Debatt ● Giosuè Baggio

A plea for the 4-year PhD

«A longer PhD can improve research quality and reduce research waste»

Giosuè Baggio, NTNU
Giosuè Baggio ved NTNU meiner ph.d.-løpet bør gå over fire og ikkje tre år. Då sikrar ein betre kvalitet på forskinga som kjem ut av stipendiattida.

Denne teksten er et debatt­inn­legg. Inn­holdet i teksten uttrykker forfatterens egen mening.

The debate on research quality in Norway has just reignited, as it does periodically. Current proposals for increasing quality focus on reducing outputs, for example by removing existing incentives to publishing more (publiseringspoeng) or by introducing constraints to make researchers publish less, presumably on the assumption that ‘less is better’. A more straightforward approach is to ask two simple questions: who is doing research, and what do those people need in order to do better research?


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Most academic employees at universities in Norway contribute some of their time to research. But it is temporary staff, discounting any teaching obligations, who contribute the most hours overall to hands-on research. Among these, PhD students are a fairly large and growing group. The law regulating PhD positions says that «Normal åremålsperiode er fire år med 25 prosent pliktarbeid. Ansettelsesperioden skal omfatte tre år med rein doktorgradsutdanning.» But the 3-years period is too short. It is causing damage to individual candidates and to the research ecosystem. Norway should transition to a regime where the minimum duration of the research period for every PhD is four years, following many other research-leading countries where this is already the norm.

Three years may have been enough for a PhD thirty years ago, but not now. What one learned and achieved in three years then requires more time now: there is more literature to study, more theories to be conversant with, more methods to master, and research standards have become more exacting. We should adapt the duration of all our study programs to the development of knowledge in all fields. Else, our students will learn comparatively less, and young researchers will achieve less than their past peers achieved given the same amount of time. This applies to PhD programs, but a parallel argument could be run for master-level studies as well.

In only three years it is difficult to make room for a sufficiently long phase where a project can reach maturity and come to fruition. A 3-year PhD is a race against time that finishes right at the climax, if all goes well. A fourth year is necessary to apply further quality checks, to interpret and integrate results. The gain in the last quarter would be proportionally greater than in each of the previous quarters. These would be funds well spent, which will also make a difference for the quality of published works.

What about the costs? Should we increase spending on all PhD candidates by one third? Perhaps we are opening too many 3-year PhD positions at the moment. Many do not complete anyway, as the statistics indicate, and many are significantly delayed. Fewer 4-year positions may actually lead to more completed PhD theses than we are seeing now, and likely to more theses completed in time. But we should also take into account the hidden toll of the current system.

First, for PhD candidates, who are under tremendous pressure to finish in time or resort to ‘solutions’ that affect their finances, such as adjusting their positions to a smaller percentage than full time to delay the end of the contract, while working just as much as before. This is about health and well-being, but also about giving all PhD candidates a fair opportunity with enough time to become experts and build careers in their fields.

Second, there are the collateral costs produced by the current 3-year constraint. Candidates who do not finish in time never get a PhD, and much of the research they do is never published in any form. The 4-year PhD can also reduce ‘research waste’, making it possible to publish good research that is now left in almost-complete but not-yet-usable state.

How can we raise the quality of research? Through systems of incentives or disincentives, rules, bureaucratic control, metrics, periodic evaluations, or top-down reductions of these? The answer is simpler: find those who are doing the research and give them the time they need to do it well.

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