2010 Policy Paper “Doctoral Education”

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The European Students’ Union ESU – formerly known as ESIB, The National Unions of Students in Europe – has existed since 1982 to promote the educational, social, economic and cultural interests of students at the European level, and towards all relevant organisations and institutions. ESU currently (October 2010) has 44 member organisations from 37 countries.


This policy paper contains ESU’s main policies regarding doctoral education in EHEA. ESU is a stakeholder in policy-making of doctoral education, as it represents doctoral candidates in more than half of its member countries.

The core of doctoral education is original research. The basis for regulating doctoral education is set by the European qualifications framework, The framework of qualifications for the European Higher Education Area and the Salzburg principles. In addition, ESU’s sees that The European Charter for Researchers and The Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers are valid guidelines for conduct of the different parties involved in doctoral education.

ESU believes, that doctoral candidates should be considered both as students and as early stage researchers, thus holding a double status. With this in mind, doctoral candidates are to be treatred with commensurate rights, both by the governments and by the HEI.

As doctoral education is the third cycle of the Bologna process, the other Bologna action lines and tools are applicable to doctoral education. Due the special nature of the third cycle, their application has to be adjusted more carefully.

ESU is concerned about the equal opportunities regarding admission, social dimension and financing of doctoral education. ESU’s policies aim at equal treatment of applicants and doctoral candidates, with special support to those who have special needs.

The rights of doctoral candidates regarding full membership in research community, representation, supervision, career guidance and assessment are laid down at the end of this paper.

Doctoral education in European Higher Education and Research Area


Doctoral education constitutes the main link between the European Higher Education Area and the European Research Area. As such doctoral education plays a crucial role in building Europe as a knowledge-based society and as a knowledge-driven economy. Developing viable policies to strenghten the quality of doctoral education is necessary if Europe is to achieve smart, sustainable and inclusive growth and reach its ’new renaissance’. (1)

Since the Ministerial Conference in Berlin in 2003, doctoral education has been considered as the third cycle in the degree structure of the Bologna Process. This has entailed and still entails numerous discussions about the organisation and regulation of doctoral education, status of the people going through doctoral education and implementation of other Bologna action lines into doctoral education, to name but a few.

ESU believes that the degree cycles of the Bologna process form a continuum in such a way that higher education and research are not to be separated, meaning that in all three cycles research-based knowledge and a reasonable amount of learning of researcher skills have to be integrated into education and teaching. Also, as stated in the Berlin communiqué (2), second cycle degrees should give access to doctoral education. ESU views that access to doctoral education should be possible for all applicants holding the necessary competences.

The voice of doctoral candidates is very important, and ESU stresses that all doctoral candidates must be adequately represented on all levels starting from institutional and ending with international one.


People going through doctoral education, aiming at a third cycle degree (often a doctoral degree) are referred to in various ways. Common terms are “doctoral students”, ”doctoral candidates”, “PhDs”, ”young researchers” and “early stage researchers”.  Throughout this policy paper all the individuals included in the above-mentioned terms will be referred to under ’doctoral candidates’.

The term ‘doctoral education’ is for the purposes of this policy paper used for all doctoral training and for all doctoral degrees, including PhD degrees by research or otherwise.

Throughout this paper the term ’higher education institution’ (abbreviated as HEI) is used to refer to universities, polytechnics, colleges and other institutions that are recognised as legitimate providers of higher education. ESU’s premise is that all HEI have the option to award doctoral degrees, as long as the HEI is able to provide high-quality doctoral education. ESU feels that this requires a certain critical mass of research conducting professor level personel, and ability to conduct serious peer reviewed research on international level. Determining if a HEI is on a certain level is up to internal and especially external quality assurance.

Doctoral education is organised differently in different European countries and institutions. Two different approaches to the organisation of doctoral programmes can be detected around Europe. The definitions from the European University Association are:

“1. An individual study programme based on an informal to formal working alliance between a supervisor and a doctoral candidate (an apprenticeship model [—]) with no structured coursework phase;
2. A structured programme organised within research groups or research/graduate/doctoral schools with two phases: a taught phase (mandatory and voluntary courses or modules) and a research phase.” (3)

Purpose of doctoral education

The core of doctoral education is original research, which can be either basic or applied. Doctoral candidates are trained to become fully independent professional researchers. This indicates that the creation of new knowledge, building a researcher mindset and personal development to be a professional researcher are the main goals of doctoral education.

The qualifications doctoral education should provide are mapped out in the European qualifications framework (EQF) (4) and in The framework of qualifications for the European Higher Education Area (QF-EHEA) (5).

