Thomas Bräuninger

Advancing PhD training

Thomas Bräuninger
Political Economy, University of Mannheim
Graduate School of Economic and Social Sciences, University of Mannheim

Abstract: Doctoral education and research are key elements in the advancement of our disciplines. Doctoral training prepares the next generation of scholars but doctoral research also advances knowledge through original research. But undergraduate studies and most Master programs leave doctoral students largely unprepared for doctoral research. I argue that we need a substantial change in the way we think of, organize and institutionalize doctoral training. The role model is that of a (good) US graduate school but involves many other things, e.g. mobility of doctoral researchers, better recognition of doctoral training as “training for research” in funding initiatives etc. I then proceed to the issue of methods education. The past 30 years or so have seen tremendous advancements in the development of new methods of data generation and analysis. I argue that methods training in many fields of the SSH lacks behind and that we need new initiatives for the advancement of curricula at all level of university education in order to fully exploit this potential.

In this comment, I confine myself to graduate training, specifically PhD training in the SSH, an area where much has been achieved over the past two decades but much is still to be done. As a starting point, I will look at what is now known as best practice principles of doctoral training and education in Europe. I will then argue that in my opinion, two conditions will be essential to attain the objective of training the next generation of frontier researchers. First, an understanding of doctoral training as genuine tertiary education and not an add-on, secondly, a focus on structured doctoral training in strong research environments rather than in any place. Finally, I will address one substantial issue, methods training which is becoming more and more a key qualification in many fields in the social sciences and humanities.

Let me start with PhD education. Doctoral education and research are key elements in the advancement of our disciplines. Doctoral training prepares the next generation of scholars but doctoral research also advances knowledge through original research. But undergraduate studies and most Master programs leave doctoral students largely unprepared for doctoral research. I argue that we need a substantial change in the way we think of, organize and institutionalize but ultimately also fund doctoral training. To prepare the ground, let us have a look at what we think of as “best practice principles” of doctoral training. In the mapping exercise on doctoral training in Europe “Towards a common approach” of 2011, the ERA Steering Group on Human Resources and Mobility has listed the following principles:

  1. Research excellence
  2. Attractive institutional environment
  3. Interdisciplinary research options
  4. Exposure to industry and other relevant employment sectors
  5. International networking
  6. Transferable skills training
  7. Process oriented quality assurance

These principles are hardly disputable. They provide a roadmap, not a description of the actual state of the art. While there are many promising initiatives in the aftermath of the Salzburg principles of 2005, there is still a long way to go, however, and my humble feeling is that, often, we focus too much on the wrong or at least less relevant dimensions. All the above seven principles refer to means of doctoral training: what structures to establish, what skills to teach. It is only the first principle that establishes both a mean and an end. “Striving for excellent research”, the Report of Mapping Exercise states, “is fundamental to all doctoral education and from this all other elements flow”. Research excellence here refers to two things, excellence of doctoral research and the excellence of the research environment. We should not lose sight of this, the first and most fundamental of these principles. To attain excellence in doctoral research, we need an understanding of doctoral training as genuine education and not an add-on. Secondly, we need more focus on structured doctoral training in strong research environments and not in any place. What do I mean with that?

Let me emphasize that this is nothing than my personal view. Though I have been teaching, supervising and mentoring PhD students in the US and a number of European countries, my view is partial and incomplete. And it is biased. I am Dean of a Graduate school funded by the German Excellence Initiative. So my remarks may be born out of a specific German context. Yet, talking to colleagues, I feel that these issues arise in many places if not everywhere. I shall also stress that I am a researcher not a higher education expert. I talk about my field and there, training is above all training for academic research. Just to be clear about that, in my field, industry-university cooperations, professional and industrial PhDs are of less importance.

