Third cycle studies in Physics

 Third cycle studies in Physics.  (93 Kb) 



the Physics SAG view on

“Third cycle studies in Physics”

First draft prepared on April 1st, 2006; revised on April 18th; completely revised on January 11th, 15th and 17th, 2007

summary. A short but important premise defines the scope of the present paper. A synthetic mapping of the different processes leading to a Physics doctoral degree in Europe is then given, on the basis of some surveys. The main points of difference in the several existing doctoral training processes concern status of the candidate, supervision, coursework, thesis work assignment, submission and examination of the doctoral thesis. Level descriptors for the physics doctoral degree are discussed and identified in terms of competencies. When coming to the process outcomes, a distinction must be made between learning outcomes and research outcomes, these latter depending on the type of research (basic, applied, …). The possible safeguard role of ECTS is sketched. The relationship with the job market and its recent developments are described in some detail. Several new developments, hot points and trends are identified and discussed. These latter trends include the issue of research funding versus search for excellence, the doctoral critical mass, the connection with the world of enterprises, the coursework debate, the joint degrees at doctoral level.


When approaching in the European context the problem of the nature and of the organization of the third cycle programmes in Physics, we need some awareness regarding two main facts:

(a) at third cycle level the main offer consists in programmes of doctoral studies. However there are other types of offer, like for instance the short specialization courses, which imply for the attending people a time commitment of the order of 60 credits or more and which some universities offer with aims often connected to their own lifelong learning policies. In this paper we neglect these latter short courses.

(b) the target population of doctoral programmes, i.e. the so-called doctoral students, is intrinsically different from the target population of either the first or the second cycle. Indeed,

  • the doctoral population is made of individuals, whose juridical status is wildly non-homogeneous in Europe (some of them are even employees with a regular contract!);
  • the “core activity” of the doctoral population is research, which is different from education. Research, education and social commitment each one stands by itself in characterizing the mission of universities.

In the following we shall therefore use the term “doctoral candidate” rather than “doctoral students” . Do notice that the doctoral candidates are at the heart of the ordinary life of a research-based university.

As a consequence of point (b), we are also aware that the group of institutions which could benefit from the Tuning findings (points of reference) for the third cycle is a narrower group than the group of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), which are already benefiting from the earlier Tuning findings for the first and second cycle.


The mapping of the European doctoral studies was made through an appropriate questionnaire, as early as 1999, by the Physics Thematic Network, which was at the time named EUPEN-EUropean Physics Education Network. The results are presented in ref. [1], [2] and [3]. Later on, in 2002, the European Commission funded a Joint Project named T.R.E.N.D.S. in Doctoral Studies in Europe Education, Training, Research, Labor Market; the Project was carried out by five Socrates Thematic Networks (Women Studies, Humanitarian and Development Studies, Political Sciences, Physics, Engineering). As far as we know, only its preliminary findings are available (see ref. [8] as far as physics is concerned). The T.R.E.N.D.S. general questionnaire was based on the earlier EUPEN questionnaire, with some interesting new facets.

That early mapping, based on a very detailed EUPEN questionnaire [4], with returns from 93 participating institutions, dealt with:

(i) academic structure (names and intermediate qualifications by country, duration and age at graduation);

(ii) details of doctoral students (admission procedures, criteria and interest for the European Doctorate, the existence of tuition fees, occurrence of teaching tasks among doctoral candidates);

(iii) activities during doctoral studies (i.e. the training process: coursework, research, research report / thesis, other activities);

(iv) awarding of the doctoral degree.

During the Phase 3 of the Tuning Project a concise Question List was answered by the Physics SAG members, who in the period May-December 2006 updated some of the previous findings.

In the present section we give an integrated description of the findings of the above surveys, following as much as possible the items of the Tuning Question List, appropriately grouped. We shall mainly focus on those aspects, which refer to the training process of the doctoral candidate, including the final assessment, since such aspects are the most relevant for adapting the Tuning methodology at the doctoral level. However, in the mapping, we shall also devote some attention to the status of the doctoral candidates in the different countries, since this is very relevant for the current new developments (see subsection 6.1.d below).

The EUPEN early survey showed that several rather different patterns of doctoral studies coexisted in Europe. If we exclude the Central European Eastern countries (among them the New Countries), not many changes occurred since then. In many Central European Eastern countries the promptly adopted Bologna reforms have introduced novel features in their doctoral studies. Some information is given below, at specific points. However, since the Bologna wave has only recently entered the doctoral cycle, some further changes are expected, elsewhere too.

In the following, we quote the countries via their e-mail code. When we give results from the EUPEN survey, the country code corresponds to the set of the answering institutions in the concerned country. When we give the results from the Tuning Question List, the country code corresponds to the answer of the contact person in the Tuning SAG.

1.1 "Admission criteria"
We distinguish here between access requirements and admission procedures: these latter are usually based on criteria. We give here an overview as deduced by the answers to the Tuning Question List, supplemented by our experience.

The access requirement is practically everywhere a second cycle degree (master level) in Physics or closely related subjects (e.g. Condensed Matter Physics, Materials Science, Theoretical Physics, Applied Physics, Engineering,…). In principle, the UK tradition of the Graduate School allows access to the doctoral cycle just after completion of the bachelor cycle; in any case a strong selection occurs. A bachelor degree may also be sufficient in GR, IE and in BE-FL . Some similar exceptions are possible in FR.

Additional aspects, which play a role, are:

(i) whether the access degree is national or foreign: a validation procedure may be needed in the latter case;

(ii) the type of awarding institution: as an example, the graduates, which come from Fachhochschule have to perform specific requirements in order to enter the doctoral cycle in an AT university;

As to the admission procedure, almost everywhere a selection takes place, combined with the occurrence/respect of numerus clausus.

The selection criteria may be as simple as choosing the candidates selecting those with the best grades (ES, FI, BE-FL). In GR additional criteria are the last year (master) thesis, the knowledge of a foreign language (preferably English), presentation of two recommendation letters and an interview. The interview in front of a Commission of Professors is the main criterion in RO. Similarly an evaluation of the candidate by a committee of 3 persons (of which one should be a woman) is the rule in DK. In IT the potential candidate has to pass a written exam plus an oral exam, which together yield a ranking list; this latter is used in order to assign the available places.

The PT admission system is at present rather articulated. It foresees:

  • direct admission for candidates, who completed a degree (5 year) in physics, achieving a final mark of 16 out of 20; 
  • admission subject to completion of a few complementary courses for candidates, who completed a degree (5 year) in physics, achieving a final mark between 14 and 16; 
  • direct admission for candidates, who completed a master on top of a 5 year degree.

Moreover, the available study programmes are presented by potential supervisors to the applicants, who choose according to their own expectations. The final programme (supervisor + student + detailed work programme) has to be submitted to the approval at first by a scientific committee of the department and later by the scientific board of the university. After this process the student will be allowed to enroll.

Finally, as to the recruitment basin, whether on a national or an international basis, the Tuning answers provide the following picture:

International: AT (very common), BE-FL (lack of local applicants), DK (announcement on internet in English), PT (every time more international);

National: ES (normally, with exceptions), FI (mostly from local masters, but also international comers), FR, GR;

Both: DE, NL, RO, SE, IE (international mainly means from central Europe), IT (moving toward a combination of international /national recruitment), UK.