Graduates of doctoral education should be prepared for a research based career. The HEIs need to provide opportunities for the doctoral candidate to be able to develop the appropriate skills to take up future responsibilities.

The status and representation of doctoral candidates

The status of doctoral candidates is very diverse around Europe and they are regarded as somewhere between students and employees, in some cases as both, and, in the most problematic and alarming case, sometimes they are regarded as neither. This entails that in many countries doctoral candidates have problems being properly represented in HEIs’ governance. Also because of the diversity no one body can claim the sole representation of doctoral candidates. ESU is a key stakeholder, as it represents doctoral candidates in more than half of its member countries. ESU recognises The European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers (EURODOC), Education International (EI), European University Association (EUA) and particularly its Council for Doctoral Education (EUA-CDE) as other key stakeholders.

Doctoral candidates should be considered both as students and as early stage researchers. This means, for ESU, that doctoral candidates should be granted the double status of students and employees, as a means of recognising their vulnerable and less defined situation and allowing for a maximisation of their career development opportunities.. This being the case, doctoral candidates are to be treated with commensurate rights both by HEIs and by governments.

Governments should provide doctoral candidates with adequate social security, holiday and sickness allowance and parental leave, and grant them access to student support services in terms of accommodation, public transport, tax benefits etc.ESU points out, that the policies laid down in ESU’s Student support services policy paper are valid for doctoral candidates too.

ESU is strongly against the creating of two or more distinct groups of doctoral candidates, with one having a more favourable social situation than the other. ESU underlines that all doctoral candidates, no matter of how they are financed, have to have a secure social situation in terms of access to social security and pension rights, rights to parental leave and all other labour regulations nationally in force.

Organization of Doctoral education

Regulating doctoral education

The EQF and the QF-EHEA set the basis for regulating doctoral education. Also mobility, comparability, transparency in the form of quality assurance and institutional supportive structures demand regulation. ESU believes that general guidelines to meet these demands are necessary, but that due to the nature of doctoral education it is also crucial to avoid overregulation.

ESU is committed to the Salzburg principles(6) and recognizes these principles as basic guidelines for doctoral education. ESU also stresses the importance of The European Charter for Researchers and The Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers.(7) As early stage researchers doctoral candidates are to be treated according to these general principles. To ensure proper realization of aforementioned guidelines and principles researchers, HEIs, funders and employers need to be made aware of these documents.  Especially in HEIs these principles and recommendations should be integrated into their institutional standards.

Duration of doctoral education

The duration of doctoral education depends on the discipline, the type of programme and the research project. As stated in Salzburg principles, doctoral programmes should operate within an appropriate time duration, three to four years full-time as a rule. ESU underlines this as a target time, and stresses that doctoral programmes should be adequately planned and constructed to meet this target. A timeframe gives guideline for evaluation of workload for both the HEI and the candidate as well as for funders.

Structured and unstructured doctoral programmes

ESU believes that both structured and unstructured programmes can have advantages, depending on the particularities of the situation. Whereas structured programmes tend to offer stable framework more than unstructured programmes, unstructured programmes tend to stimulate autonomous and unrestrained research more.

In those cases where there are fewer structured programmes and people rather enrol in unstructured programmes it is important that there is some form of ‘curriculum’ or plan of work agreed between the doctoral candidate and the supervisor(s). This to make sure that the rights of all doctoral candidates are protected, regardless of the type of programme they are following. ESU reaffirms the right of all students to counselling, support and the promotion of generic and transferable skills. This applies to doctoral candidates as well, whether a particular structural model is in place or not. ESU once again underlies the importance of not creating two or more distinct groups of doctoral candidates, where one group has a better learning and research environment than the other.

ESU wants to point out that it is crucial to point out the importance of having a balance between research, coursework, teaching and other types of institutional work that doctoral candidate must manage. In cases of structured doctoral programmes it is important that the doctoral candidates have the opportunity to make a choise that suits and supports their research project.

Doctoral education and Bologna tools

ECTS credits should be allocated for the coursework parts of the doctoral programmes, if there are any. This would facilitate the mobility of doctoral candidates and ensure a possibility of properly counting and keeping track of the workload for  taught parts of the doctoral programmes. Furthermore it allows for more flexible learning paths, such as part-time doctoral education. It is important that ECTS credits are allocated after careful evaluation of the workload and the design of learning outcomes the course is supposed to lead to. For the thesis part of the doctoral education ECTS should only be allocated as a lump sum, since the consequences of the diversity of disciplines and of uniqueness of research, field specific and highly individual learning outcomes, makes counting of workload too bureaucratic compared to its benefits.