1. We need an understanding of doctoral training as a period of genuine training and learning

The ERA report states that “core component of doctoral training is the advancement of knowledge through original research” (ERA SGHRM). This is a broad statement and I would emphasize that, ideally, doctoral research does not simply advance knowledge but it pushes the boundaries of the research frontier. We deal with the next generation of young academics, researchers that are creative, critical and intellectual risk takers but that know, think and work on the research frontier. Certainly, not all PhD students, even those in the best programs, will ever reach that frontier: And even less will finally succeed, at this stage or thereafter, to push the boundaries of their research field. But I hardly know anyone in my field who had a bad or essentially no doctoral training and became a leading figure in his field afterwards.

Yet, undergraduate studies and most Master programs leave doctoral students largely unprepared for this type of doctoral research. In order to get at a point where PhD students, when they finish their PhD or thereafter, do not merely advance knowledge but push frontiers, they and we have to invest much more time and resources than what we currently do and offer in most Master and doctoral programs. When doctoral students begin with their studies they are, first of all, students, not researchers. They need to acquire substantial and methodological knowledge and skills, things they haven’t learned in their Masters because Master programs usually have a larger target audience.

To be more explicit, I think of a doctoral training as a sequence of a substantial – and I really mean substantial — course work and independent (yet guided) doctoral research. The role model is that of a (good) US graduate school. In some places, this has been achieved or comes close to it, in other places, doctoral training is more an add-on to what is considered to be the core of the PhD, namely writing a dissertation. To be sure, transferable skills and exposure to the methods and culture of other disciplines are important. In the end, they will foster breadth and creativity whether these skills will be useful in a business or an academic context. Research stays abroad provide opportunities for international networking which foster not only the mobility of ideas but also a social skill — “networking” — which is essential in science as a social system. Yet, the primary role of doctoral education has to be to train the next generation, not individuals that have exactly those skills and know those methods they need for their dissertation in a tiny subfield. We need new academics with a broader horizon and a broad training to push the boundaries.

To what extent is this important for research funding in the SS & H? If the above is correct, it has two implications: First, we should acknowledge that most of our programs are designed bottom-up rather than afresh. They seem to add this and that requirement, a methods course, a cross-disciplinary bridge course, or a PhD-cotutelle program to pre-existing structures of doctoral training rather than follow a master plan. The variety of doctoral education systems across Europe largely reflects path-dependencies not careful institutional design. Path-dependency is a good explanation but most often a bad justification. And I should also stress that this does not reflect on-going competition between university systems. Second, to the extent that these systems produce highly trained but still not competitive (say, with US school’s) young researchers, one might even argue that we waste resources: in many fields in the SS & H, the job market is almost exclusively an academic job market. If a large portion of PhD students do not enter the academic job market, many of them will be highly over-(and/or mis-)qualified for the jobs they are actually doing. This is a waste of resources. This brings me to the second point I want to make.

2. We need more focus on structured doctoral training in strong research environments

To be clear here, I fully endorse the above principles for doctoral training. Yet, if what I have argued above is correct then gradually raising the quality of doctoral programs in all places, in all academic institutions, will not bring European SS & H to the top. Given limited resources there is certainly a trade-off between quantity and quality. But also, there is a limit in human resources. Not all universities can be top in any field they cover. In order to get at the top, one has to bundle resources, bring the best talented individuals together, sometimes virtually, sometimes physically, to produce research at the highest level. My impression as a researcher who knows funding initiatives as a consumer, not a designer, my impression as a researcher is that this works much better for “research” than doctoral training. In research, there are many initiatives both at the national and the EU level to foster this type of research in networks and clusters, either in one place, or, more often, across many places. From my perspective, these principles have not fully been recognized and acknowledged in the field of doctoral training. We fund too much at too many places rather than spot and focus at specific programs, schools or networks that have the highest potential in a particular field.