1.2 Duration
The formal duration is (updated May 2006):

3 years in AT , DE, FR, IT, PT, RO , UK;
3.5 years in DK (where only three years are financed);
4 years in BE-FL, ES, FI, GR, IE, NL;
5 years in SE.
NB: The actual duration is usually longer in FR, FI, NL, PT, UK.

1.3 Status of doctoral candidates, teaching duties and safety
The European association of doctoral candidates, named EURODOC, prepared in 2003 a comparative table on the income situation, on the social rights and on the teaching duties of doctoral candidates in Europe (see ANNEX I below). The situation varies quite a lot according to the country and renders it very difficult to identify a common European status for the doctoral candidates. As a simple example funding may come either as a working contract (e.g. NL, DK, SE, NO, DE, FR) or as a grant (IT, IE, HU, PT, ES, UK) or even as a temporary job (GR). Differences in social security and pension treatment are striking as well. The same situation occurs as far as teaching duties are concerned. Such a huge non-homogeneity is at the root of several difficulties in the academic European environment (e.g. a general adoption of the recently issued European Charter for Researchers and Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers).

As a consequence of all this, doctoral candidates cannot be simply considered as students all over Europe. As a matter of fact in most, if not all, European Physics Departments, the doctoral candidates have their own desk, with proper computer connection, usually sharing physical spaces with other candidates. Moreover they are included as key people in research proposals and in the research groups. As it is well stressed in ref. [9], they “play a fundamental role in the development of the university system of the future”, they “form the backbone of the Europe’s scientific pursuits”. The same ref. [9] in its Chapter 4 gives a thorough and stimulating presentation of the European doctoral candidates’ situation. An interesting part deals with the role of the doctoral period in promoting the “academic socialization” of the candidates, i.e. in promoting their “acceptance of university values”.

In this very context, the recent Tuning Question List asked: Is it usual for the student to work as a teaching assistant during this time? The answers were:

  • YES in BE-FL, DE, DK (for approximately half a year), ES (during the last two years), FI, FR, GR, IE, NL, PT (attending the undergraduate labs for 6 hours per week), RO (~20% of the total number of candidates), SE (20% of the time), UK (in year 2 and 3 of third cycle);
  • NO in AT, IT.

Another aspect related to the juridical status, touched upon in the same Tuning Question List, is the issue of "who looks after the safety of the student?". The SAG answers are quite different, thus confirming the uncertainty of the doctoral status. Some respondents (AT, DE, FI) simply attribute such a responsibility to the professor/assistant professor in charge of supervision or in general to the staff. Other respondents (BE-FL, DK, ES, FR, IT, NL) make reference to the institutional safety responsible person or body or to the official regulations (e.g. in the lab, Department, University). The IE, PT and UK respondents describe both aspects. The GR respondent quotes the "student-insurance".

Finally the Tuning Question List asked “How are your students funded?”. The answers give some “color” to the above quoted table of ANNEX I. The answers are:

  • research projects’ grants (AT, sometimes; GR, a number of them; IE);
  • assistantship/grant (BE-FL);
  • ½ assistant position or scholarship (DE);
  • university grants and research projects’ grants (DK, occasionally also co-financing by private industries occurs);
  • fellowships from different sources: National Government, Regional Government, Research Project, etc. (ES);
  • academy grad school, projects funded by academy or industry, private foundations’ grants (FI);
  • roughly 50% are funded by the University and 50% by research institutions/agencies (IT);
  • work contract, from Ministry, research agencies, industries,…(FR)
  • junior researcher contract (NL);
  • grants (PT);
  • full-time students have grants from the Ministry of Education + extra salary from research centers, if they belong to such centers. Part-time students have no grant, usually they have jobs (salary) (RO);
  • salary (SE);
  • mostly Research Studentships by Research Councils, i.e. national government funded research bodies (UK).

1.4 Percentage of full-time candidates
Bearing in mind that the total is the sum of full-time plus part-time candidates, from the SAG answers to the Tuning Question List we get the following numbers for the Percentage of full-time candidates:

 20-25% : AT, RO (full-time candidates are increasing)
 90-95% : FI, FR, IE, NL, UK
 100% : BE-FL, DE, DK, GR, PT, SE, IT.

Even though the Tuning returns cover a fairly small sample of universities, we can definitely conclude that part-time doctoral candidates are still a reality.

1.5 Supervision of doctoral studies

1.5.1 The institutional model for the doctoral training
According to the EUPEN survey, the relationship between the doctoral candidate and the institution can be described by means of the following models:

  • a supervisor centered model, the institution usually providing some official examination board at the end of the doctoral period;
  • a Scientific Board centered model, where the Board supervises and/or co-ordinates all the activities foreseen for the candidate, with well defined main tasks. In some cases the Scientific Board may simply be the whole Department or Faculty Council.

United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Latvia (only one return, however, i.e. LV-Riga) adopt the first model; this is also the case, with some exceptions among the answering institutions, for Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Romania. At the opposite end we find Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland and the Slovak Republic. Other countries, which however exhibit only one return each, seems to fit in the latter model, too: they are CZ-Praha, HR-Zagreb, MK-Skopje, NO-Bergen, RU-Dubna. The institutions in countries like Finland, France, Spain and Portugal can apparently choose either the first or the second model.

As to those aspects of supervision, which relate to the "training process", see Subsection 1.5.2 and 1.5.3 below.

1.5.2 Coursework, thesis work and other activities
Again according to the early EUPEN survey, most (i.e. 56) out of the 93 answering institutions offered coursework to their candidates, with the exception – looking at the countries – of AT, DE, PT and RO (some institutions in these countries, however, foresee compulsory customized examinations, which involve private study time of the candidate). Also the French institutions did not offer much coursework. In general the concerned institutions monitor the progress in the coursework of their candidates. As a matter of fact, 61% of the institutions offer course work in the first year; this percentage decreases to 49.5% in the second year and to 28% in the third year (!), etc.. Figure 1 shows the type of contact hours offered in the institutions providing coursework. Do notice that there is a consistent number of institutions which not only offer “specialist graduate units”, but also offer units of the coursework, which are taken from the lower level programme.

Fig.1 – Type of course units offered by the institutions, EUPEN survey, dated 1999, 93 answering institutions, see ref. [3].

Other interesting features of the coursework, as detected by the EUPEN survey, were:

  • Examinations and candidate’s progress monitoring are almost general practice;
  • Credits (either ECTS or local) are used in less than one-half coursework institutions
  • In 64% of the coursework institutions it is possible to take coursework outside the physics field and this mostly occurs in those institutions, which declare the use of credits.

The above situation (occurrence of coursework) is now changing, because of the Bologna Process [see Section 3.2 and Subsection 6.1.v below]. Apparently more coursework is going to be implemented. See below, for instance, the example of the newly established Doctoral Schools in Romania.

