Evaluating the PhD: Orpheus conference in Bergen, Norway

The 2012 Orpheus (ORganisation for PhD Education in Biomedicine and Health Sciences in the EUropean System) conference was held April 19-21 in Bergen, Norway.  I was invited to provide a plenary keynote entitled Global Doctoral Education: Critical Conversations on Saturday.  And thus, my journey began to learn more about Orpheus the organization, the individual members of the organization and to be able to listen to their conversations about evaluation of the PhD in the biomedicine and health science in Europe.

Nearly 200 individuals from many countries around Europe attending – almost all of them from the Biomedicine and Health Sciences disciplines.  A few of them from the European University Association (EUA) Council on Doctoral Education (CDE) and European Commission and several from the private sector.  Doctoral students and post docs were also in attendance and had a significant input into the collective wisdom to be captured in the consensus documents produced at the end of the conference.  It was pointed out at the open session that I was the only U.S. citizen in attendance – an actually delightful experience because the focus was on Europe and I was afforded the opportunity to hear their issues, concerns, and recommendations.

One “hot” topic was the implementation of Standards for PhD Education in Biomedicine and Health Sciences in Europe.  A plenary session and multiple workshops were held about the use of these standards and of course, the perspectives differed.  Some wanted standards to be externally evaluated, others thought standards were fine but should include internal evaluation (and external), and some of us thought that the “standards” should be used more as guidelines for improvement of PhD evaluation. The final consensus has not yet been published and we await the result.  I found the discussion of terminology such as standards, guidelines, and accreditation most interesting as well as the discussion of the relationship between an external evaluating body and the use of evaluation in funding doctoral students.  A fascinating example of different cultural differences and the European system at work.

After only a few hours of listening, I was struck by two topics that kept coming up:  significance of the Salzburg principles (part of the Bologna process documents) and the support for interdisciplinary (and multidisciplinary) research.  There were many times, it appeared to me that the speakers were referencing multi but I appreciated the acknowledgement that interdisciplinary research and graduate education were important.  (This would be a theme of my presentation on Saturday).  There was even some mention of “training” of PhD students, pedagogy and the links between education and research although most of the conversations focused on research in a more traditional sense.  Given this perspective, I knew that my presentation would take a different approach and would challenge the audience to think about higher education, examine the PhD as it currently exist and encourage critical reflections about the “conversations” in which graduate schools must engage.  The critical conversations I proposed included interdisciplinarity, teaching/learning in the academy, communicating science, innovation, social media, access to and within higher education, and collaboration.  You are familiar with these topics due to our conversations in the Future Professoriate program, especially the Global Perspectives program.

Bergen is a world heritage city and well worth a visit.  Given its location in the Norway, the days were long already (dark at 10pm), and the weather mild (no rain for 2 days which is highly unusual for Bergen).  I enjoyed the gathering of colleagues from the biomedical fields across the European continent and know that the conversations will continue.