PhD Programs at Russian Universities: Does more time help?
In last days of July the Russian government was discussing a bill to increase the period of graduate study from 3 to 4 years. The project proposes to amend the federal law “On Higher and Postgraduate Professional Education”, in regard to training for a number of technical and natural sciences industries. Proponents justify the proposal by the fact that a number of disciplines (particularly in technical and natural sciences) require mandatory experimental validation of the theoretical results. Also, an additional year of postgraduate studies may increase the likelihood that students will create experimental equipment and/or use it for implementing research findings into industrial practice.
The idea behind that proposal is that it should significantly improve the quality of dissertations and the quality of academic training. This proposal is consistent with international practice, where dissertations can take 4-5-6 years. More importantly, the current situation really needs to be improved – drop-outs are high and the average level of research associated with doctoral theses is quite low. However, many people believe that increasing program length, by itself, is unlikely to change anything, and that the problem is not too little time, but extremely poor financial support for such studies and work. Indeed, the basic post-graduate scholarship –currently about $50 a month – doesn’t allow students to focus entirely on research since they must seek some part-time or even full-time job to support themselves. The sad result is that most of PhD students devote too little attention and effort to their dissertation. Only 26% of graduate students finally submit their thesis and the quality (generally) is rather weak. Additionally, since PhD degrees are prestigious, there is a large demand for degree holders and this status is easily bought and sold. So the PhD degree does not necessarily reflect strong training or a sophisticated academic qualification anymore (This situation is most disastrous in the social sciences).
The Minister of Education and Science, Andrei Furcenko, recently announced increases in graduate scholarships beginning in September 2011. The increase is planned at the cost of reducing the number of graduate students (from the current 26,000 to 15,000) keeping the overall budget unchanged. Such news caused both laughter and anger among students since new level of basic scholarship will increase only to $80 (monthly rent for a studio in Moscow starts from $500). Individual universities in Russia may make their own effort to improve the situation for better. Thus, in 2010 the Higher School of Economics opened new graduate programs in Economics and Sociology with intensive research training and scholarships paid by university itself. It is anticipated that students in these programs will focus entirely on their studies and research and relinquish the right to work elsewhere. Such programs certainly will benefit a lot from a one year increase. However, in any case, for systemic changes to occur, strong financial government support is needed.