Indeed, according to the answers to the recent Tuning Question List, the existence of a model "coursework and research" is confirmed by many Tuning partners, which however only in some cases declare the use of ECTS credits for the coursework. The AT answer specifies 18 ECTS credits, and ES, DK, FI respectively state 20, 30, 60 ECTS credits. In RO, the newly implemented "Doctoral school" system foresees part-time (i.e. in parallel with research activities) coursework for three semesters with allocation of credits. The PT answer describes a customized model, i.e. the coursework – limited to the first year – is tailored to the previous preparation of the candidate. In SE and IT the coursework is required, but no credits are allocated to it. In FR the coursework occurrence depends on the doctoral school, which is responsible for organizing it; coursework aims at giving both disciplinary and generic skills; credits are not used, but such an issue is currently under debate. Somewhat similarly, in the UK, during the first year graduate schools provide training in general research methods and high level transversal skills, in addition there are advanced specialized course units, which are examined, but the amount depends on the research field; credits are not used.

In BE-FL the coursework consists in “taking part in summer/winter schools”. In IE coursework is not required, but is being introduced. No coursework is foreseen in DE, GR and NL.

1.5.3 Time of thesis assignment 
A central step in all candidates’ career is the time, at which the thesis research work is assigned and its particular subject chosen (see Table 1, taken from the EUPEN survey, which shows the existence of some interesting cases of possible correlation between the thesis assignment time and other elements/actions, which characterize the doctoral programme). As a matter of fact, institutions in GR, IT and PL delay the assignment till the end of the first year. Almost all institutions (85 out of 93!) state that the thesis subject is assigned through an agreement between the candidate and the proposed supervisor. On the basis of our experience, the thesis subject is usually offered by the supervisor or by her/his research group. In this very context, see the PT procedure outlined at Subsection 1.1 above.

1.5.4 The supervisor status 
The supervisor status – according to both the EUPEN survey and the Tuning short one – can in most cases be any professor or lecturer in the Department. In some cases the supervision tasks are shared by two or more people (professor, assistant professor, researcher, senior scientist, lecturer, tutor, co-supervisor, post-docs,…). Within a context of collaboration, the head of Department or the head of the involved research laboratory may sometimes play quite a role in the supervision process. Sometimes there are restrictions on the researchers in the Department or in other Institutions (in this latter case an internal co-supervisor is usually needed).

1.5.5 Role and implementation of thesis supervision 
The institutional setting is explained in general at Subsections 1.5.1 and 1.5.2 above. Here – on the basis of our common experience – we can add that the role of the supervisor(s) may in physics quite vary depending on the thesis type (e.g. whether the research work is experimentally or theoretically based, whether deals with applied physics topics, etc.). It must be said from the start that in Physics the doctoral piece of research is often a part of a bigger project. This is mostly true for experimental research work.

In a theoretical research work the relation between candidate and supervisor is a one-to-one relation, with a lot of individual thinking and reflections, discussions and mathematical (either analytical or numerical) calculations. The experimental work usually implies for the candidate an active daily participation in the life of a research group/team, with many interpersonal relations going on, under the guidance of some group-leaders and in any case in close contact with the supervisor. In some cases the candidate may be involved in the equipments’ design or fine adjusting, by exploiting and enhancing his/her technological skills, in other cases the candidate might support the experimental work with data analysis and processing or even by simulating the bit of real world, which is being investigated. As stressed in ref. [9], when teamwork is involved the candidate needs “to develop skills to find one’s place” in the team. In the UK, this need is addressed by the graduate schools.

As to the role of mobility in doctoral training, the Tuning Question List asked: “What percentage of PhD students study or conduct research abroad as part of their research programme?”. The Tuning members answered: in general no research abroad (AT, NL), a few percent (IT), differentiated according to thesis subject (BE-FL: experimental physics, more abroad), when allowed by the individual fellowship (ES, it seems small numbers), ~15% (DE, GR), ~20% (RO; IE at European large facilities), ~25% (UK, but in some groups is 100%!), ~30% FR, 50% (FI) , ~80% (SE), ~100% (DK, PT).

1.5.6 Monitoring the progress 
According to the EUPEN survey, candidates and supervisors must report in the host department about the advancement of their research work in 70 (out of 93) responding institutions. Other activities may be important for a thorough evaluation. These latter activities include group seminars and attendance at conferences (either national or international ones or intensive residential courses), presentations of work results (in the Department or in Conferences), and contribution to teaching [e.g. supervising undergraduate (UG) laboratory work, tutoring UG groups, marking UG tests, tutoring the UG thesis work]. A somewhat surprising result of the survey was that a contribution of the candidate to the teaching activities is rather usual, even though often optional. In some cases (e.g. in NL) it is one of the requirements connected to the rather high "salary".

Monitoring the candidates’ progress occurs in a number of ways and with different levels of responsibility according to the adopted institutional model (see §1.5.1). The answers to the Tuning Question List identify as useful additional tools “Regular meetings between doctoral student and supervisor, interim reports (AT)”, “reading and commenting of draft version of thesis by a committee (5 persons), to be done towards the end of the doctoral cycle (BE-FL)”, “a consulting committee of 3 University professors, one of which is the supervisor (GR)”.

1.6 Submission and examination of doctoral thesis

According to the early EUPEN survey, the doctoral thesis consists almost everywhere of a written original report; in a few cases (e.g. in FI, ES, NL, SE) it may be a collection of original co-authored papers. In other cases it may be both.

Additional requirements may also be asked for. For instance in UK the final examiners must explicitly state that the thesis, which is a written report, should be publishable in an abridged form. In practice, it is also expected that all graduating candidates have by then several co-authored published works. As a further example (RO) the written report must be complemented by at least three publications in refereed journals.

As to the language of the dissertation , the English language is used in all Scandinavian countries plus the Netherlands (and of course in UK and in IE). The use of English, even if limited, is widespread.

The above early picture is confirmed by the answers to the Tuning Question List. More in detail:

  • the “thesis” can be a set of publications with a large introduction also in BE-FL. Similarly in FR publications may be included or added to the thesis. In any case, all answers stress that the “whole” scientific work of the candidate is taken into account at the examination.
  • as to the requirement of additional publications, it is a formal requirement in GR, NL, RO. In many other answering countries (BE-FL, DK, ES, FI, PT, SE) additional publications are normally required or recommended, in a number which may even range between 1 up to 5. In FR and IE no requirement exists, but publications are normally there. In AT, DE and IT, no requirement or established practice exists, but publications are certainly helpful.
  • as to the language of the dissertation, the Tuning answers confirm the wide use of English in countries like BE-FL (75%), DK, FI, NL, SE, IT. In AT the dissertation can be in English and of course in German. In FR the rule is French, even though co-tutelle agreements allow exceptions. In countries like ES, PT, RO the national languages and sometimes also French are used. In theory the use of the national language applies also to IE, where the PhD in Science has been in Irish (!) in the last 20 years. In GR the main language is the national one. It is interesting the Romanian partner’s remark about the consolidated use of “French for co-tutelle thesis and of English or other languages of large circulation in the case of doctoral students benefiting of mobility stays abroad”.

Again according to the EUPEN survey, the examination board varies in composition (i.e. the proportion of internal, external and other examiners) and in absolute number of members (8 members are exceeded only in CZ, NL, RU and SK); a large number of institutions have either 3 or 5 members. Even numbers are clearly less used. The FR return to the recent Tuning Question List emphasizes the fact that the examination board must have a 50% of external members.

The choice of the examination board members is mostly a local decision. Nevertheless there are different practices and the choice may be a responsibility of: (i) the thesis supervisor; (ii) the scientific Board; (iii) the academic authorities; (iv) the national Ministry; (v) “others”. Nowadays (2007) option (iv) seems very limited or even “not existing”.

