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Reforming Postgraduate Study: Thesis Defense to Become Mandatory

March 11, 2020

In February 2020, a postgraduate study bill drafted by the Russian Ministry for Science and Higher Education passed the first reading in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. The bill brings back the requirement that junior PhD students ('candidates of science') complete and defend a thesis.

As things stand, postgraduate study in Russia has more to do with mastering a curriculum than conducting research or writing a thesis. On completion of a junior PhD program, a student is expected to produce a report summarizing the key findings of their thesis but is not obliged to defend the thesis itself.

Experts have long called for legislation to make sure that postgraduate study does lead to the defense of a thesis and, if appropriate, the award of a degree. Vitaly Bagan, Vice Rector for Science and Development Programs at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), deplores the low percentage of junior PhD candidates who end up defending a thesis, variously estimated at 15-18%.

The sharp decline in the number of thesis defenses is often attributed to their having ceased to be mandatory in 2013. Statistics appear to bear it out. According to data compiled by a team of experts from the Center for the Sociology of Higher Education at National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) - Natalia Maloshonok, director, Evgeniy Terentev, senior research fellow, and Saule Bekova, research fellow, - a bare 9,693 theses were defended in 2014 compared to 22,508 in 2011.

Vitaly Bagan believes that early-career researchers do themselves a disservice when they delay thesis defense. As long as they put it off, they remain mere trainees who cannot apply for grants or lead their own teams. No amount of articles published in highly influential journals, such as Nature or Science, will launch them on the next stage of their scientific career. For this, they must defend a thesis, and the new law will nudge them to do just that.

It would be wrong, however, to forget about providing postgraduate students with better incentives, says Vitaly Bagan. Several support facilities have been made available to them under the National Project for Science, including grants that come with strings attached, in the form of a requirement to publish articles and complete a thesis. A total of 1,500 such grants have already been awarded by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research. The National Project for Science aims to increase the percentage of postgraduates who go on to defend a thesis to 24% for Russian universities as a whole and to 40% for premier higher learning institutions.

It could be argued that, if legally required to defend a thesis, postgraduate students would choose less challenging topics to protect themselves against failure. Academics from Project 5-100 universities see little cause for concern. No one looks for breakthroughs in a junior PhD thesis, which is viewed as but another building block in a scientific career, says Roman Ostvald, Deputy Vice Rector for Science and Innovation at Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU), who oversees its master's and doctoral programs. He explains that junior PhD students in Russia and abroad are never asked to undertake transformational, high-risk research with an uncertain outcome. Foreign universities do conduct high-risk, high-reward research that seeks to generate new scientific knowledge and entails a great deal of uncertainty, but this is an altogether different matter. Such inquiry is mostly led by young postdocs and funded by specialist foundations or research councils, while the host institutions are fully aware of the high risk of failure involved.

To draw the best young talent into science, integrated measures are needed that would enhance the appeal of postgraduate study and the efficiency of researcher training. According to Alexander Sorokin, head of the University of Tyumen's Human, Nature, Technology Center, postgraduate programs must strike the right education-research balance and provide students with the mobility needed to collect data and carry out scientific investigation – as well as with devoted supervisors!

TPU (says Roman Ostvald) invests heavily in postgraduate mobility, arranging junior PhD students' internships and facilitating their participation in academic events in Russia and abroad. Transferred out of a familiar environment, young people gain exposure to other universities' research processes and come in contact with colleagues and experts in the field, which helps them get a fresh perspective on their own research and take it to a new level. TPU's Scientific Career Center runs mobility programs for graduate and postgraduate students and assists them in writing and submitting their scholarship and grant proposals.

Another Project 5-100 university, MIPT, requires third and fourth-year postgraduates to complete stringent progress reviews. It also rewards prolific publishing and assiduous attendance at academic conferences. Finally, Ural Federal University (UrFU) arranges for its postgraduates to study abroad, earn double-degree PhDs and co-author papers with international researchers.

A mandatory thesis defense should encourage young researchers' commitment to a scientific career. As a further inducement, additional research jobs will be created for them in labs and scientific and educational centers under the National Project for Science which also calls for upgrading instrumentation at leading research institutions.