Diploma Supplement
Doctoral candidates should be provided with a Diploma Supplement in the same way as first and second cycle students, meaning automatically and free of charge, including a description of all study achievements throughout the doctoral education. This would help recognising doctoral degrees in the EHEA and ERA and it would hopefully also make it clearer to employers outside of the academia what doctoral candidates are capable of adding to the organization, be it in the private or public sector. This also helps in that employers outside of academia do not discriminate against applicants with a doctoral degree out of lack of knowledge about their qualifications or out of a fear of them being overqualified.

Quality assurance
Quality assurance is an important part of the Bologna Process and this needs to be recognised also in the third cycle. The quality of the coursework part of doctoral education falls under the same quality assurance procedures as education in other cycles. On the other hand, the quality of the doctoral thesis has to be assured via general evaluation of research. Quality assurance has to be undertaken at programme level as well, taking into account the specific and more individualised nature of most doctoral programmes. This has to include at least the quality of research environment, supervision and guidance, the studying and working conditions, availability of skills development opportunities, the accessibility of doctoral education (with special attention to gender equality, minority and accessibility issues), workload and competences acquired.

As one of the core features of the Bologna Process mobility should also be encouraged for doctoral candidates. Assistance in finding opportunities to study and do research abroad is needed, as well as an increase in mobility schemes. It is important that financial help is provided for the period abroad. In addition to the salary that should be portable further funding might be needed in order to guarantee appropriate living, studying and researching conditions: a burden that can be shared by sending and hosting institution, and that in no case can contain discriminaroty regulations in favour of local doctoral candidates. At the moment there are severe difficulties for doctoral candidates that have been mobile to get their work at a foreign institution recognised. Recognition of the period abroad needs to be secured and HEIs needs to put much more effort into making sure that this is done.  ESU believes that to enhance the international dimension of doctoral education, at least 20 % of all doctoral candidates should do part of their work, studies or research, abroad. There should also be indicators to measure mobility between disciplines and mobility between public sector and private sector.

Recognition of prior learning
The principles laid out in ESUs policy paper on recognition of prior learning are generally valid for doctoral education. For the taught parts of doctoral education the mechanisms for recognition of prior learning as well as for non-formal and informal learning should be in place. This is especially the case with work done in other HEIs and later recognition of it in the home institution.

Collaborative doctoral education

One of the recent developments in European doctoral education is the emergence of collaborative doctoral education. It is an arrangement in which the doctoral candidate is trained in partnership of HEI and industry. In ESU’s view there are both prospects and hazards in collaborative doctoral education. As a basic principle ESU holds that education, including doctoral education, is a public good and a public responsibility and that it strictly has to be organized under the principle of academic freedom.

ESU believes that collaborative doctoral education can offer good opportunities for doctoral candidates to meet possible employers and get mutually beneficial contacts to the society at large. This is even more important in the future, as it seems that more and more doctorate graduates end up working outside the academia. Collaborative doctoral education also provides a platform for mobility between HEIs and industry, and also a channel for researchers to spread and utilize their research knowledge and as such a way to contribute to the welfare of their fellow citizens.

Despite its positive outlook ESU is worried that collaborative doctoral education can  pose threats to research freedom, sustainability of funding and representation of doctoral candidates in the sense that the candidate is left out from decision-making concerning his or her work. Therefore ESU emphasises the importance of such procedures that grant mutual understanding of roles, rights and obligations of different parties involved in collaborative doctoral education. ESU sees contract-style agreements in which all parties are able to clearly define their rights and obligations as the most feasible procedure to organise collaborative doctoral education. ESU reaffirms here that the European Charter for Researchers and The Code of Conduct for Recruitment of Researchers covers doctoral candidates, and the principles laid down in those documents must be followed also in collaborative doctoral education.

Equal opportunities


The general admission criteria for doctoral education should be the successful completion of a second cycle degree, and all second cycle studies must give access to third cycle studies as has been stated in the Berlin communiqué. Second cycle studies should equip students with the necessary competences in order to undertake research activities and enter doctoral education. Access to doctoral education should be possible for all applicants holding the necessary competences. Possibilities for progression between cycles must be transparent  and flexible, and students need to have clarity about them when they enrol in higher education.

Whenever it is necessary to add further admission criteria, ESU demands that the criteria and exact admission procedures are open, publicly accessible, transparent and nondiscriminatory, and that criteria focuses on applicants’ individual research potential. Criteria must be announced as early as possible in advance so that potential applicants can properly prepare for the admission, for example if admission requires a research plan or specific knowledge or skills. The introduction and the content of criteria can not be decided by a single person only, but must be decided by a faculty board or a similar representative body, in which all groups within the institution are represented. ESU nevertheless stresses, that further admission criteria can be set only if it is absolutely necessary, and reaffirms the claim that successful completion of second cycle degree ought to be enough.

