Published: 11-03-2022 13:27 | Updated: 11-03-2022 13:27

It is important that doctoral students complete on time - interview with Academic vice president for doctoral education Robert Harris

The Employment Protection Act (“lagen om anställningsskydd”, LAS) is expected to change, which will affect the possibility of employing doctoral students using the employment status ‘doctoral student-L’.

A parliament decision regarding this so-called LAS reform is expected in early June according to the preliminary time plan. One of the proposed changes is that the current general fixed-term employment (ALVA, 2 years) is replaced by special fixed-term employment (SÄVA, 1 year). Such a change means that the possibility of employing doctoral students beyond the prescribed 4 years in an extension as a ‘doctoral student-L’ (an internal KI concept for a regular fixed-term employment) will be limited to 1 year. 

About doctoral studentship (“doktorandanställning”)

Doctoral studentship (employment as doctoral student) is regulated by the Higher Education Ordinance (HF), Chapter 5. 1-7 §§. A person may be employed as a doctoral student for a maximum of eight years. However, the total employment period may not be longer than the equivalent of full-time doctoral education for four years, unless there are special reasons for extending the employment according to HF.

Special reasons for extending a doctoral studentship past 4 years may be illness, parental leave or positions of trust within trade unions and student organizations. Consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic can also in some cases be accepted (see the bottom of the webpage Employment as a doctoral student at KI for which criteria must be followed when extending a doctoral studentship caused by Covid-19).

Within the framework of a doctoral studentship, the doctoral student can also teach or have other departmental duties. If this is documented in the Individual Study Plan, the doctoral student employment can be extended by the corresponding period, but not by more than 20 %.

What does the proposed change in the law mean for KI's doctoral education?

Robert (Bob) Harris, Academic Vice President for Doctoral Education and chairperson in the Committee for doctoral education. Foto: Stefan Zimmerman

“The proposed changes to the law affect doctoral students who are employed at KI and who do not complete their doctoral education within a period corresponding to 4 years full-time, says Bob Harris, Academic vice president for doctoral education. The conditions for extending the doctoral program with a fixed-term employment after the doctoral student employment are reduced in time. Individual doctoral students can end up in a difficult situation if they and their supervisors are not aware of this."

What's the worst that could happen?

"The ‘worst-case’ scenario is that we have a number of doctoral students at KI who are either ’inLASade’ (entitled to a permanent position) by mistake, or are forced to complete their doctoral education without employment and salary because there is no longer an available employment status."

"The KI departments have no formal obligation to support doctoral students after the corresponding 4 years of full-time studies, but there is a moral responsibility. It is not acceptable for doctoral students to be forced to complete their doctoral studies without employment and salary if they themselves have done everything they can to complete on time. We must work together to avoid doctoral students getting into this situation."

How do we avoid doctoral students getting into these situations? 

"It is important that KI’s doctoral students complete their doctoral education on time, and that fixed-term employment (‘doctoral student-L’) are used very sparingly and only in exceptional cases. It is thus important to use the possibilities in the Higher Education Ordinance to prolong a doctoral studentship, instead of using fixed-term employment unnecessarily (see fact box).

"When a doctoral student position is established, an assessment is made of the project's suitability as a doctoral student project. This is an important step to assure that the scope of the project provides good possibility to complete within 4 years."

"It is also important that the individual study plan and research plan are reviewed annually and if conditions have changed, these plans must be revised. The annual follow-up at the start of the last year is particularly important."

"The doctoral student and supervisor should ensure that the half-time review is carried out on time, as this is a good opportunity to discuss the strategy for the remaining time."

"Of course, all these aspects apply to all doctoral students, and not just those who are employed by KI."

How common is it that doctoral students do not finish on time?

"It is relatively common, but there are variations between departments and between different research groups. The proposed changes in LAS only affect doctoral students who are employed by KI, but the requirement to complete on time applies to all. A great responsibility for doctoral students to complete on time lies with the departments, and we expect heads of departments, directors of doctoral studies and HR managers to monitor the situation at their departments and to inform their doctoral students and supervisors should there be any concerns."

"I would like to point out that the extension of a doctoral education is not always due to problematic situations. It is relatively common for supervisors and doctoral students to agree to extend the education in order to e.g. be able to publish their research findings in higher impact journals, and although this is to some extent possible even with the new SÄVA, we still do not get away from the fact that a doctoral education in Sweden is a 4-year program."

Will this mean that the quality of KI's dissertations will decrease?

"No, not at all. I understand that there is a concern that this might occur, but I think we need to bring about a ‘shift in mindset’ regarding what quality in doctoral education means, and that we must recalibrate our expectations of the content of the dissertation. I think that the notion that the quality of the dissertation is equated with the quality of the publications/manuscripts ‘sits in the walls’ at KI. High-quality scientific publications are of course important, but we need to focus more on what the doctoral student has done and learned, and whether the degree objectives of their doctoral education have been achieved. The published results are only a part of the total doctoral education experiences, and it is on the journey to acquiring these results that you are trained as a researcher. A high-quality doctoral education means that the doctoral student has developed into an independent researcher and has acquired knowledge and abilities. This must be demonstrated in the dissertation's main text (“kappan”) and during the public defence itself."