Who are we, and if so, how many?

In many respects, PhD students are still an undiscovered species. Available statistics now provide information on how many doctoral students are out there.
Tony Reid via Unsplash

PhD students are a unique and still fairly misunderstood species. Often, they do their daily work in anonymity, researching in lonely offices, heading to the library each day, or brooding over a computer in the café as they try to come up with their next perfect sentence. No one can really say with certainty how many of the species even exists in Germany, what exactly they are researching, or how long they have been doing it. Likewise, we do not know how many of them throw in the towel, frustrated at a lack of advising, or having stopped caring about their topic or simply lost the energy to continuously motivate themselves. How many of them are researching and working at the same time? Who has a stipend or a position at an institution? In which fields do students complete their dissertations quickly? Which fields assign PhDs to the most students? These are all questions without precise answers at the current time.

An amendment to a law brings light to the darkness

Dr Stefan Hornbostel believes we cannot go on this way. He welcomes a 2016 amendment to the University Statistics Act which requires a record of how many doctoral students there are in Germany. This is a good start, and he believes it is important to collect data on these issues for several reasons. For academic researchers at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies, valid data on the PhD student species can serve as a key yardstick for assessing the quality of doctoral programming in Germany as a whole. He feels several things have gone wrong in recent years: “We have created a culture that treats a PhD almost as a private matter between the doctoral student and their adviser. There has been no systematic quality controlling. For many years, this kind of controlling would have been seen as an annoying and illegitimate intervention in the adviser’s sphere.” In his opinion, we have the “plagiarism scare” of the recent years to thank for the fact that there is now movement on the issue and a change in thinking, along with the public debate it has sparked. “Plagiarism brought the question of how valuable or important a PhD really is to light. It quickly became clear that we cannot go on this way.”

In 2011, the Science Council published a position paper titled “Anforderungen zur Qualitätssicherung der Promotion” (PhD programme quality assurance requirements), which advocated for recording the number of doctoral students of Germany using a uniform recording system. It also promoted introducing comprehensive advising agreements between PhD students and their advisers and better integrating external PhD students. In other words: making a decisive shift in how young academics are advised. “In the past, only the exam itself was regulated—not everything else that happened during the course of the student’s doctoral studies,” says Hornbostel. Ultimately, he believes that it is the university itself that issues the PhD, and the university should therefore be responsible for keeping an overview of and monitoring the doctoral process. Universities can gain back some of that control by recording systematic statistics on doctoral students. This provides information on issues such as how doctoral students are spread among advisers. “Does it make sense, for instance, for one professor to advise 40 students, while another advises just one?” Hornbostel asks.

For many years, simply answering the question of how many PhD students there were was doomed to fail. Random samples and estimates conducted over the last decade varied widely, estimating between 50,000 and 350,000 doctoral students.

152,300—a problematic number

Will the December 2017 statistics on doctoral students finally bring some clarity to the subject? The Federal Statistical Office published results from the initial study in February of this year, announcing a concrete figure: The study recorded 152,300 doctoral students at German universities in 2017, most of them in North Rhine-Westphalia, followed by Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria. All of these 152,300 doctoral students had a written confirmation that they had been accepted to do a PhD by the date of the survey (1 December 2017).

The study also included a caveat for this number, however: “The total number of registered and unregistered PhD students cannot currently (...) be calculated for Germany,” the document stated. Dr Meike Vollmar, who is responsible for collecting PhD student statistics at the Federal Statistical Office, assumes that “we can add 0.4 unregistered PhD students for every registered PhD student.” This is not a solid figure, however.

The researchers believe that “doctoral recipients are clearly being significantly undercounted”—by the number of successfully defended dissertations. Not all of the 155 universities in Germany (of a total of 429) which award PhDs provided complete data sets. Part of the problem is that many universities were late in starting preparations to deliver their doctoral student statistics, and were unable to collect complete data by the survey date.

So, is this just another rough estimate with limited usefulness? The Federal Statistical Office is not quite so pessimistic. According to Vollmar, the potential of the new PhD student statistics goes well beyond the PhD student surveys conducted in 2010/2011 and 2014/2015. However, the data “cannot be fully utilised due to the expected start-up difficulties in this first year of the survey,” Vollmar says.

The value of the data will only become clear over time

The data can serve at least as an initial point of orientation. It is also useful because the PhD student statistics collect information beyond just social-demographic data on student characteristics such as age, gender, and citizenship, including data on how long students take to complete their programmes, whether they are employed at the universities where they study, or the type of dissertation they do—cumulative or a monograph. The statistics also record interruptions in the PhD process or students who drop out, providing important information for assessing PhD progress and success. The full value of the survey may only become clear over time, as developments can be observed.

Does it even make sense to study the “doctoral student species?” Some people fear that collecting this data could serve as an impetus to more heavily regulate the doctoral process. This could result in PhD students being given a time limit to submit their dissertations, and may even prevent some students from officially registering with their programmes. Hornbostel does not recommend a time limit. He says that such limits are not transparent, open the door for dependency, and make it more difficult to implement quality standards. Ultimately, recording statistics on PhD students and professionalising the overall PhD process—including the exam process—is “urgent and necessary to promote a better doctoral culture within Germany,” Hornbostel believes. This is kind of like approaching a natural species that has never been researched before: The more you know about them, the easier it is to protect them.