In general the faculty board or similar body should be responsible for the evaluation of applicants and the selection of doctoral candidates. Selection can be delegated to a single person such as dean or supervisor, but in this case applicants must have a chance to appeal to the faculty board to ensure fair treatment. Once again ESU emphasises The Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers as a guideline.

To promote mobility and flexibility between degree cycles ESU stresses that graduates of previous cycles’ programmes must have admission to doctoral programmes in their field of studies, as well as in other disciplines provided that the applicant has the necessary competencies and knowledge.

Social dimension and equity

The student bodies entering, participating in and completing higher education at all levels should reflect the diversity of populations, as stated in the London communiqué(8). Furthermore students must be able to complete their studies without obstacles related to their social and economic background. These principles hold true also when it comes to doctoral education and doctoral candidates. It is crucial that all potential candidates, no matter of social background, are provided with the opportunities and motivation to enter and complete doctoral education.

Doctoral education must be accessible for all genders alike. Discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation is not to be tolerated anywhere. Structural obstacles, social norms and attitudes resulting into discrimination based on gender have to be resolved both within and outside the HEIs.

Special attention is to be paid to doctoral candidates with families. Combining doctoral education with family life should be possible for both men and women alike. Flexible working hours, part-time research and chance to parental leave are tools to be used, which, in a long-term perspective are also means to build gender balance later in  academic careers. The families of the doctoral candidates might also need support, and this is especially the case with families of mobile candidates. HEIs should offer these families information on visas, residency permits and rights, working permits and employee rights, and local social support services.

ESU notes that socio-economic background and minority issues play significant roles in student bodies entering the third cycle. The number of doctoral candidates that have a working-class background is in the majority of the European countries very low. Minorities are underrepresented in doctoral education, and for many potential candidates from minority backgrounds, higher education as a whole is inaccessible and remote. A sustained effort is therefore required to remove social and cultural barriers to secondary, tertiary and doctoral education. Special measures to diminish social inequalities should be put in place in fields of education where these inequalities are a reality.

Doctoral candidates with disabilities need assistive technology (scanners, screen readers, translators) but also customised scientific equipment. This assistance is for some doctoral candidates the difference between participation and exclusion from doctoral education. Candidates must be entitled to individual assessment of their needs. HEIs must take responsibility in these issues, and states must fund HEIs accordingly, so that HEIs are able to properly take care of the needs of disabled doctoral candidates.

Funding and financial support

Doctoral candidates require adequate social security and a safe financial situation in order to be able to concentrate on their work. This applies both to their personal life situation and their research project(s). Financing should be granted for the whole time it would usually take to finish the degree. Special provisions have to be foreseen for candidates with special needs and financing has to be prolonged for them to successfully finish their degree.

All funders should recognise that doctoral education is a long-term investment and that research carries risks. Therefore doctoral candidates and programmes needs stable and unconditioned funding. In addition, funding of doctoral candidates and programmes can never be done in such a way that the academic freedom is compromised. ESU refers to The European Charter for Researchers as a guideline.

In some countries doctoral candidates are forced to pay tuition fees. ESU is strongly against this, as fees not only form an obstacle to access, but also weaken the financial situation of doctoral candidates paying them. All tuition fees should be abolished.

The rights of doctoral candidates

Doctoral candidates as members of research communities

ESU reaffirms the policy laid down in Salzburg principles, that doctoral candidates are to be treated as early stage researchers. They should be recognized as professionals with commensurate rights, who make a key contribution to the creation of new knowledge.

HEIs have to ensure that doctoral candidates have the same rights as an employee, when it comes to research and teaching activities, especially access to HEI infrastructure. Doctoral candidates should be able to enjoy the same working environment and guarantees as permanent employees.. The best way to do this is to employ doctoral candidates as researchers whenever possible. Employment would also allow doctoral candidates access to stable income, social security and health care, so that a candidate would be able to focus solely on his or her research. When employed, organizational or institutional workload of the candidate has to be adjusted in a such way that it doesn’t hamper the candidate’s progression. In employing doctoral candidaes the principles in The Code of Conduct for Recruitment of Researchers should be followed. Any abuse of doctoral candidates, whether or not they are employees, is not to be tolerated.

ESU stresses that doctoral candidates should be treated as younger colleagues in research communities in HEIs. The environment should also foster personal development of candidates into professional researchers in everyday life at the HEI. As stated in The European Charter for Researchers, steps should be taken to ensure the development and preservation of supportive research environment and working culture. Moreover, according to that Charter, particular priority should be given to the organisation of working and training conditions in the early stage of the researchers’ careers.

