Recently, we celebrated the establishment of the University of South-Eastern Norway Stipendiary & Post-Doctoral Organization (USN SPO), a newly formed organization for PhD and post-doctoral candidates at USN. The event included workshops and activities related to career guidance, the psychosocial work environment for PhD candidates, the process of writing the thesis, open science and internationalisation and mobility. 

We hope that the USN SPO will strengthen research training at the university and provide opportunities for social and professional networking for PhD students and post-doctoral candidates.

Historical background

Until well into the post-war period, research training in Norway took place through extended master’s studies (hovedfag), which could often involve three or four years of research work, followed by variable periods as a research fellow or scientific assistant. For some students, this led to a doctor of philosophy degree or equivalent degrees in theology, law, medicine or technology. These degrees were not considered part of the formal higher education system. They lacked time norms for completion and assumed independent scientific work without organised guidance.

For several reasons, this was considered unsatisfactory. First, the path through research training to obtain a formal degree was very long compared to that in other countries, such as the US, the UK, Germany, France and Sweden. The Dr.philos. degree was considered more like the pinnacle of an academic career rather than a certificate or diploma that served as an entry to an academic career.

Second, relatively few of those who were employed as research fellows or research assistants obtained doctorates. There was a strong tendency for researchers to gain permanent employment at universities without having completed their dissertations. The few who completed the degree often defended their doctorates late in their careers. Third, many people considered it a problem that the scientific qualifications that Norwegian researchers acquired through their extended master’s studies and work as research fellows or research assistants were not sufficiently recognised in an international context. Finally, many people were critical of the relatively narrow academic specialisation to which research training often led. While the Dr.philos. thesis represented a thorough review of a specialised topic, questions were raised about candidates’ broad professional competence.

Against this background, implementing a more organised and effective research education programme came on the agenda in Norway. From the 1970s, a number of new doctoral degrees were established that included organised research training. The Norwegian Technical University took the lead in 1974 with the introduction of the Dr.Ing. degree. In 1977, a similar scheme for mathematical/natural science subjects was introduced at the universities (Dr.scient.). In the 1980s, new doctoral degrees were introduced in other disciplines, for example, the in humanities, the Dr.polit. in social sciences and the Dr.psychol. in psychology.

In 1993, on the initiative of the Norwegian University Council, a national regulation for organised doctoral studies was introduced. In addition, it was decided that there should be a written agreement between institutions and students, among other things, concerning working conditions, supervision and course participation.

The goals of organised research training 

The 1993 regulation marked a milestone in a 20-year reform process that saw the development of an Anglo-American-inspired PhD education in Norway. The goals of these reforms included the following:

  • Getting more fellows and researchers to complete their doctorates.
  • Reducing the completion time.
  • Broadening the academic education by introducing course teaching and examinations.
  • Improving the supervision of dissertation work.
  • Making Norwegian research training more comparable to that of other countries.
  • Meeting the need for employees with doctorate degrees, including outside the university and college system.

The completion of this process was marked by the introduction of the Quality Reform in 2003, from which point all organised research education was conducted through a common national Ph.D degree. The Dr.philos. degree was retained as an alternative for those who chose not to undergo formal research training.

Over the years, the demand for employees with doctoral-level education has increased both at universities and in the business and public sectors. In Norway, cooperation between educational institutions offering research training and different profiling of the Ph.D programmes at individual educational institutions have been highlighted as important measures to achieve the goals of increased quality and relevance in Norwegian research and higher education.

Balancing quality and relevance

Strengthening doctoral education requires educational institutions to strive for a balance between research that, on the one hand, advances the international contributions of academic disciplines in Norway and that, on the other hand, directs attention to the challenges and interests of Norwegian society and working life. In this context, institutions must ensure the quality of research training through the norms of the academic system and the relevance of research by addressing global and national challenges and the business sector’s and the welfare state’s needs for competence and knowledge.

It is my hope that USN SPO can help us to find this balance so that we can meet the vision of our university to be both regionally engaged and internationally recognised and competitive. In this way, we can achieve the goals that our strategic plan has set for our research activities to:

  1. develop outstanding and internationally competitive academic researchers and research groups
  2. initiate and implement research at a high international level to promote new knowledge, insight and solutions relevant to society and working life in the short- and long-term
  3. enhance knowledge for green transitions and sustainable economic, social and cultural development. 

Academic careers

Rethinking academic career development and career assessment are now on the agenda internationally and nationally – an example is the NOR-Cam initiative in Norway. Similar initiatives have been undertaken in other countries and by the European Commission through the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA) agreement. 

The university landscape, including research disciplines and areas as well as academic careers themselves, are so diverse that a common set of evaluation criteria is neither feasible nor desirable. Accordingly, the current ways that academic careers and research are assessed should be rethought, including the process, methods and frequency of such evaluations, with the aim of developing a system that is sustainable, fair, adaptable to different disciplines, areas, institutional missions and contexts and suitable for the different stages of academic careers. 

However, agreeing to rethink academic career development and research assessment on the basis of several principles is not enough. Real change only happens when it becomes common practice within academic communities. Hence, a cultural change is nessesarry. It is my hope that USN SPO will push forward and contribute to this process. 

Work environment

Some PhD candidates might find this a provocative statement, but when I look back on my own career, the time I spent as a research fellow in Norway and abroad stands out for me as the best years of my academic career. Occasionally, when the pressure was great, the work days were long and the nights were sleepless, I probably would not have endorsed this description of my situation, but looking back, it was a privilege to be able to focus on one all-consuming, immersive project for an extended period. I was lucky to be integrated into a research group that provided opportunities for daily personal and professional interactions with my colleagues and my supervisor. In addition, during my junior research years, I learned the art of collaboration, as well as the art of tolerating solitude when the project required it. 

With an increasing number of PhD candidates and increasing expectations in terms of reporting and publishing, there is a danger that we have lost something along the way when it comes to integrating candidates into an inclusive, edifying professional community. It is my hope that USN SPO can help us develop strong, inclusive and productive working communities. I know that we have many good examples that we can draw on here at USN.

Creativity, critical thinking and human judgment

I have pointed out some areas where I hope that the University of South-Eastern Norway Stipendiary & Post-Doctoral Organization can help us further develop our research training. We live in a time when artificial intelligence challenges human intelligence. I therefore asked Chat GPT if I might become redundant as a researcher. This is the reply I received: 

It is unlikely that I can make you redundant. I am just a tool that can help you shed light on issues and analyse large amounts of data faster than you. I can help you write good papers. But remember that I can make mistakes and distort information if it is entered or formatted incorrectly or if the sources are insufficient. It is important to remember that I cannot replace human creativity and critical thinking. I cannot replace human judgment. I can only give you data and analysis; it is up to you to evaluate and interpret it. 

With this in mind, I would like to express one last wish. I hope that USN SPO can help us to ensure that we offer research education that promotes and reinforces creativity, critical thinking, ethical assessment and human judgment in research and knowledge development.