As to the thesis assessment, there are several patterns according to the countries, all of them based on five main ingredients (i.e. reading of the thesis, oral presentation, answers to examination board, answers to the audience, oral exam + questions on the thesis). In Table 2, we give an overview.  

The "yellow" countries adopt all the five assessment tools listed by the survey questionnaire.

The average duration of the final oral exam varies between 1 hour and more than 3 hours (UK case), the final exam being behind closed doors in a limited number of cases (e.g. again in UK). In a few cases there is an upper time limit to its duration.

A grading system is active in about 40% of the sample institutions; no grading system seems to exist in DK, UK, IE, IT, SE, SK and in NO, HR, LV, MK (only one return). The survey gives information on the relative occurrence of the top grade, in those countries where a grading system is in use.

Finally, if the student fails, a number of options are practiced. The most used ones are ”resubmitting a revised thesis” or “further work as specified by the examination board”. On the contrary “may not resubmit” was used only in IT at the time of the survey, but now it is no more a legal option there. The option “awarding of a lower qualification” may occur in UK (rarely).

In this same context, the concise answers to the Tuning Question List yield some additional information:

Ways of assessment: defense of the thesis (BE-FL, after approval by the acceptance committee of 5 persons; FI); defense of the thesis (DE); written statement by the evaluation committee (DK, one to three A4 pages). In the UK thesis dominates in the assessment, it must be suitable for publication in a shortened form and it is assessed by two external experts, who also make an oral examination to the candidate. The PT procedure is vividly described as:

The examination is based on the thesis work. The examiners may ask the questions they like connected to the work (basic physics concepts are frequently asked if the examiner does not agree with an equation or an approximation or model used by the student).

Of course in the final decision of the jury it is hard to ignore the publications, but they do not have to be taken into account. The last remark about publication is true in UK, too.

Grading: graded (DE, ES, FR, GR); there is a cum laude grade (NL); pass grade and cum laude grade (AT); no grade (DK, IT, UK); pass or fail (IE, PT, SE); cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude (RO);

1.7 Learning Outcomes
The Tuning Question List asked: “Do you have nationally or subject area defined learning outcomes?”.

The answers were “No” in all cases, i.e. AT, BE-FL, DE, DK, ES, FI, FR (not officially), GR, IE, IT, NL, PT, RO, SE, UK.

The PT partner nevertheless answers:

“No. But the theses are evaluated according to some parameters. They have to show: original work, depth of understanding, clarity and adequacy of the techniques used in the problems to be tackled. At the oral exam the student has to show that the results presented in the thesis are the results of his/her independent work.

 The UK partner adds

“ but thesis must be a distinct contribution to the knowledge in the field”.

Do notice here that this Tuning question opens a delicate debate, which we approach at length in the Section 3 below. According to us the use of the term “Learning Outcomes” for doctoral programmes has to be regarded as inappropriate since research is the essence of the work and this is not learning. However “Research Outcomes” is an appropriate term. “Learning Outcomes” should be reserved for coursework and skills (as to these latter see also Section 3 below).

1.8 Statistics
The number of candidates per year, who get a doctoral degree in Physics, is not greater than 10 in as many as 52 institutions of the early EUPEN sample; the average number per year over the whole sample is somewhat higher because of a tail in the distribution with a couple of institutions awarding about 120 doctoral degree titles per year!

updating remark 
Some new developments in order to favor the achievement of a critical mass are described at subsection 6.2.iii below.

In the already quoted EUPEN survey, the distribution for the "typical age" at which the degree is obtained shows a peak around 28.6, with a dispersion, which is equal to 1.9 years. The percentage of female doctors is higher in the southern countries, totaling almost 40% in RO and GR and 30% in IT, PT and HR.

updating remark
The Bologna Process is definitely changing the age distribution of the doctoral graduates. At least two aspects should be considered:

    • the Bologna reforms in the Eastern European Countries, which narrowed the duration of those doctoral cycles;
    • the disappearance of the part-time doctoral students, who were present some years ago (this very aspect has to be confirmed by an appropriate survey, see for instance Subsection 1. 4 above).

The Tuning SAG’s feeling is then that the average graduates’ age has reduced with respect to the 1999 EUPEN survey. In this connection, some members of the SAG express the view that country effects are important.

Again according to the EUPEN early survey, about 88% of the doctors are from the home country (average over the responding sample of 93 institutions). An interesting example refers to the two Belgian universities Leuven01 and Louvain01, which respectively exhibit the highest meaningful percentage of other EU graduates (30%) and extra-European graduates (again 30%). This latter type of graduates is particularly important in UK-London, being the 20% of a quite high number of graduates per year (49 per year!).

The EUPEN survey yields also information about the first destination of the new doctoral graduates. This item, being very important from several points of view, is presented below at Section 5, while some more recent trends are presented in Section 6.2.iv. As to the occurrence of mobility periods during the doctoral training, in addition to what described in §1.5.5, some more analytical data are reported reference [10].

Finally we give the result of a quick enquiry, which was made within the Tuning Physics SAG in July 2006, about the starting date of a doctoral cycle in the partner institutions. The answers were:

At a fixed date: ES and RO (October 1st), GR (September 1st), PT (normally in October or January), IT (January 1st); BE-FL answer states that the official starting date is during the last week of September, but practically a candidate can start at any time.

At any date along the year: AT and DE (depending on the decision of student/supervisor), FI (doctoral studies are rather individual…), SE (depending on the decision of the institution); UK (but in almost all cases October 1st).



2.1 The Dublin Descriptors issue
According to the Physics SAG, the first and main descriptor of a doctoral cycle is

“to be able to do research in the field of Physics”.

If this is accepted, then most of the Dublin Descriptors for the 3rd cycle express in a very good way the different facets of the Physics research abilities. Only minor changes are needed in the six Dublin statements. In practice, the words “field of study” should be substituted by the word “physics” in the first statement and the words “frontier of knowledge” with the words “frontier of physics knowledge” in the third statement. Indeed, the Dublin Descriptors for the third cycle are at the same time general enough to cover all the many possible physics sub-areas, which are the object of the doctoral research activity, and specific enough to cover the main aspects of the research activity in a hard science like physics. It is also felt that some descriptors are more relevant than others: the last two in particular may be of secondary importance, when evaluating the doctoral research work.

Such research-based competences are clearly different from those, which are relevant in the two lower cycles.

2.2 About a new recent suggestion
Three other competences, which seem key-competences at doctoral level, are suggested by the inspiring ref. [9], a background document commissioned by the Magna Charta Observatory. We report here the three synthetic definitions (the actual text of ref. [9] is between quotation marks):

  • capacity of problem choice and solution”, i.e. the candidates should be able “to find, select and define problems of interest that can also be solved in a reasonable timeframe”. Here the new aspects are problem choice and reasonable time frame.
  • capacity to walk their own line”, i.e. the candidates should be able to balance the achievement of their own personal skills and research outcomes with their contribution to more collective research enterprise. “This means finding an equilibrium between their own time (as taken to develop high quality knowledge) and the overall time economy that shapes university research as a field of intellectual quest”.
  • “capacity to reflect upon the questions they (i.e. the candidates) raise, the types of knowledge they produce and increasingly also on the impact their knowledge might have on society”, i.e. the candidates should be able to practice “a critical distance to one’s own work”. This competence seems crucial in “building the ground for a sustained relationship of mutual trust between the scientists and the citizens”.