Participation and representation of doctoral candidates in HEI’s governance

Doctoral candidates should have the same possibilities regarding participation in the HEI’s governance as students in other cycles, especially if doctoral candidates are not formally employees of the HEI. Participation should be welcomed and it must not cause any disadvantage regarding progression of a candidate’s education.

Representation of doctoral candidates can be organised through the students’ union, postgraduate or doctoral association or the equivalent.


Competent supervision is a key component of the quality of doctoral education. Arrangements for supervision should be based on a transparent contractual framework or code of practice of shared responsibilities between doctoral candidates, supervisors and the HEI, as stated in Salzburg principles. This framework should work as a guideline for mutual expectations and as a preventing measure against misunderstandings and maltreatment.

All doctoral candidates should have more than one supervisor in order to allow for more and better working contacts and in order to ensure competent supervision. Doctoral candidates should also have the right to change supervisor(s), and, when that is the case, the candidate should be able to continue his or her research without any impact on the progression or evaluation of it.

Doctoral candidates must be entitled to get competent supervisor(s). ESU promotes the idea of defining supervisors’ competencies. New supervisors should get a sufficient training to gain those competencies. Also ESU believes that every supervisor needs a fine tuning of his or her supervisory competencies every now and then. The HEIs should be responsible for provision of both initial training and continuous professional development for supervisors, as well as fine tuning methods of supervisory competencies.

ESU stresses, that the workload of the supervisors should be adjusted in a such way, that supervisors have time both for supervision and their own research and work in the HEI. Also experience in supervision should be valued, and supervisors should be recognised and rewarded for provision of high-quality supervision.

Career guidance and employability

All doctoral candidates are entitled to an adequate career guidance or couselling, may they wish to pursue academic or non-academic career. Doctoral graduates need to become more aware of their competencies, the importance of generic skills and job opportunities inside and outside academia. HEIs should take more responsibility on this, both towards the doctoral candidates as well as the society at large. Furthermore HEIs should stimulate the access of doctoral candidates to pedagogical studies, to enhance their employability and teaching qualities for those who further pursue academic careers.

In order to ensure a constant update of information regarding these issues, the HEIs should make sure that doctoral candidates are integrated properly in research teams and not left in a position where they are considered neither as students nor as staff members, and thus cannot become familiar with the research environment they wish to join.


Peer review has to be the standard assessment procedure for the doctoral thesis. Coursework should in general be assessed in the same way  as in other cycles.

Assessment of a thesis should be done by a group of people that does not include the supervisors. Prerequisite for thesis to be approved has to be that the thesis provides significant and original contribution to knowledge. Thesis has to be publishable, and it eventually has to be made public somewhere and accessible by anyone.

The time of publication should be determined by the doctoral candidate and not by the supervisors or the institution. Doctoral candidates must not be forced to wait for a possibility to get their degree just because supervisors, institution or partner companies etc. wants to avoid publication of results until, for example, a patent is released.

Intellectual property rights and open access

ESU holds that the intellectual property rights of the doctoral candidates need to be granted in the same way that they are granted for other researchers. ESU supports the notion in The Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers that policies and practices should specify what rights belong to researchers and what rights belong to other parties. These policies and practices should always be consulted when the aforementioned contractual framework for supervision is established.

ESU promotes open access of all results from doctoral education, whenever it doesn’t collide with the intellectual property rights. By doing this ESU wishes to share knowledge, innovation and progress resulting from doctoral education with other researchers, students and the society as a whole.


1 European Commission. 2010. Europe 2020: a strategy for smart, sustanable and inclusive growth. Communication from the Commission.
European Commission 2009. Preparing Europe for a New Renaissance. A strategic View of the European Research Area. First report of the European Research Area Board.
2 The Berlin communiqué. 2003. Realising the European Higher Education Area – Communiqué of the Conference of Ministers responsible for Higher Education.
3 EUA, “Doctoral programmes for the European Knowledge Society Report on the EUA
Doctoral programmes Project 2004–2005” s. 13 EUA Publications 2005
4 Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the establishment of the European Qualifications Framework for lifelong learning.
5 The framework of qualifications for the European Higher Education Area.
6 Bologna Seminar on Doctoral Programmes for the European Knowledge Society. Conclusion and recommendastions, Salzburg, 2005.
7 European Commission. 2005. The European Charter for Researchers. The Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of researchers.
8 The London communiqué. 2007. Towards the European Higher Education Area: responding to challenges in a globalized world


This policy paper replaces ESU’s policy paper ”Doctoral studies” from 2006.


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