The Perks and Perils of Doctoral Studies – How About You?

Work done for free, at night and weekends, unsatisfactory social guarantees with a salary near the minimum wage – this is your everyday life when you’re pursuing a doctoral degree. Completing the normal duration of the studies seems rather like a miracle. True, if you look out, you can do so among shiny-eyed colleagues while discovering something new for all the world to use. But it doesn’t always turn out that way.

A major portion of all the scientific work in the world is done by doctoral students (students who have decided to follow through toward a doctoral degree after graduating with a master’s degree) and postdoctoral researchers (a researcher who spends some time in some academic institution abroad to become more scientifically well-rounded).  These people are young and vigorous, full of enthusiasm, productive, all the while ready to spend long (night) hours in labs, as well as volunteer as lecturers. Throughout all this, they don’t know for certain if their scientific career will even launch after they have their doctoral degree or the postdoctoral research period has ended.

Going through doctoral studies and getting the degree doesn’t mean that these are the smartest young geniuses we have here in Estonia; a doctoral degree is not some epic final accord of a great amount of research activity and an outstanding career as a scientist. It’s more like the firing of a starting pistol in a situation where the runner finishing last always drops out when each round is over.

Being a scientist is lot like project-based private entrepreneurship. This means that after each two-year-long “order for science” is completed, the next “order” might not come. Poor (or even lacking) career prospects are one reason why doctoral studies aren’t a terribly crowded place. This is also the reason why people don’t hurry with their doctoral studies or don’t finish them at all. Overproducing experts with doctoral degrees is a hot topic globally, and in Estonia, too, as fresh degree-owners are being suggested to look around the job market with their eyes open. Fortunately, the requirement of a doctoral degree as a prerequisite to work as a receptionist at a hotel, which was recently spotted on a job portal, turned out to be a typo.

Going through with one’s doctoral studies is a sign of enormous performance ability, as well as proof of being able to do many lines of work simultaneously, all the while maintaining hope for the future, which tends to be vague, and often receiving lacking support.

Luckily, the problem is a well-acknowledged one, with the first steps toward understanding and talk of it having been taken already some time ago. This was emphasized in a public debate between the candidates for rector at the University of Tartu on April 5th, when both candidates, Professor Toomas Asser and Professor Margit Sutrop, agreed that the problems regarding doctoral studies in Estonia must finally come to a conclusion. Currently, a doctoral student is a student in the eyes of law, while actually performing academic work.

“Doctoral students would, after being accepted, start working as fixed-term junior researchers,” according to Asser. He went on to suggest that during the four years, doctoral students would be graded according to the work they do. This would make it possible to concentrate on studies while receiving a decent salary.

Professor Margit Sutrop said that a doctoral degree should provide an advantage for work in other places than just universities or scientific organizations. “In the public sector and enterprise, too, an attitude of rating people with doctoral degrees well as a workforce must come about, as they possess problem-solving, critical thinking, and info-processing skills,” Sutrop added.

Dear doctoral student, do you find any of this familiar? Moreover, we would be very interested to learn what the situation is like for doctoral students in other countries. We ask you to describe the daily challenges and joys that accompany acquiring a doctoral degree – both here in Estonia and in your homeland – and we will then dedicate a blog post to these challenges and joys. Send your thoughts, either in English or Estonian, to karl.vetemaa@ut.ee or just leave a comment below this post.

Randel Kreitsberg, PhD in zoology, is a senior specialist for science communication at the University of Tartu and an author at ERR Novaator.

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