2.3 The physics specific competences of a doctoral graduate or research doctor
By interviewing colleagues at the home departments, mainly those colleagues, who co-ordinate doctoral programmes or research activities at various levels, and by putting them the question:

“If you should characterize the Physics doctoral graduate with a specific competence or ability, which is the appropriate one?”,

the Physics SAG identified the following specific competences, which are – and which have to be –achieved by physics doctoral graduates. They may vary in their relative weight, depending on the type of doctoral thesis, e.g. whether it involves an experimental or a theoretical work. Moreover it may depend on the particular research issue. A very preliminary list is given here below.

phenomenological abilities, i.e. being able to organize a number of relevant facts in a coherent framework, in other words abilities which allow to develop an “economy of knowledge, based on experimental facts and overarching ideas”.

modeling abilities, i.e. being able of

    • setting up and testing a model, 
    • comparing different models among themselves (advantages / disadvantages)
    • comparing the model with the physical world or with the phenomenology, which the model tries to explain
    • numerically simulating a given set of experimental facts (including the critical use of existing computer codes)
    • using mathematical and computational skills in the context of model testing and validation.

physics methodology skills, i.e. being familiar with, being able to apply the scientific method through

    • putting the right questions to the external world
    • collecting the answers and identifying the reproducible experimental facts
    • translating the experimental facts into a model (“theory”), which include all important factors
    • trying and trying again
    • being able to criticize the model, in order to set up a new one.

flexible mind skills, i.e. being able to apply the acquired knowledge and understanding in different contexts (e.g. from physical to economical contexts) and to be able to innovate (with new concepts or mathematical tool or…) whenever appropriate.

Some competences are most important for theoretical research work. They can be described in terms of

familiarity with and/or mastering of:

    • mathematical theories
    • analytical and numerical methods
    • main physical theories

Some competences are most important for experimental research work. They can be described in terms of

familiarity with and/or mastering of:

    • technology related to the research work activity 
    • Information technology and electronics 
    • the technological process: from conceptions to spin-offs
    • project and personnel management (mainly in complex experimental projects, which often involve many people )

Finally, and this is again a generic but most specifically crucial competence, the Physics SAG quotes:

fund raising, i.e. a competence, which is becoming more and more important in research groups. Some initiation to this ability must be tried also during the doctoral period.



3.1 A preliminary remarks: role of the graduate’s age
It is important to realize that in doctoral training the process outcomes may be different, depending on the final age of the graduating person. As discussed above (Subsection 1.8), the Bologna Process may definitely change (and lower!) the age distribution of the doctoral graduates.

The Physics SAG’s feeling is that the youngest doctors “are not so good” as compared to other ones, who graduated at an older age, being more mature, experienced and knowledgeable.

3.2 Process Outcomes: Learning Outcomes versus Research Outcomes
We distinguish between the learning outcomes, which are appropriate to the structured coursework, but less apt to describe the research work, and the research outcomes. Indeed, the core judgment of the graduating candidate is based on her/his research activity, on the written thesis and (usually) on its defense. In this very respect, the journals where (some) results might have been published can influence the judgment and the grading (if existing). Since the core activity is research (the third Dublin Descriptor says “original research”), we cannot characterize it with learning outcomes. As a conclusion, we suggest here to consider the research outcomes, too. More concretely, we suggest, as the main research outcomes for physics, the research results themselves, the thesis report and the published papers. When the doctoral research project is an experimental one and/or a project in applied physics, spin-offs of different kinds and patents are other possible research outcomes.

Moreover, at the present stage of awareness, it does not seem realistic to imagine a doctoral examination board, which judges the candidates on the basis of the Dublin Descriptors. Of course, a related administrative problem here is tailoring of the Diploma Supplement to such an articulated and differentiated situation, as the one sketched just above.

3.2 Learning Outcomes in a doctoral programme
If the above remarks are accepted, then the learning outcomes should be mostly limited to the coursework part of the doctoral training. Here the situation is similar to the 2nd cycle as far as the list of specific competences is concerned, but their relative importance and their ranking should be identified, e.g. through a survey. As to the course-work contents, things are more complicated, because the planning of the doctoral course-work units should take decisions about the following issues:

i. Should the course-work addressed to a generalist type of preparation, filling the main “cultural” gaps of the candidate’s previous preparation and considering also the fact that candidates may come from different paths (within the same physics area)? Should in this latter case the course-work be customized to each candidate or group of candidates?

ii. Should the coursework be of a specialist type, in order to favor a better immersion in the future doctoral research work?

iii. In the case of future doctoral interdisciplinary research work, should the coursework offer the basic elements of the other(s) subject(s)? and at which level should be this latter offer taught/learned?

iv. Should the coursework offer some help in developing specific research abilities or methodologies, to be used later or even to be known for the sake of a cultural completeness (e.g. experimental techniques appropriate to a given field or subfield to be known by a candidate, who will later engage in theoretical research work)?

In order to become aware of other issues relating to the coursework, please to consult Subsection 6.2.v below. Finally – in this context – it is worth mentioning that the development of generic skills has been quoted as an important aspect of doctoral training on several occasions by now : see e.g. §6.2.iv towards the end.


The Physics SAG agreed that ECTS credits are not important in order to characterize the doctoral workload, at least in the field of physics . A dedicated doctoral candidate in physics – as well as in other hard sciences – may “work” as much as 2200 hours per year. In other words the personal commitment in the research activity is usually so deep and absorbing that the concept of workload looses its relevance. As is often witnessed in the academic environment, the researching mind is active beyond and outside of the department premises, softly invading other daytime – or even nighttime – activities.

However, credits may become useful for describing the coursework and – mainly – to characterize the relative amount of coursework time with respect to the total doctoral commitment. According to the 1999 EUPEN survey, only 12 (out of 93) institutions allocated credits to the thesis work (in AT, FI, GR and SE). According to the recent answers to the Tuning Question List no credits are allocated to the doctoral studies in BE-FL, DE, FR (however the issue are under discussion now), GR, IE, IT (not yet), NL, PT, SE, UK. Credits are allocated to course-work only in AT, DK, ES, RO, FI.

In this very context some updated information about the use of the Diploma Supplement for the Doctoral Degree might certainly be useful.

A final remark concerns the fact that a characterization of doctoral studies also in terms of credits may be a kind of protective shield (a candidate’s safeguard) in those cases or in those subject areas, where the actual doctoral studies are marginalized because of poor Departmental commitment or because they are buried under parallel activities (e.g. professional tasks). This does not seem to be the case in Physics.


As suggested by many interviews, reports and personal experiences, what is mostly appreciated in physics graduates (not only the doctoral ones) is the flexible mind, i.e. the capacity to interpret and describe new situations, environments and problems on the basis of a wide experience of models and mathematical tools, as acquired by tackling physics problems. As a self-speaking example we quote here the physicists, who work (in the banks and) in the stock-exchange agencies: on the wake of these fruitful experiences even a new discipline is taking shape at present, named econo-physics !. Another recognition comes from a recent survey, carried out in Portugal among master graduates and doctoral graduates, which shows that physicists turned out to be the third-best employable group after medical doctors and engineers(!?). We end this short introductive paragraph with an anecdote. In our SAG the question was put : “Can a (i.e. a physicist, who works – in better words, who does research – in an advanced, very abstract and sophisticated physics area) go to work in a Bank?” An answer was: “the better is the education till the end of the 3rd cycle, the better is the survival in the job market !”.

