Reforming Doctoral Education in Europe

You think getting a common currency was hard for the European Union? Now the EU is trying for a common doctoral degree.
By Alexandra Bitusikova

Doctoral education in Europe has been undergoing a major transformation in the last decade. This transformation has occurred in response to several challenges: the changing nature of the labor market in the globalized economy; the European Union’s common agenda in research and education, which seeks to make Europe the most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world; and the intergovernmental European initiative called the Bologna Process, the aim of which is to create the European Higher Education Area by implementing reforms that will improve cooperation among European universities, raise quality, foster mobility of students and academic staff, and increase the employability of graduates. The Bologna Process is driven by participating countries from across Europe, including countries with a long history of the continuous development of higher education as well as those that joined the European mainstream only after the collapse of communism in the 1990s.

The word “harmonization” is often used to describe the Bologna Process. This word frightens many academics in Europe, who see in it a threat to the diversity of university types and of education models across the continent. Indeed, the richness of European cultural, educational, and research traditions is an asset that should be used to attract the best students. If European universities want to be successful in the global “war for talent,” however, they have to find better ways to communicate and collaborate.

Doctoral education is recognized as the third cycle of higher education in the Bologna Process. In Europe, it is known also as “postgraduate education” or “research training.” Applicants accepted for doctoral studies are usually called “doctoral candidates” instead of students. Doctoral candidates may have the legal status of students or of employees (or a combination of both), but they are considered early-stage researchers at the beginning of their careers and should be given all commensurate rights, including health care, social security, and pension rights. Universities and public authorities in Europe share a collective responsibility to address the status and conditions of doctoral candidates and young researchers.

Europe has more than a thousand universities and higher education institutions that award doctoral degrees. Collecting exact statistical data, assessing and comparing quality, and measuring the effectiveness of doctoral education across the continent are difficult tasks. The European University Association (EUA) has been facilitating discussions about the development of doctoral education in Europe among its university members since 2003 in order to bring some light to the complex picture of European doctoral education. The EUA, an independent membership organization based in Brussels, acts as a representative voice of European universities. Its membership consists of almost eight hundred doctoral degree–granting universities  from forty-six countries and is constantly increasing. Through projects, surveys, conferences, and workshops, the EUA has initiated a broad international and interdisciplinary discussion about doctoral education. The latest developments in educational reform involve efforts to improve the quality and increase the attractiveness of European doctoral education by significantly changing how doctoral education is organized.


Diversity is a key word for the organization of doctoral education across Europe. In a majority of European countries and universities, U.S.-style graduate schools that offer doctoral education together with master’s studies do not exist. Until recently,doctoral education followed a model of individual study (known also as the “master-slave” or the apprenticeship model) that was based on a working alliance between the doctoral candidate and the supervisor and did not include a structured coursework phase. The appropriateness of this model for preparing young researchers for multiple careers in different sectors and countries has been increasingly questioned. Recent developments across Europe point to a growing tendency in many countries toward the establishment of structured programs (with coursework and research phases) and doctoral, graduate, or research schools. According to EUA surveys, about 30 percent of universities have introduced doctoral, graduate, or research schools alongside traditional individual models, which still may prevail in the social sciences, arts, and humanities.

Understanding of what a doctoral, graduate, or research school is differs from country to country and even from university to university. Different names, labels, and models often cause confusion, but in Europe such a school can be generally described as an independent organizational unit of a university (or several universities) with clear administration and leadership and specific funding support. Graduate school, as in the United States, is an organizational university structure that includes doctoral candidates and sometimes also master’s students. It organizes recruitment and admissions, offers courses and seminars, provides generic skills training, and is responsible for the supervision of students and quality assurance. This model can be found in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, and Turkey. “Doctoral” or “research” school, by contrast, refers to a university or interuniversity structure that includes only doctoral candidates and may be organized around a particular discipline (such as a doctoral school in psychology); a disciplinary or interdisciplinary research theme (such as a research school in climate change); or a research group, network, or project (such as a project-based doctoral school in central European history). This model usually involves one university (as is the case in Finland, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands), but it may be based on close cooperation of several universities (écoles doctoraes in France) or on cooperation of universities with nonuniversity research institutes (in Germany, for example).

None of these models is pure. Countries, or even individual universities, may adopt both models, depending on educational and research traditions and on national legal and funding conditions. European universities, like European countries, want to maintain their diversity. Europe’s diverse structures of doctoral education may look confusing to outsiders, but the European motto is “one goal, different routes.”
According to the first assessments of doctoral, graduate, and research schools, these structures have many advantages. They stimulate the research environment, provide critical mass and help young researchers overcome isolation, bring junior and senior researchers together, support and improve supervision, make the admissions process more transparent with clearly defined procedures, provide teaching and generic skills training, guarantee quality  assuranceand monitoring, and enhance opportunities for international and interinstitutional collaboration and mobility as well as for interdisciplinarity. Universities that introduced such schools in the last decade can already see that the completion rates have improved as a result of systematic and structured qualityassessment and monitoring practices, which include the use of personal development plans with clearly identified training schedules, targets, and deadlines; biannual or annual progress reports; regular review panels independent of the supervisor; student logs and personal Web sites for updating research progress; and Web-based platforms that facilitate communication between the candidate and the supervisor as well as among doctoral candidates and the broader research community.

