The Global Ph.D.

July 3, 2014

Internationalizing the doctoral training process could help to overcome negative perceptions about the employability of Ph.D. students outside academia, said participants at a recent conference.

Universities in several countries are beginning to think of new ways to cater for the rising number of overseas doctoral students, speakers at the European University Association’s annual meeting on doctoral education told delegates in Liverpool.

International doctoral students offer a “cost-effective” way for institutions to build international links. But problems surrounding complex visa rules, falling domestic student numbers and the cost of running international joint doctoral programs remain.

The number of domestic doctoral candidates at Australia’s University of Queensland started dwindling in 2008, according to the head of its graduate school, Alastair McEwan. To compensate, the university has enrolled international students, who now make up about 40 percent of the doctoral student body.

The shift is “most dramatic” in engineering, architecture and IT, where departments are “heavily reliant” on overseas students, he said. He added that the university is investing in this area because Ph.D. students “are absolutely critical” to research output and are “a very cost-effective way to promote international linkages.”

McEwan said that the benefits international doctoral candidates bring to the institution “cannot be overestimated”. Their presence offers students a “breadth of knowledge about other cultures.”

“That is an important transferable skill that should be part of a student’s employability development. Internationalization of the Ph.D., or international interactions, could help us overcome some of the negative perceptions about the employability of Ph.D. students outside academia,” he added.

But he said that having overseas students enrolled on doctoral programs was a one-dimensional method of internationalization. “The next stage is to start thinking about other ways,” he said, adding that the answer did not lie in Ph.D.s that are run jointly with overseas institutions.

“These come with a high overhead as they are very hard to manage.... I’m not convinced that this is the most efficient or effective way to manage things in the long run,” he added.

American institutions are also seeing a rise in the number of overseas doctoral candidates in science, technology and engineering subjects. The vice provost and dean of Cornell University, Barbara Knuth, said: “We should be concerned in the U.S. in terms of [what] our doctoral pool will be for economic development purposes.”

She said that the nation’s immigration policies are “complex and quite limiting.”

“Doctoral students are eager to come to the U.S. to study, but we are not very good at encouraging them to stay after their degrees,” she added.

Cornell is now working to internationalize the doctoral experience for all students. Internationalizing the Ph.D. process would help to expand a graduate’s professional networks and employability, she said.

At the institutional level, it will broaden intellectual discoveries, help academics to address complex global problems and increase the visibility and exposure of the institution globally, she said.

Jean Chambaz, president of the University of Pierre and Marie Curie in France, said that universities needed to move beyond memoranda of understanding when it comes to working together internationally.

“We need focused, balanced programs on questions of common interest that include multilateral doctoral candidates and staff circulation,” he told delegates.


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