The results of the 1999 EUPEN survey about the first destination in the job market of the doctoral graduates are summarized in Fig.2, which is taken from ref. [3]. Do notice, however, that the replies to this question might often represent only an estimate of the respondent. It is difficult to collect this type of results on an European scale and that early effort is still a precious one. The pie-chart referring to the whole sample shows that – as an average – 46% of the doctoral graduates goes to "university research" and "university teaching", whereas 44% finds a job in industry or as a business employee and 4% goes to high school teaching. The remaining 6% could not be classified in one of the above-mentioned categories. The variations of these numbers with the country are quite evocative of the different cultural environments and traditions, in which doctoral graduates find their job. Take for instance the pie charts relating to the four most populated EU-countries: Germany, United Kingdom, France and Italy. All of them are quite different from the average one (the central pie chart in Fig. 2). The Italian graduates go mostly to "university research" (69% !). Such a percentage is still above average and still the majority percentage in the United Kingdom, but it is quite lower in Germany (27%) and France (19%). As to Germany, many of the graduates (35%) find a job as a "business employee", whereas this type of job is appropriate to the 10% only of the Italian graduates. Finally most French graduates go into "industrial research" (38%) and – in a relevant percentage (28%)– into "university teaching" too.

Other remarkable details are:

  • The Swedish doctoral graduates find a job in industrial research in a very high percentage. Both DK and NO have pie-charts which resemble the Swedish one, while NL resembles the German one.

  • The Polish first destination is at the University (as many as 58% go there!). The Romanian results referred in 1999 to a rapidly changing situation (the new organization after 1989 revolution) and today, i.e. 2006, they must be in any case updated, because of the Bologna reforms.
  • In Greece as many as 25% of doctoral graduates entered “secondary school teaching” and as many as 15% were classified under “other” destination (mainly in the military service or going abroad for further study).

As reported in ref. [10], also the T.R.E.N.D.S. joint project (see ref. [8]) devoted some attention to the job market perspective of the doctoral graduates, but from a different point of view than the one adopted in the EUPEN survey. Indeed, the corresponding report focuses on the institutional concern for the graduates’ future and on the estimate of the graduates’ willingness to accept a job in the home country or abroad (and in this case either in a EU country or in a non-EU country). These latter estimates are not easy to summarize, but show the perception – by the 51 respondents to the T.R.E.N.D.S. questionnaire – of a genuine interest of their graduates in working abroad, either in universities (both EU and non-EU) or, at a lower extent, in private companies (mostly EU-based, however). In our view it appears more interesting here the fact that many of those responding universities declare a real concern for the future of their graduates and adopt correspondingly adequate tools. Among these latter, the questionnaire returns mention the establishment of a placement agency helping doctoral graduates in 21.1% of the responding universities. The offered services include compilation of job offers, networking, organization of job interviews and the preparation of students for the job selection process.

This Section is complemented by Subsection 6.2.iv, which describes some other interesting aspects of the connection between universities and enterprises in doctoral training.

Do further notice that the issue of employability of doctoral graduates is a very debated one now, as witnessed – e.g. – by the recent EUA Bologna Seminar, held in Nice, December 2006, on the Doctoral Programmes in Europe .



6.1 developments
A number of new developments occurred in recent times:

a) The establishing of a European Research Area (ERA for short), following the Lisbon European Council in March 2000. The ERA is an initiative of the European Union (EU), which sees the ERA itself as the linchpin of the Community’ s future action in the field of research, with a view to consolidating and giving structure to a European research policy (see ref. [5]). According to the conclusions of ref. [6], where a first evaluation of ERA is made, the ERA initiative has changed the research environment and research policies in Europe quite radically.

b) the Berlin Communiqué (September 2003), which definitely introduced the doctoral cycle as the third cycle of the Bologna mainstream university education and as an answer to “the need to promote closer links between the EHEA and the ERA in a Europe of Knowledge”. Moreover, in their Communiqué, Ministers “state that networks at doctoral level should be given support to stimulate the development of excellence and to become one of the hallmarks of the European Higher Education Area”.

c) the Bergen Communiqué (may 2005), which adopts the views of the Salzburg bologna seminar on Doctoral Studies, with a clear positive view on the coursework and which – moreover and maybe most relevantly here – adopts the European Qualification Framework. In particular, “...doctoral level qualifications need to be fully aligned with the EHEA overarching framework for qualifications using the outcomes-based approach”.

d) the adoption by the European Commission in March 2005 of a Recommendation on the European Charter for Researchers and on a Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers, with some clear-cut definitions (doctoral candidates as early stage researchers) and recommendations (e.g. about the role of mobility in research training, see the following point (e). A number of initiatives are now being launched in order that those two important documents are adopted at a decentralized level (e.g. universities and departments).

e) The fact that a special point in the Charter section of the above Recommendation relates to the value of mobility in the “training” of researchers . Indeed it is therein stated:

Employers and/or funders must recognise the value of geographical, intersectoral, inter- and trans-disciplinary and virtual (i.e. remote collaboration over electronic networks) mobility, as well as mobility between the public and private sector, as an important means of enhancing scientific knowledge and professional development at any stage of a researcher’ s career. Consequently, they should build such options into the specific career development strategy and fully value and acknowledge any mobility experience within their career progression/appraisal system.

6.2 Trends (and concerns)
The above new European scenario is complemented by dynamical processes and trends, which seem to acquire more and more thrust in public awareness and in reality. They are:

(i) Contraction of research funding versus the issue of excellence

  • the government funding for research is contracting. This fact is of concern and pushes universities to make choices and develop excellence centers. These latter ones most often involve inter-university co-operation and therefore "excellence networks". Do recall the relevant role which the Bologna Ministers give to the doctoral networks in this very context [see above, §7 (b)].
  • A closely related aspect is how to make a choice among different research lines, in order to promote excellence. This is crucial both at national and institutional level. At national level priority themes may be identified and their matching with the EU priorities considered. Some universities, in addition to promoting excellence centers, may aim at maintaining / fostering a generalist research profile: in this case some research funding must be assured to everybody (in the research staff).
  • The German experience of selecting excellence universities is in progress. More in detail, Three universities were selected in the first round and eight universities were pre-selected in the second federal Call (winter 2006-07). The selected universities get a budget, which is consistently more than what they would get with the ordinary rules.
  • A ranking of the universities is starting also in other countries. As a very recent example, the Romanian Government allocates funds to promote Centers of Excellence: these latter should favor partnership among universities and should take care of educational aspects, too.

(ii) The link between the accreditation of Master cycle degree-courses and the occurrence of research activities in that very area
In some countries (e.g. PT, FR and DE) the approval (in some cases the accreditation) of 2nd cycle degree-courses is linked by law to the existence in the offering Department of research activities in that very area.

