Insecurity, bullying, unattractiveness: the decline in the number of doctoral students is troubling the university

The survey, published this Tuesday, September 20, by the company Fage, points to the difficult working conditions of doctoral students.

There are fewer and fewer PhD students in France. Their population has grown from over 81,000 (2009-2010) to 70,000 in the 2020-2021 academic year. That is a decrease of 13%. Lack of attraction and funding, mobility problems, insecurity… So many factors that can explain the lack of students’ love for research, even though their minister Sylvie Retailleau is trying to put research at the center of teaching.

“Unfortunately, we expected these resultsregrets Fanny Sarkissian, vice-president of the Federation of General Student Associations (Fage), which is in charge of the 3rd cycle and research. There is a discrepancy between the excellence of the research presented and the reality in some universities. It is to clarify this phenomenon that the first student union is publishing a quantified survey this Tuesday, September 20. It takes place from May to August 2022 and collects responses from around 2,000 PhD students from all PhD schools in France.

Lack of funding is the ‘greatest urgency’

“Greatest Urgency”, is research funding, according to the survey. Approximately 74% of PhD students receive funding for their work. And according to Fage, 28% tried to get it. Competition between candidates is partly described as responsible. This lack of funding affects the life and research of doctoral students. According to the study, 26% have financial resources that do not allow them to meet their needs, and more than one in five PhD students work alongside their thesis. Finally, if an hour of teaching is paid at €41.41 per hour, the 2009 national hourly equivalence reference system specifies “one hour of tutorials equals 4.2 hours of real work”. This equates to paying doctoral students €9.80 gross per hour, the study explains. Less than the gross hourly minimum wage (11.07 euros).

“I never did field studies because of the exorbitant cost of travel”Doctoral student

The infrequent extension of contracts is also condemned. In 2018, four out of ten theses were defended within three years. Doctoral students are thus left without the means to continue their work and support themselves. Because research comes with different costs: 67% of PhD students have access to a computer and 62% of them cover travel costs. “I never did field studies because of the exorbitant cost of travel”, assures the student. This problem has an impact on international mobility: only 23% of PhD students have done or plan to do mobility. Conversely, if France has 40% of foreign doctoral students every year, three out of ten do not have a residence permit.

“Unacceptable” living conditions

Another weak point is the supervision of doctoral students. “Diploma theses tutors lead an average of 3 to 4 doctoral students. This number can vary from 1 to 20”, the survey explains. And request a supervision rate of a maximum of 5 doctoral students per one teacher-researcher.

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In addition to working conditions, La Fage also criticizes living conditions “unacceptable” : 24% of doctoral students claim to have been victims of moral or sexual harassment or discrimination. Léu*, in the fourth year of her dissertation at the Paul-Valéry University in Montpellier, was harassed by a researcher with whom she was writing a scientific article. “He constantly slandered me, left me only the thankless tasks, called me late. I lost my confidence.” explains. After returning from sick leave, Léa was removed as the second author of the article. “It pissed me off”thundered the one who planned to stop doing research at the university when her thesis was finished.

More than every second doctoral student plans to go abroad

In all disciplines, 85% of doctoral students will find a job in the year following graduation in 2014. For all these reasons, more than half are considering employment abroad. “It’s shocking. Some go for wages and better rental rates, others say it is a mandatory passage in the CV before returning to France. This should alert us to the research conditions in France., detailed vice-president Fage. So the risk is brain drain. “The challenge is also not to end up with a two-speed university. On the one hand, those who can respond to calls for proposals and fund PhD students. On the other hand, doctoral schools with deplorable conditions”warns Fanny Sarkissian.

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The decrease in the number of doctoral students is “a threat to the sustainability of academia and research”, the investigation points out. It points to the unattractiveness of the doctorate – the highest level of study in Europe – and the lack of information about it. One out of five doctoral students declares that they did not use any counseling system before registration. “Access to offers and information is very difficult, not to mention completely opaque”, laments the student. To reverse the trend, Fage requires starting research from the license.

The Ministry of Higher Education is planning it “promote laboratory internships” until “raise awareness of research professions” when entering the university. The Law on Research Programming (LPR), voted in 2020, envisages an increase in loans by 25 billion euros. But, criticized by the higher education and research community, the budget effort has so far not produced the expected effect.

*Name has been changed.

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