject of supervision, for example, it is recommended that supervisory teams consist of at least two doctoral degree-conferring members from the respective faculty. The recommendations are based on experience from UZH’s own doctoral programs, various policy papers and experience-exchanges at international university meetings. They are broad in scope and give the different faculties leeway in their implementation in order to accommodate any particular requirements.