This fact is clearly linked to the more general problem of the links between ERA and EHEA and complements the Bologna Ministers choice to open the tenth line of action of the Bologna Process on doctoral studies.

This aspect and its consequences on the selection/maintenance of research lines within universities as well as on the relation with the needs of the job market requires further attention and may be at the origin of several concerns.

(iii) Achieving a critical mass in the Doctoral programmes.
This aim is called for in the Salzburg recommendations and it may also favor interdisciplinary studies and researches. As an example, in Italy in some universities this objective produced a grouping into Scuole Dottorali of several existing doctoral programmes. More concretely, in the University of Padova there are now 26 Scuole Dottorali to be compared with the previous 70 or more doctoral programmes.

Similar groupings are occurring elsewhere, too. In Romania, for instance, the Doctoral Schools, which are characterized by a very tough admittance procedure, provide 3 semesters of coursework, in parallel with research activities. Links with the job market become important, since the Ba/Ma organization generates a different type of candidates with respect to the earlier organization.

An important concept to be kept in mind here is the role of subject diversity in the organizational and methodological criteria which underlie the establishment of a given doctoral school and of its doctoral programmes. The training in humanities may keep a pace and produce outcomes (e.g. in terms of written reports), which are both quite different from those pertaining to a training in hard sciences.

(iv) The need for a fruitful connection with the world of enterprises
This need is felt more and more. The Bergen Communiquè states: We (i.e. the Ministers) urge universities to ensure that their doctoral programmes promote interdisciplinary training and the development of transferable skills, thus meeting the needs of the wider employment market.

As already mentioned above, the links with the job market become important from several points of view, not only when implementing the doctoral schools, but also considering the graduates’ first destination (see Section 6 above).

In particular, but it is only an example, the whole issue of technology transfer in the wider industrial context might be crucial for the development of the European "knowledge-based society" and therefore influence the organization of some doctoral schools. In this general context, see ref. [11] and [12], as a case of good practice in physics . From the operational point of view doctoral placements and/or mobility periods at other institutions, agencies, companies should be the main tools. Of course in these latter cases, the home supervisor, who usually has the “last” word on the candidate’ activities, must be complemented by an external supervisor and most often a formal agreement is needed.

Another interesting operational trend comes from the already mentioned T.R.E.N.D.S. report (2002, ref. [8]), according to which some universities, which train doctoral candidates, declare a real concern for the future of their doctoral graduates and adopt correspondingly adequate tools, in particular the establishment of a job placement agency helping doctoral graduates (see again Section 5 above). These experiences may help to heal – at least in part – a real concern: about 10 years ago the Netherlands, for instance, but also many other countries had research centers / groups, where doctoral graduates could find a job. Now the situation has changed, since many of these groups were cut. Thus it is felt that the universities have the responsibility of taking care of the graduates as to their future employment. Indeed, nowadays in many industries, master graduates are acceptable and cheaper than doctoral graduates.

A well-established phenomenon in some countries, which is still a trend in other countries, is the funding of doctoral positions by companies. Indeed, in Italy there is a law which gives taxation benefits to companies, when they fund doctoral positions. As a consequence in some universities a consistent number of doctoral grants is funded by companies, which in principle "have a say" on the candidate’s research topics. At Trieste University the physics doctoral positions are funded in equal number by the university and by companies. A similar scheme is at work in the University of Aveiro, Portugal. They have there a very small group of students (candidates), but they started co-operating with companies, which fund half of the grant. Of course the candidates’ themes to be approached must be genuine research problems and not trivial ones. This scheme is certainly nice, but the university can loose a brilliant graduate, simply because the industry is paying her/him much more.

As to Degree Programmes, jointly operated by industries and universities, they have some potential, however the problem here is the publishing of the results and the problem of intellectual property. A related issue is whether the doctoral thesis should be made public or not. This latter issue is relevant also in the so-called co-tutelle agreements between two higher education institutions. In any case the initial agreement among the two partners should clarify all such details.

Finally, we mention here a precious initiative of the Coimbra Group, the network of historical European universities. On the basis of the fact that doctoral candidates are increasingly required to develop the so-called transferable skills during their doctoral studies, the Coimbra Group will run a series of flagship Coimbra Group Summer Schools for doctoral candidates in a trans-disciplinary setting and relying on the expertise and the good practice of the nearly 40 partner institutions.

The issue of generic skills has been raised also at the above quoted Bologna Seminar held in Nice and their development/achievement was strongly recommended, also as a mean to enhance the social appreciation of doctoral graduates .

(v) The need for Coursework: no or yes?
This issue is felt at present as an hot one!

In their Bergen Communiqué, the Bologna Ministers explicitly refer to "the need for structured doctoral programmes".

Tuning representatives from institutions, which have both high quality and long standing traditions in doctoral training, feel coursework as a possible threat, leading – e.g. – to a decrease in time for research. In Germany, for instance, when a person was appointed as a professor at the University, at the same time (s)he got the power to train doctoral candidates (including the power of firing them). For German academics the real issue is to maintain the high standard of research they are used to . In any case, it is generally accepted elsewhere that there is a close link between academic standards and the core activity of doctoral programmes, i.e. the research activity. Therefore, the basic academic requirements, which are needed for a doctoral qualification – i.e. the actual research work and the corresponding report (thesis or dissertation) – should not be changed!. Nevertheless, even in Germany, at least in the earlier times, the graduating candidate was examined in some chosen aside area, in such a way that (s)he could show a broad culture.

Another critical remark, relating to coursework and not limited to Physics, runs as follows. The Bologna first cycle (the Bachelor level) should allow an exit to the job market. Confusion or lack of good practice about how to offer ”professional preparation” resulted in a weakening – in the 1st and in the 2nd cycle – of those educational aspects, which are later on useful in order to enter the research career. According to some academics the above weakening was perceived at Ministers’ level, when they made the suggestion that any doctoral education (3rd cycle) should compulsorily include appropriate coursework, through which the weakened basic education/preparation might be completed.

A real and justified concern may be present here. As stated by some European experts, the doctoral cycle is often a black box, without any guarantee for the doctoral candidates regarding supervision or completion time or even without a minimum prescribed time commitment. Of course there are places and/or subjects where the doctoral programmes are openly transparent and embed great intrinsic and/or organizational quality. In the present historical phase, in order to help the weaker institutions and subjects to achieve common European standards, the time has come to establish rules and quality indicators also in doctoral training. Compulsory coursework may be one such rule. But, as it happens for any structural quality rule, such an intervention, while it wants to promote the weaker actors, which have to start from scratch, may nevertheless hinder the creative development of the most advanced actors.

If we accept the idea of coursework, a number of practices may be envisaged and remarks made. During the Physics SAG discussion, the following points were highlighted. These points are additional or confirm what was already described at Subsection 1.2 above.