Time needed to obtain a doctoral degree in Europe used to be approximately six to eight years, but it has been reduced in recent years as a result of the introduction of structured programs and schools and strict funding schemes. The official and recommended duration of doctoral studies in the Bologna Process is now three to four years for full-time students; that duration corresponds with the length of scholarships, fellowships, and grants. The real time needed to obtain a degree tends to be four to five years, however, and in some cases it may be longer.

Improving Supervision

New organizational structures also bring together innovations in other aspects of doctoral education, especially in supervision, which is closely related to improvement in the quality of doctoral education. Several national evaluation reports in Europe, as well as surveys conducted among doctoral candidates and young researchers, point to a great need to improve standards of supervision and develop new supervision practices in research training. One good practice, increasingly being introduced at universities, is the use of a contract of shared responsibilities and rights, which is signed by the doctoral candidate, the supervisor, and the institution and includes a clearly defined research plan.

Instead of continuing to follow the traditional model of individual supervision (a classic example is the German supervisor, Doktorvater or “Doctor Father”), many universities are encouraging multiple or team supervision. Several models for such supervision exist, but multiple supervision usually includes two or three supervisors (one of them a principal supervisor) with divided responsibilities. For example, one supervisor may be responsible for the administrative and training portions of doctoral education and one for research progress; the latter can be from a nonacademic sector such as industry. Aspects of the individual relationship between the doctoral candidate and the supervisor are still important and should not be underestimated. However, multiple supervision prevents problems such as those associated with the sudden absence or sabbatical of the supervisor.

The continuous professional development of supervisors themselves is another broadly discussed way to improve supervision. In many European countries, such professional development sounds like a revolutionary requirement. In most countries, only professors or associate professors with long research careers and excellent research results can be supervisors. The idea of training such distinguished scholars is hardly acceptable to many of them. Yet countries like the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland have introduced the practice of training supervisors, and in many universities such training is a precondition for new, junior scholars. In order to attract senior supervisors and improve the quality of the supervision they provide, universities are also organizing interactive seminars and discussions of good practices.

Diversity in European doctoral education may be difficult to understand, but it reflects the diversity of the whole continent. After hundreds of years of development, Europe still has diverse cultures and identities as well as diverse approaches to education and research. In the era of globalization, Europe cannot rely only on its distinguished academic and research history. It has to face the many challenges of the contemporary world and respond to them. The reform of doctoral education in Europe is just one of these responses to internal and global developments. European universities deal with these challenges by working together, exchanging good practices, learning from each other, cooperating, and becoming stronger together.

Alexandra Bitusikova is a senior adviser to the European University Association (EUA) in Brussels, Belgium. She has been running the EUA programs on doctoral education in Europe that led to the establishment of the EUA Council for Doctoral Education in 2008. More information is available at



This is an extremely valuable article that I shall show to university students in the U.S.  I would, however,  very much like to read something similar (albeit considerably longer) in which world wide comparisons of education from kindergarten through a doctorate are discussed. How does one compare, for example, undergraduate education in Communication as taught in  Holland, Israel and Chile? Or  post graduate Political Science studies in, say,  Spain, Australia and Turkey?  Many more people move from country to country nowadays, and kids must accommodate.

When I began undergraduate studies in foreign languages at "Redbrick University" in England in 1950,  those who taught me were British. When I received a doctorate in Latin American Literature in the U.S. 42 years later those who taught -even at undergraduate level- were Hispanic. My research director was from Chile with a doctorate from Madrid. Doctoral candidates that I  recall in my department were from Spain, China, Mexico, Peru and Chile, and none from the U.S. Admittedly I was in a foreign language department, but in the department of my husband who taught Chemistry, the situation was not very different. I lost my title for being the oldest person to obtain a doctorate when an  83 year old of Russian birth beat me.  I was, however,  the oldest to be hired to tenure at  60 and to progress through the ranks from that age on and retire as  Emerita last summer. That I think could only happen here (where there is no mandatory retirement age). I relate these details because  however outlandish my trajectory may sound in some countries,  I don't think it is particularly unusual nowadays  in the U.S.  (More unusual is finding employment immediately...) .
Education has become a global concern, yet  from my experiences in Great Britain, Peru and the U.S.I can think of no processes more different, one from another. Even if one takes into account changes dictated by the passing of  time the differences are still there because the cultures vary. The purpose of education itself  is not seen in the same light in the three, the methodologies vary to an extraordinary degree, relationships between students and teachers vary,  as do relationships with peers. 
I  imagined, when I began studying for a degree again after over twenty years, that in the interim education in different countries would  probably have become more uniform. Your article bears out that this is not so. I think the following incident illustrates this and will be appreciated by anyone in education who has seen the film: I frequently talk to a friend from high school who left England almost at the same time as myself,  and who received her university education and has spent her life in Toronto. We had both just seen Alan Bennett's  The History Boys  My friends first comment "I say, sixth form hasn't changed that much, after all, has it?".could have been mine.

A. K.