Clear roadmap for the doctorate

The Helmholtz Association, in conjunction with the Helmholtz Juniors and Dirk Heinz, has developed new doctoral guidelines. What developments do they reveal in light of the doctoral student survey in 2017?

Doctoral studies qualify candidates for positions in academia or in the private sector. This phase is usually associated with the rapid development of personal and professional skills under a high level of stress every day. The progression and success therefore does not depend solely on the commitment of the doctoral candidate: The individual research institution can also enhance the project by offering graduate schools with relevant soft-skills courses. The Helmholtz Association outlined the necessary conditions in its doctoral guidelines for the first time in 2015, and these particularly emphasised the importance of graduate schools for a structured doctoral programme with appropriate supervision.

The Helmholtz Juniors met in July at the Helmholtz head office in BerlinThe Helmholtz Juniors met in July at the Helmholtz head office in BerlinEvery two years, the Helmholtz Juniors, who represent the doctoral researchers in the Helmholtz Association, surveys the doctoral researchers on their satisfaction with these conditions – the last survey was completed in 2017. A key finding of this survey was the belief that the doctorate could be completed in three years decreased as the project progressed: The number of people who believed that they required more than three and a half years to complete their doctorate increased from 22 per cent in the first year to almost 80 per cent in the third year. Approximately half of respondents stated that they had begun their doctorate without having developed a project draft in advance and that they were aiming for a duration of more than four years.

Satisfaction with remuneration and work-life balance varied wildly between the individual Helmholtz institutes. Only 40 per cent were satisfied with their conditions, with doctoral students in engineering and physics appearing significantly more satisfied due to the consistently higher remuneration. A total of 53 per cent of female doctoral researchers stated that they often or very often thought of abandoning their doctorate. For the male candidates, this figure was “only” 41 per cent. The main reasons for possible discontinuation included the supervision (43 per cent), project-related problems (36 per cent) and the workload (34 per cent).

The new doctoral guidelines for 2019, drafted with the participation of the Helmholtz Juniors and chaired by HZI Scientific Director Dirk Heinz, now paint a much clearer picture than in 2015. Among other things, they distinguish between a formal and a day-to-day supervisor and recommend a thesis committee for quality assurance. The committee would include two scientific experts from the institute as well as both supervisors. A project plan should be developed before the work actually begins, and it should be feasible to implement this work within three years.

For the first time, the guidelines include criteria for both doctoral researchers and their supervisors, and explicitly recommend the promotion of personal development, the presentation of one’s own project and career paths. Supervisors should also be offered further training. In the future, regular evaluations by Helmholtz and surveys by the Helmholtz Juniors will review the implementation of the guidelines and will be used to make adjustments. This makes the new doctoral guidelines an initial step towards recognising and promoting the individual potential of each doctoral researcher.

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