  • In some places, e.g. at Dublin City University, each candidate in a doctoral programme follows a customized (coursework) path. 
  • a paradox occurs sometimes: the teaching at doctoral level (coursework) may be at a lower level than what offered in a specialized master degree course. This seems to be a necessary consequence of either a generalist educational choice or a search for interdisciplinarity (when students from several paths are put together). Moreover, such lower level teaching may be an obliged fact in small universities. 
  • As a concrete example of interdisciplinary training, two doctoral programmes at ICTP-International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste are quoted (in Nano-technology and in Fluido-dynamics respectively). In both programmes ”lower level” units are offered (respectively in biophysics and biology and in basic fluido-dynamics). This type of units seems to be more and more important in new interdisciplinary programmes. They should however be taught at a level “appropriate to the level of the doctoral programme“.
  • It is quoted a recent proposal for a doctoral programme in Thermo-nuclear fusion within a doctoral excellence network. The programme targets both physicists and engineers. In this project those candidates, who already have a basic preparation on the topics of the coursework, may skip most of the coursework itself. 
  • The case of small Departments deserves a special attention. When only 3-4 doctoral candidates are there, the problem is to give meaningfulness to course units and coursework. While everybody agrees that small institutions should be defended, the suggested solutions vary. A solution is asking candidates to simply do research, allowing here and there some room for further (private/guided/...) study. Other (usually great) possibilities rely on the organization of summer/winter doctoral schools – to which the candidates from small departments may go – or on carrying out mobility periods. Doctoral networks could play a great role in organizing residential schools. 
  • the existence of “romantic students”, who study on a voluntary basis, even without a grant should not be forgotten.

(vi) Joint Degrees at Doctoral level
The SAG shares the opinion that Joint Degrees at Doctoral level are appropriate, if – in addition to a documented need of a transnational educational project, targeted to a well-defined group of future doctoral graduates – the two following possible opportunities exist:

(a) a fruitful synergy of complementary research competences and activities in a given research field.

(b) a fruitful synergy in offering course-units which can fit jointly organised coursework, residential intensive programmes, etc.

The issue of a final joint degree (or co-tutelle or other) must rely on a full jointness in tailoring the doctoral training path.

(vii) Other good practices?
I. The strengths of the US graduate schools, whose success is linked to heavy funding, but also to the (high) numbers of candidates, are often quoted. The admission procedure is rather detailed and it consists of two main parts: the first part is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) in Physics, which may be taken three times a year world-wide. Each time roughly 1000 students from all over the world take the exam (which is taken via computer and is centrally administered by Princeton University). The most prestigious universities admit only those students, which rank for the GRE in the upper 1-2% world-wide. Once the candidate is admitted, there is a second part - usually within one year time, during which coursework is taken – i.e. the "Qualifying Exams" which consist of 3-4 days of written exams. The advisors usually choose students among those, who ranks better in this exam and in the course units offered in the first year. Sometimes the coupling "candidate-supervisor" occurs on the basis of a rather detailed research proposal, written by the candidate. Some Universities, in addition to the "Written Qualifying Exams", also require an "Oral Qualifying Exam" in the field where the students plan to work: Particle Physics, Astrophysics, Solid State, etc. Such an exam tests the general culture of the student in that field. This exam can be passed even at the end of the Ph.D. period, before the thesis defense. Another interesting point of the US system is that the number of years for the Ph.D. is not fixed to 3, but it can be 4-5-6 till when the student has completed a decent and publishable amount of research. As a matter of fact, the average duration is about 4.5 years.

During the SAG discussion, It is suggested to make a careful analysis of the strengths (and weaknesses) of the US model.

II. The Danish law is quoted, according to which two paths are possible in order to get the doctoral qualification: (a) a normal one; (b) an extraordinary one, which can be conferred for research merits at any age (even when 60 years old!).


[1] LF Donà dalle Rose, W.G. Jones, S. Steenstrup, L. Tugulea, FJ van Steenwijk Report of Working Group 1: The student experience (The questionnaire on the doctoral studies), pages 13 - 46 in “Inquiries into European Higher Education in Physics”, Proceedings of the third EUPEN General Forum 99, London (UK), September 1999, edited by H. Ferdinande & A. Petit , Volume 3, Universiteit Gent, Gent 1999

[2] E. Cunningham, A. Konsta, C. Ferreira, D. Chasseau, I. Sosnowska Report of Working Group 3: Organisation of Physics studies (The questionnaire on the doctoral studies), pages 73 - 94 in “Inquiries into European Higher Education in Physics”, Proceedings of the third EUPEN General Forum 99, London (UK), September 1999, edited by H. Ferdinande & A. Petit , Volume 3, Universiteit Gent, Gent 1999

[3] LF Donà dalle Rose, W.G. Jones, S. Steenstrup, L. Tugulea, FJ van Steenwijk Dissemination Report of Working Group 1: The student experience in “Inquiries into European Higher Education in Physics”, Summarising report of EUPEN Activities and Results in Socrares phase I & Proceedings of the three EUPEN regional fora – 2000, edited by H. Ferdinande & E. Valcke, Volume 4, Universiteit Gent, Gent 2000. The figures shown here are part of a presentation given by FJ van Steenwijk in the EUPEN regional forum held in Barcelona, September 2000.

[4] see Annex 1, pages 133 – 148, in “Inquiries into European Higher Education in Physics”, Proceedings of the third EUPEN General Forum 99, London (UK), September 1999, edited by H. Ferdinande & A. Petit , Volume 3, Universiteit Gent, Gent 1999

[5] “COMMISSION RECOMMENDATION of 11 March 2005 on the European Charter for Researchers and on a Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers (Text with EEA relevance)”, Official Journal of the European Union (EN version), 22.3.2005, L 75/67 – 77. See also the web-site .

[6] “THE EUROPEAN RESEARCH AREA: PROVIDING NEW MOMENTUM, Strengthening - Reorienting - Opening up new perspectives”, Document of the European Commission COM(2002) 565, Brussels, 16 October 2002.

[7] “GLOSSARY OF RELEVANT DEFINITIONS ABOUT JOINT DEGREES”, a Working Document of the Coimbra Group, see website, clicking on Task Force EPET, selecting the word document “Glossary … “

[8] "TN Physics specific report", in the framework of “T.R..E.N.D.S. in Doctoral Studies in Europe Education, Training, Research, Labour Market, a Joint Project of the European Commission carried on by five Socrates Thematic Networks (Women Studies, Humanitarian and Development Studies, Political Sciences, Physics, Engineering) and co-ordinated by Sciences Po., Paris, 2002”, kind communication by J.C. Rivoal, Paris VI.

[9] “University Autonomy in the European Context: Revisiting the Research – Teaching Nexus in a Post-Humboldtian Environment”, Background document commissioned by the Magna Charta Observatory, on the occasion of its Yearly Conference in Bologna, September 2005, to Univ. Prof. Dr. Ulrike Felt and prepared in collaboration with Mag. Michaela Glanz, Department of Social Studies of Science, University of Vienna, 2005

[10] LF Donà dalle Rose “PHYSICS DOCTORAL STUDIES IN EUROPE”, proceedings of the Work-shop “physics: from School to the Job market”, Villa Monastero, Varenna, June 2005, in Giornale di Fisica della Società Italiana di Fisica, vol. 47, N. 1, pag 73 – 84, 2006.

[11] Beatrice Bressan “A study of the research and development benefits to society resulting from an international research center, CERN ”, Department of Physical Sciences, University of Helsinki, Report Series in Physics, HU-P-D112, 2004.

[12] E. Autio, M. Bianchi-Streif, A-P Hameri, “Technology Transfer and Technological Learning Through CERN’s Procurement Activity”, CERN-2003-005, 11 September 2003, Education and Technology Transfer Division, CERN , Geneva (CH), 2003.