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Choose PhD students more carefully and give them assurances

Marie-Janine Calic from Masaryk University International Scientific Advisory Board comments on its recent recommendations.

Marie-Janine Calic is from Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.

The historian Marie-Janine Calic from Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich has been a member of the Masaryk University International Scientific Advisory Board for three years. At the turn of the year, the board met with the university and faculty leaders to give their recommendations on the future development of the university. Many of the recommendations focused on PhD studies.

“During our previous visits to the university, we noticed the high number of PhD students and the fact that a large percentage of them do not complete their studies. Moreover, they often take more than eight years to graduate. This is why we wanted to take a look at why this is happening and how the PhD programmes could be organised more effectively,” says Calic when discussing the recent meeting of the board at Masaryk University.

Even though the PhD programmes differ between individual faculties and disciplines, the members of the International Scientific Advisory Board were trying to identify general principles and experiences from elsewhere that could be incorporated into MUNI. As Calic says, “The main point is to have a more rigorous selection process for PhD students. There’s just too many of them.”

In her opinion, the university should focus more on the students’ motivation, as it is often unclear why they continue with their studies. They usually study and work at the same time so may have different goals rather than becoming researchers or academics. “However,” notes Calic, “you could also adjust the PhD programmes accordingly: some of them could be entirely research-oriented and others could be more practical for those who wish to build their career elsewhere and expect more than pure science from their studies.”

This is related to one of the board recommendations to some of the faculties, which asks them to consider offering other degrees besides PhD for the more practice-oriented programmes, such as Doctor of Education, Sports, or Business.

Besides student motivation, the supervision should also be better structured. The board recommends that doctoral candidates should defend their project before a committee at the end of their first year and should present part of their thesis at the end of the second year. “This is not an easy measure to implement. We are also aware that the problem lies in financing since many PhD students have to earn their living by working elsewhere. Therefore, it would make sense to create a unified system of funding or fellowships so that the students that are accepted would know that they are going to get a specific – and sufficient – amount of money, meaning they could fully focus on their research,” concludes Calic.

Current state of affairs in humanities

As a historian, she is also interested in humanities and social sciences. The quality and outputs are more difficult to measure in these fields because they cannot be easily quantified like in science while the international impact of publications is difficult to measure. These disciplines are often linked to local culture and language. “We cannot, and should not, do everything in English; we would lose a large part of our knowledge and research heritage. However, if the discipline is strong locally, international visibility and cooperation will also be strong,” says the historian.

She adds that the recommendations from the board to the university are intended to show the ideal state of affairs. “We know that they are difficult to implement and some of them might not work even at my home university, for instance, funding schemes. However, the discussions within the board help us see ways of improvement. The recommendations consider several options because there is always more than one way to organise doctoral studies in a reasonable and efficient way.”

This is one of the reasons why she accepted the invitation to the MU board. “I thought it was an interesting challenge. I like the Czech Republic and it is interesting to see a different academic system and traditions in other fields and to learn from them.”

As a historian, Calic specialises in the countries of eastern and south-eastern Europe. She fell in love with this region as a student and, as she says, Germany has strong ties to those countries. She is currently studying the policies of the former Yugoslav President Tito. According to Calic, the interesting thing about Yugoslavia is that although it had its own conflict history, it also acted as a mediator in international conflict resolution.

Calic also worked for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as an expert witness. Her work helped gather documents and testimonies about the nature, times, places, perpetrators and victims of alleged crimes – and sometimes even the motivation behind them. As she says, the individualisation of guilt was a condition for normalising relationships between peoples and sometimes even reconciliation.