EUA Council for Doctoral Education


A framework for collaborative doctoral education within Europe

The Bologna Process and the Salzburg principles have inspired European consensus about the aims of doctoral education. However, their implementation has differed widely and international collaboration in doctoral programmes is challenging. This article introduces the ORPHEUS (Organisation for PhD Education in Biomedicine and Health Sciences in the European System) Best Practices for PhD training and proposes a framework for doctoral education that is both sufficiently flexible to allow for diversity and robust enough to allow for collaboration.

What would Wilhelm von Humboldt, who initiated formalised doctoral education over 200 years ago, make of doctoral education in Europe today? With increased numbers of citizens entering secondary and tertiary education, the number of individuals embarking on a doctoral education has also increased dramatically. This has led to an expansion of the numbers of doctoral candidates within established educational institutions, as well as the creation of new doctoral schools. Apart from the “one teacher, one pupil” model that Humboldt originally devised, modern doctorates vary widely in form, with the PhD by monograph, the PhD by publication, the taught doctorate, and the professional doctorate all being viable alternatives in different countries. The content of and requirements for doctoral education thus vary widely between different countries and even within countries. To add further complexity to the expectations for the modern doctorate, professional development including supervisor training, doctoral candidate career training and awareness of both good ethical and sustainable development practices are all aspects that are implemented to varying degrees in different doctoral schools.

Since one of the major objectives of European education policy is mobility, European doctoral schools have an unprecedented potential for conducting collaborative doctoral education programmes across countries. The Innovative Training Networks of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, Erasmus Plus and Horizon Europe initiatives have promoted such international collaboration, but as anyone who has tried to negotiate co-tutelles, joint or double degrees will know, these involve a high administrative burden. Thus, while two institutions might appear similar to researchers considering a doctoral education collaboration, the task is often not easy when actually matching national and local rules and regulations. Administrators are often reluctant to waive a specific requirement in the absence of guidelines that differentiate necessities from details. With the EU’s European Universities Initiative, and the prospect of creating degree-awarding collaborative doctoral programmes involving many institutions, this becomes even more of a challenge. So, the question arises, to what extent does the content of doctoral programmes really need to be agreed on to enable efficient collaboration, without impairing quality, institutional tradition, and autonomy?

Rather than every institution or consortium attempting to navigate and negotiate a solution to this challenge, we propose that a general framework for the content of doctoral education could be developed and implemented within European initiatives. One such framework, that the ORPHEUS organisation has developed over the past 10 years, is the “ORPHEUS Best Practices for PhD training”, the contents of which have been endorsed by more than 100 academic institutions across Europe. ORPHEUS is a network of educational institutions committed to facilitating the development of doctoral education.

The Best Practices framework was the result of a collaboration with the World Federation for Medical Education and The Association of Medical Schools in Europe. It provides a framework for doctoral programmes with a series of “basic” and “quality development” recommendations relating to all aspects of doctoral education – including research environment, outcomes, admission policy and criteria, PhD training programmes, supervision, content of PhD theses, theses assessment, and graduate school structure. These recommendations allow considerable flexibility and are definitely not a rule book. Rather, they allow both already established and emerging doctoral schools to self-evaluate their practices for the purpose of assessing, within a general framework, any potential for further development.

Around 20 institutions from all over Europe have already benefited from using the self-evaluation process to modify their doctoral programmes. Improvements have included initiating supervisor training programmes, ensuring sufficient time for the research project, making course work more research-oriented, ensuring independence of the assessment committee, introducing mandatory courses in ethics, ensuring a clear limit to the length of the training and strengthening of graduate school structure. Although ORPHEUS is primarily aimed at biomedical sciences, the “Best Practices for PhD training” are universally applicable to doctoral programmes of most disciplines. A strong motivation for using this self-evaluation process is that institutions that implement this framework are implicitly and sufficiently compatible to efficiently allow collaborative doctoral programmes.

Agreement within Europe about the aims of doctoral education has been achieved through creation and implementation of the Bologna Process and the Salzburg principles, and further developed in EUA-CDE’s “Taking Salzburg Forward”. What is now required is a better-defined framework for the implementation of the Salzburg principles that can gain wide acceptance to allow for easier collaborative doctoral programmes and to facilitate the efficient formation of doctoral schools across Europe. The “ORPHEUS Best Practices for PhD training” could be the starting point for a European initiative aimed at providing a general framework for doctoral education within Europe. This would provide an efficient means of facilitating more seamless collaborative interaction. Furthermore, the process would assist researchers themselves in understanding the compatibility of their institution with other potential partners when considering collaborative doctoral programmes. Establishing such a framework would be an exciting pan-European collaborative venture to further develop European doctoral education.

“The Doctoral Debate” is an online platform featuring original articles with commentary and analysis on doctoral education in Europe. Articles focus on trending topics in doctoral education and state-of-the-art policies and practices. The Debate showcases voices and views from EUA-CDE members and partners.

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Bob Harris

Bob Harris is Professor of Immunotherapy in Neurological Diseases at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, the Academic Vice-President of Doctoral Education and chair of the International Council, all at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. He has been the President of ORPHEUS since 2017 and teaches doctoral education practices internationally.

Photo credits Ulf Sirborn

Michael Mulvany

Michael Mulvany is Emeritus Professor at the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University in Denmark. Previously, he was head of the Aarhus Graduate School of Health Sciences. He was ORPHEUS Vice-President from 2010-2014 and is currently co-chair of the ORPHEUS Labelling Board.

John Creemers

John Creemers is Professor at the Department of Human Genetics and Director of the Doctoral School of Biomedical Sciences at KU Leuven in Belgium. He also chairs the Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR) working group on doctoral schools and is ORPHEUS Vice-President since 2021.