torsdag 11 december 2014

Graduate studies

In this post, I will show how the graduate studies are different between the two universities. This involves all steps from enrollment (and demand for the enrollment) to graduation. Initially, each of the universities is discussed separately and then a final discussion is made. Not all aspects will be covered but the idea is to include the most important aspects and especially the parts where a difference was found. This means that I will not discuss so much about supervision as this is highly individual; both in terms of need for the student but also in terms of supervisor (for example new vs. experienced or few vs. many students to supervise). With other words, the differences between individuals are larger than the difference between the universities.

University of California, Berkeley

To apply to graduate (PhD) studies at UC Berkeley (Cal), the student must provide grades from their undergraduate education (even though it might not be finished), GRI score and recommendation letters (if outside the US it is also needed to provide a proof of English proficiency). The GRI is a test that is taken before the senior year in the undergraduate education and is supposed to cover everything necessary to manage graduate studies (the student who aim for master’s degree should also take this test). The application is done in the late fall or early winter. Due to the fact that the full undergraduate education (bachelors degree) is not achieved at the time of the application deadline, the GRI score and the recommendation letters are very important. The students can apply to several universities at the same time and at Cal there are open weekends, typically during February, where the research groups are presenting their work for interesting students. This is an opportunity to attract students to choose Berkeley over other universities in the final decision.
In the beginning of May, the acceptance letters are sent out from the universities and the student will have two weeks before accepting the offer. If the student has been accepted to several universities, this means that positions will be available to those who were not selected in the first round.
In August, the courses and information of the PhD program starts. This involves a more detailed description of what is expected from the student and how the process to get a research group is working. Normally the time should be around 5 years until graduation but the funding will be provided for at least 6 years without any cutbacks. The graduate students take courses the first semester and may also do GSI (stand for graduate student instructor and means that the student is involved in teaching activities). In principle, all students should do 3 semesters of GSI during their studies but exemptions are if they have funding from other sources such as NSF or similar then they are excused from the first period of GSI and can focus more on the initial courses. The students are not paid extra with their GSI but it will provide money for the tuition fees (students don’t pay tuition fees themselves but the departments/research groups have to do it). The courses taken in the first semester are courses in chemistry, transport processes and statistical mechanics, which lay a foundation for the different topics studied in chemical and biomolecular engineering. There is also a course in teaching that is taken in parallel with the other courses and the GSI.
In most of the cases there is no assignment between supervisor and student until the end of the fall semester. At Berkeley the students have to sign up for their choices by November 1st and then it becomes official in the end of November/early December. This gives an opportunity for the student to go around in the different research group to find a topic of interest and also a group and supervisor that match their interest. It should be noted, that the supervisors also make a selection of the students, which means that there has to be a mutual agreement before the assignment. If the student choose to have their work outside the CBE department (which is possible) then there should be a co-supervisor within the CBE faculty otherwise a co-supervisor is not needed.
In the beginning of the second semester is the first qualifying exam. This covers any material related to the three courses but also to the undergraduate education. Focus is to make sure that the students are able to think and analyze different problems and not so much about remember different equations and formulas. This exam is graded and if the grade is too low (grade C), then the student must first complete a master’s degree before taking the test again. Otherwise, the student have passed but it could come together with some warnings and suggestions of courses to be taken etc. to make sure that the student understand its situation.
Third semester is time for GSI again. In the fifth or sixth semester is last GSI and this is also a time for the second qualifying exam. It is almost like a defense of the thesis where the student should present his or hers work together with a plan for the remaining time. They have to show that they understand what they have done and how problems are addressed.
8th to 10th semester: this is the time where the thesis is ready. There is no open discussion about the thesis but the thesis has to be approved by a committee of research faculty before which gives time for improvements and takes away the immediate pressure on the student.   At Chemical and biomolecular engineering, the student should present their work at a research colloquia for their peers and the faculty.

