There are currently over 800 running PhD projects in Luxembourg. To continue attracting young talent, it is vital for the country’s research system to offer modern and high quality work, research, training and supervision conditions for doctoral candidates. We speak to the FNR’s doctoral training coordinator Marie-Claude Marx about the assessment of the country’s National Quality Framework for Doctoral Training (NQFDT) and what changes it will bring to doctoral training in Luxembourg.
What was the idea behind the NQFDT assessment?
“The organisation, structure and management of doctoral training in Luxembourg has continuously evolved over the past 10 years. Major game changers were the introduction of employment contracts under the AFR scheme, the development of the Doctoral Schools at the University of Luxembourg, the launch of the National Quality Framework and the PRIDE programme and the signature of the Memorandum of Understanding, allowing researchers from the public research institutions to gain supervision rights at the University of Luxembourg.”
Snapshot of practices, challenges & opportunities
“The purpose of the NQFDT assessment was mostly to keep this momentum going and to continue strengthening and professionalising doctoral education in Luxembourg. Rather than being an assessment per se, the exercise was expected to contribute to a shared understanding of the principles of the quality framework and to support the institutions in addressing eventual gaps in their organisation and management of doctoral training, taking into consideration international good practice.
“It is the first time that such a comprehensive analysis of the doctoral training environment has been done across our main research institutions and the NQFDT report therefore represents an excellent snapshot in time of the practices, challenges and opportunities of PhD training in Luxembourg.”
What are the key findings of the report?
“Overall, the consultants who conducted the external assessment noted the excellent working conditions for doctoral candidates and the high degree of structure and organisation in matters of doctoral training in Luxembourg. All PhDs are offered employment contracts and there are dedicated PhD training coordinators in all our main research institutions. There is a good collaboration between the University of Luxembourg and the research institutions in their offer of skills training for the PhD candidates.”
“The attribution of the ADR (authorisation à diriger des recherches) to researchers outside the University of Luxembourg has greatly contributed to acknowledging the excellent supervision potential in our public research institutions. The experts also noted the high degree of internationalisation in our research community as a particular richness of the Luxembourg research system.
“The report also highlights a number of recommendations to further develop Luxembourg as an attractive place for doctoral training.”
Development of national PhD platform
Some recommendations are of a longer-term nature, such as the development of a national PhD platform to better coordinate matters and actions related to PhD training across research institutions, the promotion of “PhD training in Luxembourg” as a brand internationally, the periodic revision of the NQFDT, etc.
Other recommendations address very specific issues currently underdeveloped in our system, such as the implementation of consistent recruitment criteria, the appointment of an ombudsperson or conflict mediator, the systematic implementation of an individual PhD plan, the monitoring of the quality of supervision, etc.
Why are these findings important?
“Luxembourg research heavily relies on the attraction of young research talents from abroad. In the competition for the most promising PhD candidates, it is therefore vital for our research system to offer modern and high quality work, research, training and supervision conditions for doctoral candidates. Attending to the recommendations from the external assessment exercise will bring us a step closer to this goal.
Structure to deal with PhD-superviser conflicts
“One of the main recommendations of the report is for the Luxembourg institutions and the University of Luxembourg, in particular, to have in place an adequate structure to deal with conflict situations, notably PhD-supervisor conflict situations.
“Conflict situations may arise and therefore it is important to have an objective person, such as an ombudsperson or a conflict mediator who listens to the concerns of the different parties and tries to find a solution acceptable to all. The University of Luxembourg is currently in the process of appointing an ombudsperson and we hope the relevant procedures will be soon in place.”
Exchange on good supervision, reward considered
“Another recommendation addresses the support given to supervisors. As highlighted in the video statement given by Helke Hillebrand, supervising a PhD candidate is not a simple job.”
Helke Hillebrand on the challenges of implementing a high quality supervision environment
“It comes with responsibility and requires a certain number of skills to prepare a young researcher for an independent research career or alternative career paths.
“There are, we all know, good and less good supervision practices. One recommendation therefore is for institutions to better monitor the quality of supervision and offer a platform for supervisors to exchange on good supervision practice.
“Institutions must also offer the opportunity for researchers to participate in supervision training activities. The option of withdrawing supervision rights in case of inadequate supervision performance should be discussed. In order to further promote good supervision practice, the FNR is considering taking up the recommendation given by Maresi Nerad to implement a supervisor’s prize to award people with excellent supervision skills.
“Gradually implementing the recommendations from the report will help to further develop Luxembourg as a modern and attractive place for doctoral education.”
