PhD graduates should not stay at their Alma Mater

That is one of main recommendations made by The International Scientific Board of the Masaryk University.

Hana Sedláčková, who graduated in biochemistry, has started her PhD studies in Denmark this autumn: I felt it was time to move on, raise the bar, and most importantly see things from a different perspective.

The International Advisory Scientific Board of the Masaryk University, established last autumn, presented fourteen specific recommendations to increase the quality and international reputation of MU. Renowned experts from abroad see potential for improvement in PhD studies and the distribution of research funding.

They also gave their recommendations for measures that could move the university up in international university rankings. The report from the autumn session of the board, whose members include Thomas Henzinger, Josef Jiřičný, and Peter Williamson, reads: “Even though some of the changes might seem small, they will help motivate both employees and students.” The board members have registered some despondency among the university staff, probably because radical changes are, in general, distrusted.

They say that MU management can change this, if it uses its powers to implement the changes swiftly and includes the deans of individual faculties in matters that require coordinated effort. Roman Badík, head of the Research & Development Office, says that the individual faculties have already received information about the board recommendations and the university management will work with them on steps and measures to follow.

The very first recommendation suggests that the university, despite external circumstances, continue to decrease the number of students, introduce higher standards for accepting students and focus on attracting the most talented and motivated students.

Rules for PhD studies must be improved
According to the board, the number of PhD students is also too high. There are more than three thousand of them at MU, sometimes more than eight PhD students per one professor or associate professor. A high percentage of them never complete their studies, achieve poor results, or take too long to graduate. The board report reads, “It is crucial to only accept the best and the most motivated students for PhD positions. PhD graduates are future representatives of the university and it is in the best interest of MU that only the best should have the honour of representing it.”

The board recommends that PhD students be selected by a special committee, which would also be required to submit to scrutiny and to annual reviews of its work. Moreover, the university should enforce the rule that PhD graduates look for future work outside MU.

“Most of the recommendations were not surprising, but it is always good to hear the opinions of people who are not part of the university,” says Petr Dvořák, vice-rector for research. “For example, in some ways we were not aware how strict the rules are for PhD studies at other institutions, such as that all PhD graduates are required to leave their institutions to gather more experience elsewhere.”

In his opinion, PhD students are still viewed differently in the Czech Republic: “They should be ready to lead research or assume key roles anywhere, but we still view them as students that we shape for our own purposes. However, to become a leader you need to learn from the best, and that can mean learning abroad. It does not hold for all disciplines, but it is essential for a large part of them.”

To give an example, Hana Sedláčková, who graduated in biochemistry, has started her PhD studies in Denmark this autumn. As she says, “I have been part of MU even before I enrolled as a student, so it had been seven years when I graduated. I learned a lot during that time, both in theory and in practice, and I felt it was time to move on, raise the bar, and most importantly see things from a different perspective. The approach to science is different over here and even though I’ve only been in Denmark for a short time, it has really broadened my horizons in science and I have gained a lot of new experiences.”

As regards open PhD and postdoc positions, they should automatically welcome applicants from outside the university and – even more importantly – from outside the country. This gives the university a greater pool of candidates and a greater chance of finding the best ones. This is true also for academic positions.

The board also discussed distribution of funds. There should be more concentrated support for scholars and topics selected by a stringent peer-review process. “We were asked to think more carefully and be more selective about what we support, rather than give insufficient – given the limited funds – support to everything. Professor Jiřičný, the board chairman, called this the ‘watering-can system’,” says Vice-Rector Dvořák. Roman Badík, head of the Research & Development Office, added that they have started discussing this strategy with all the vice-deans for research.