This is, of course, not just a matter of an “institutional structure” but also almost inevitably a matter of the research environment such a doctoral program or school is embedded in. We can think of many places that produce research at the highest level but no decent PhD students. On the other hand, I hardly know a graduate school (in my field) that would have produced any of these excellent young scholars we are looking for but that is not backed by an excellent research environment. Excellent doctoral training needs both, excellent institutional settings and excellent researchers. Why do I emphasize this? The point is that while the two must go together, it may be difficult to fund both together. In many funding programs, research consortia will get funding for PhD students – whether or not these students then receive the best conceivable PhD training comes second. The ERC programme funds curiosity-driven research of “individual teams”, a PI plus postdocs and PhD students – whether the home institution of that researcher provides PhD training according to best practices is not decisive.

Let me move to the issue of methods education as one of the areas in the SS & H, that is so essential to the training of the next generation of young scholars in many fields. It is one example to show and argue that PhD training has to be substantial and to go beyond the acquisition of tailor-made qualifications in a narrow subfield.

The Social Sciences and a large part of the Humanities are empirical sciences, ideally combining rigorous theorizing and broad empirical evidence in the pursuit to generate a deep and general understanding of social processes. The past 30 years or so have seen tremendous advancements in the development of new methods of data generation and analysis. New ways of data collection and new types of data, “big data”, is an important issue, also to the Humanities, as they have the potential to or, at least, make the promise that we can answer open questions, and raise new, hitherto unthinkable ones. Apart from these more visible and (publicly) noticeable developments in data availability, there are huge advancements in the development of empirical research methods, both quantitative and qualitative methods. What is striking here is that in many Social Sciences and Humanities, a large part of the scholarly discussion and literature centres around improving the understanding of an issue using the same theories and the same data but very different empirical methods.

Just to briefly mention two examples, the turn from what is called cross-sectional to cross-sectional times series or panel designs in the 1980s as well as the invention of multi-level modelling in statistics and its spreading out in the SSH in the 1990s have deeply changed our understanding of many social processes. In many fields, these new, more general rather than different frameworks have put into question of what previously has been thought of as established wisdom. At other places, they allowed to answer and even to think of and ask new questions. Big data is another issue, much of what I just said, also applies here. So I leave it with that. Methods training in many fields of the SSH lacks behind and we need new initiatives for the advancement of curricula at all levels of university education in order to fully exploit these potentials. Methods training is time-consuming. It is doctoral training programs that should provide for that.

To sum up here, I am probably just impatient. I can fully agree with the best practice principles laid out in the Steering Group’s mapping exercise. I can see the progress that has been made in many places: Progress in both doctoral training in general and also the advancement of methods education which I argued is — and will be even more so – a key field of qualification (and a transferable skill) in doctoral training. But I am sceptical that we achieve the goal of “training the next generation of frontier researchers” when we are vague when it comes to defining what excellence in research means, what doctoral training is about, what minimal standards are, how we establish and implement quality assurance procedures. We need to acknowledge that top research is fundamentally dependent on training PhD students, students that receive extensive substantial and methodological training backed in excellent research environment.

 About the author:

Thomas Bräuninger

Education:

University of Mannheim, Studies in Political Science, Mathematics, and the Philosophy of Science, 1997

University of Mannheim, Department of Social Sciences (summa cum laude), Ph.D. in Political Science, 2000

University of Konstanz, Dr. Phil. habil. (Habilitation) in Political Science, 2006

Prior work:

Professor of Political Science, University of Mainz

Co-director, Zukunftskolleg, University of Konstanz

Head of Emmy Noether-Junior research group “Comparative Legislation” (German Science

Foundation, DFG

Visiting research fellow, Trinity College Dublin

Visiting lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Pittsburgh

Current Employment/Responsibilities:

University of Mannheim, Full Professor (W3) of Political Economy

Academic Director of the Center for Doctoral Studies in Social and Behavioral Sciences

Dean of the Graduate School of Economic and Social Sciences, University of Mannheim

Areas of Research Interest: 

Formal political theory, Game theory, Methodology, Political Economy.