Maresi Nerad on fostering a high quality doctoral training environment by giving recognition to the main players in doctoral training
What are the next steps?
“The report of the NQFDT assessment constitutes a sort of handbook of topics to be further developed in the Luxembourg setting. In addition, all institutions receive a separate list with institution-specific recommendations. It is expected that, based on the recommendations (general and institution-specific), all involved institutions develop their own action plan for the follow-up they intend to give to these recommendations.”
Changes to the PRIDE programme
The FNR has established an action plan for the translation of the report’s recommendations. In the short-term, several recommendations will be taken up in the frame of the new PRIDE Call (Call 2019, launched July 2019, deadline October 2019).
First of all, in every forthcoming PRIDE application, applicants need to describe and refer to the institutional structures/procedures in place for the handling and resolution of conflict situations between doctoral candidates and their supervisors.
“The next recommendation concerns the composition of the CET (comité d’encadrement de thèse). In some doctoral training units it’s already common practice, but from the next PRIDE call onward, it will be mandatory for every PRIDE-funded PhD candidate, to have in his/her CET committee at least one member from a research institution abroad.
“This contributes to the international visibility of the research being done in Luxembourg and also helps increasing the network of the PhD candidates. It may even benefit their career development as it is not uncommon for PhD candidates to find their first postdoc position in the lab of one of their former international CET members.”
New: Individual PhD plan for every PRIDE-funded PhD candidate
“A further recommendation that we will take up for the next PRIDE call is the systematic implementation of an individual PhD plan for every PRIDE-funded PhD candidate. This is already the current praxis in some doctoral training units and the University of Luxembourg is currently putting a procedure in place this related for all their PhD candidates.
“The individual PhD plan is a document which defines the objectives of the PhD project and the rights and duties of the involved parties. It also describes the supervision set-up and the expected deliverables in terms of research output, reporting and training. The individual PhD plan is meant as support to all involved parties to clarify the expectations at the onset of a PhD. There should be flexibility to revise the PhD plan as the PhD project progresses.
“Another recommendation deducted from the report and contributing to the reinforcement of the quality of supervision is for all supervisors participating in a DTU consortium under the new PRIDE call to continuously develop their supervision skills.
“There are different ways of doing this and every PRIDE application needs to convincingly address how they intend to promote good supervision practice within their supervisor’s consortium. Examples of practice can be found in the NQFDT report or in more specialised documentation, such as the LERU Advice Paper No 19 (March 2016) on ‘Maintaining a quality culture in Doctoral Education’.
“In the same spirit of reinforcing supervision quality, it will be mandatory for every supervisor under PRIDE to show a formal authorisation to supervise PhD candidates (e.g. ADR – Authorisation à diriger des recherches, HDR – Habilitation à diriger des recherches or equivalent academic authorisation). For supervisors operating in a thematic field not covered by the University of Luxembourg, and hence being unable to postulate for an ADR from the University of Luxembourg, their institution needs to develop their own assessment process based on independent external evaluation, examining the PI’s research and mentoring track record in view of certifying his/her supervision ability.
“These are the main short-term actions. Following the PRIDE call, these requirements will gradually be implemented in all FNR funding instruments where PhD candidates are funded.
“In the longer term, an update of the NQFDT is foreseen, in order to address new challenges, new policies or new practices in doctoral training. This update will be done in exchange with the UL and the research institutions. It is furthermore foreseen to repeat the external assessment exercise in four to five years’ time in order to monitor the developments in the quality of doctoral training.”
What are your conclusions?
“The external assessment exercise has been a very interesting and productive exercise and I hereby would like to thank again everyone who took an interest to this cause and participated in the exercise. It has given a lot of food for thought and helped defining a common ambition for doctoral training in Luxembourg: notably to become a magnet for excellent doctoral candidates.”
Quality over quantity
“One very important message by Maresi Nerad for Luxembourg to become an internationally competitive location for doctoral training, is to focus on quality rather than quantity. The principles of the NQFDT and the recommendations from the external assessment exercise provide key input for the development of a high quality doctoral training environment.
“The report furthermore highlighted the close collaboration in matters of doctoral training between the research institutions as a great strength of the Luxembourg system. One example of this successful collaboration is the joint organisation of the annual PhD Welcome Day. I hope that we can further build on this collaborative approach and that all involved actors join the efforts and coordinate their actions to further develop Luxembourg as an attractive destination for highly promising PhD candidates.”