Published: 2021-09-21 18:11 | Updated: 2021-09-21 18:28

‘The new normal’ in doctoral education at KI - an interview with Bob Harris and Erika Franzén

Academic Vice President for Doctoral Education Robert (Bob) Harris and chair of the doctoral course and programme committee Erika Franzén share their thoughts about the impact on doctoral education at KI when national pandemic restrictions are lifted on 29th September.

Many doctoral students have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in one way or another. Some have had to take a break from their studies to work in healthcare, others have had to change the focus of their research. Many have also been affected on a personal level, having fallen ill or in not being able to visit their families in their home countries, or being able to work on campus at KI. During the pandemic KI has had to modify its thesis defence and half-time review procedures, its doctoral education courses and other procedures in order to comply with the Public Health Agency’s instructions. 

Now a new phase will begin with a gradual transition from working at distance under pandemic restrictions to a ‘new normal’ in which we will combine being on campus with the positive experiences gleaned from digitalisation are utilised.

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What do you consider the most important thing to take with us in the ‘new normal’?

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

“First and foremost, it is the social interaction that is important in meeting each other in person, which we need to do in order to do our jobs properly,” says Bob Harris. “According to a Higher Education Authority survey of Swedish researchers, over half of KI’s supervisors consider doctoral student supervision at distance during the pandemic to have been less satisfactory and effective. So a return to campus is welcome.”

“At the same time, we must make the most of the opportunities and advantages that are offered with the digital solutions that we have learnt to use. For example, we can save time and reduce our environmental footprint by travelling less both nationally and internationally. A global university also needs to easily interact with the world, and international colleagues have appreciated being able to follow KI’s public defences from home,” he continues.

What will be the ‘new normal’ for the public defence process?

“It is of fundamental importance that the doctoral student’s defence is of high quality. How this will be achieved will differ from case to case,” says Bob Harris.

“I think that many students will opt for a hybrid solution where, as during the pandemic, the defences will be broadcasted as a webinar in order to reach a wider audience, but that there will also be many people attending in person. It will probably also be common practice for the examiner or individual board members to take part digitally, and this will increase the possibility of attracting the best suited international experts. Fewer long journeys are, of course, also good for the climate.” 

“Ordinary regulatory frameworks will be adjusted in October to enable digital participation after the pandemic, but no changes will be made at short notice and students graduating this autumn will be able to hold their public defence as planned during the pandemic.”

What will be the ‘new normal’ for the half-time review?

Erika Franzén sitting outside.
Erika Franzén, Deputy-chairperson in the Committee for doctoral education and chairperson in the Course and programme committee. Foto: Ulf Sirborn

"The new normal means that there will be different setups for the half-time seminars depending on what is most appropriate at any one time. I think that the most common practice will be a hybrid form with a seminar in person but also an option to take part at distance. The deciding factor will be the quality, that the method chosen will allow for the best possible seminar,” says Erika Franzén.

“One of the advantages of the hybrid form is that people can participate in the half-time committee without having to travel and that international partners can be there too and join in the discussion. Half-time seminars that are already scheduled can, of course, be conducted as planned.”


What will the new normal mean for KI’s doctoral education courses?

“So far during the pandemic, theory courses have been taught remotely,” says Erika Franzén. “Since courses are planned well in advance, I do not expect any sharp transition to campus teaching. It will be gradual.”

“The pandemic has given a boost to digitalisation and many teachers have developed their courses along modern pedagogical lines and with the help of digital tools. This is something we have to make full use of. I can picture us running doctoral courses in different formats, on campus, completely remotely, or as a combination, with the students’ learning and the quality of the courses deciding what is most appropriate.”