University of Borås

Admission is anytime of the year and is officially decided by the board of research studies (there is a separate board in each subject, such as Resource recovery for my students, to ensure a correct judgment of the student’s abilities and credentials). There are general rules of prerequisites that must be fulfilled in order to be meeting the demand as a PhD students and this involves number of credits in the undergraduate exam and that the previous exam is in the right subject (major). It is the local funding that sets the limit of the number of students. Each student is assigned a supervisor, a co-supervisor and an examiner. They are also enrolled in the research school where the administrative issues are taken care of. The director of studies of the research school is responsible to follow up on all students every year that they are making the expected progress and if there are any problems regarding supervision. There is no tuition fee for the PhD students regardless if they are from Sweden, the EU or anywhere else.
PhD students can be enrolled in several different ways; one is as graduate students (doktorander) in which they are employed by the university during their studies which means that they will get a salary, parental benefits, retirement benefits (pension) etc. as in any other job. Depending on need from the department, the students can participate in teaching activities. This is highly encouraged and could be up to 20% of the time. The nominal time to reach a PhD is 4 years full time but with a 20% teaching (or administrative tasks) the actual time is 5 years.
Other options are that the students are enrolled on a scholarship or as industrial PhD students. Enrollment with a scholarship can only be done with external funding from private companies, foundations or foreign institutions and will only be applied to foreign students. The conditions are mainly the same for the student as the studies are concerned but there are less social benefits. The university makes sure that there is a health insurance in place for all their employees and students.  The industrial PhD students have their employment in an industry (usually at a company) and at least 50% of their time should be devoted for research. This makes a very good connection between industry and research but it takes longer time until a PhD degree is achieved.
Together with the actual research, you have to pass a number of courses (corresponding to 60 credits which equal the credits for 1 academic year). Each of the courses is examined separately and the examiner for each individual PhD student eventually decides if the course is passed or not. The research school has guidelines which courses that are mandatory.
Half way through the studies, the student are either performing a Licentiate degree or taking a half-way seminar. The licentiate degree is sometimes the end of the research studies for the student (could be the goal for an industrial PhD or as a degree if the student gets a job offer).
The final thesis can either be a monograph or a compilation thesis depending on area. In engineering, the most common is a compilation thesis. This means that you write a cover essay, which introduce the reader to the subject and contains a literature review of the area together with a description of the performed work. In combination to this, the published, accepted and prepared papers are attached in the end. As a base line, at least four papers should be included and of the included papers at least half of them should be published or accepted for publication in peer reviewed journals (international). Otherwise, there has to be external reviewers on the thesis. 3-5 months before the defense, a final seminar is held where the thesis is discussed. It should include: the student, the supervisor, the examiner and an external reviewer.
When all requirements are fulfilled, it is time for the defense. On this day, the student present their work in an open fora (open for everyone) and there is an opponent who is appointed to have a discussion with the defendant regarding choices in the thesis and clarification of covered material. Present in the room are also the evaluation committee. It consists of 3 persons (most commonly on the level of an associate professor or higher), which are not involved in the PhD work but are highly skilled in the area or part of the area. They have all read the thesis and will judge the students presentation and ability to answer questions. After the open discussion, the evaluation together with the examiner and opponent (and in most cases also the supervisor) continue with a closed discussion where eventually the evaluation committee decided whether the student should pass or not.


Admission and enrollment with focus on the University

 At Cal, the university dictates the number of PhD students each department can accept. This is based upon previous years, number of faculty and funding history and probably other factors as well. It seems to me as an inefficient process but serves as a cushion in case applications are not approved because the department is, in that case, obliged to come up with the funding for the scholarship for the student (equals to salary). It is in general more PhD project available than students, which means that not all projects will be filled (the student choose their projects). This situation must be frustrating for faculty with funding but that might end up with no student. It is a form of elitist local fittest-test in true Darwinian spirit. Who will have the right attributes to not only attract funding but also to attract students? A way to manage the project without a PhD student is to hire a post-doc, which can be done for as long as 4 years but usually only one or two years at a time. What is attractive is this cohort of PhD students that are starting at the same time and can push and support each other during their research. This will form strong bonds and at the same time give a good network. It also simplifies the initial courses because all students need to take the same courses the first semester and this gives a good fundamental baseline for further discussion, no matter where the student origin from (that is where the undergraduate diploma is achieved).
Another attraction with this system is that there is a possibility for both the student and supervisor to get acquainted before the commitment of a mutual research journey is about to start. This goes far beyond the possibility of having an on-line meeting (by video or by voice) or an interview at one specific time as the only compliment to the grades.  
A hire-by-available funds system is more flexible; you can only hire a student if there is funding available and this can be done at any specific time. However, it puts higher demands on a follow-up system (like the research schools and the director of studies). The flexible system can sometimes be less in favor for the student when it comes to courses because the courses are only given at specific times (often once a year for common courses or every second or third year for more specific courses) and it could be difficult to match them perfectly with the demand from the research.

Admission and enrollment with focus on the student

Apart from the number of students available for the faculty and the selection of project, there are more components that are different between the systems. One such system is the qualifying exams.  As mentioned earlier, the students need to take a test before they have completed their undergraduate education (GRI) which is something like the SAT but for college students. In order for the student to start research in the research group, they must also pass an individual qualifying exam. This gives the department some extra room for correcting an admission to the PhD program of a person who might not be suitable for research or at least is not suitable within the research context (that is to handle all necessary demands such as courses and not only the research part).
I might seems hard for the students to have this exam coming up so early on in their studies but I think the underlying concept is good from both sides; neither the student nor the research group is benefitted from a student that eventually end up taking a long time for their studies and produce a weak thesis. To have this early on means that there is still time for the research group to find a post-doc for their project to deliver on time and for the student to reevaluate their choice. I like the idea of having a back door in the sense that if the qualifying exam is failed, the student is directed towards one of the master’s program and it will still be possible to have a graduate degree.  It is also possible to go back to research after the master’s degree and retake the qualifying exam.
In the Swedish system, it is very difficult to remove a PhD student after the enrollment is done. Thus, the enrollment process is much more delicate (especially if there is a governmental funded project with a time limitation where the enrollment must be done through an application open process).


Personally I’d like to have a mix of the two described systems. It seems to me odd to only defend the thesis work after about half the time; research made in the more senior years is better represented by the student and thus this is the research that should be evaluated. An evaluation in-between will mainly evaluate if the student have understood the topic and the procedures together with a plan for future work. Each of these parts is very important but I miss the component of evaluating the student’s ability to react upon difficulties based on their own formulated ideas. This becomes more apparent now since the trends are that funding a student means defining projects and this leaves only a small amount of time available for own tests. However, the system with a final presentation and discussion that determines the outcome of the whole study is a source of anxiety and insecurity for the student. There is currently a discussion about how to involve the evaluation committee earlier in the process and make them preapprove the thesis before the presentation. This will then make the systems more similar between the two universities as this will be something similar as when the research committee at Cal has to approve the final thesis.

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