The Finnish 1000 PhDs pilot

PhD eduction

The Finnish government is going to finance 1000 additional new fully funded doctoral positions, which would start in the academic year 2024/2025.

The money (85000€/year for each PhD student) will be competitively distributed between Finnish universities, and some of that money will be used to pay for the salary of the PhD students for three years.

Perhaps one of the triggers for this initiative is that Finland has been falling behind in the OECD statistics in the number of highly educated workers. The question is whether this one-time expense will really increase the level of education or only boost the numbers.

The average duration of a PhD education is around seven years in Finland. In order to pull off a 3-year PhD education at such a large scale, it is expected that the requirements for the PhD will be lowered. As a matter of fact, the requirements have already been lowered, but further "easings" might still come. Together with these, universities are aiming to streamline the kafkaesque absurd and medieval administration process, which can easily take half a year from the time of completing the last manuscript to receiving the actual PhD certificate.

Many other outlets have reported about this pilot; here's one that is available also in English:

Although most people are happy about the additional money, almost everybody is sceptical to some degree. Good intentions are not enough, and there are many serious issues with this pilot:

  1. From where do we get 1000 additional qualified applicants in 2024? It is difficult to imagine that young people would suddenly feel the urge to get into the academic rat race simply because the government wants them to. Since the application call will have to be international, a large fraction of the new PhD students might be foreigners. When doing a PhD in three years, do you have time to waste on anything but the essentials? What about learning Finnish? Or getting to know Finland and Finnish people? It seems to me unlikely to happen within such a 3-year schedule, as it is difficult enough during the average seven years. Do you really think that the freshly minted PhD graduates would want to stay in Finland after graduation?
  2. If the 3-year-PhD education pilot succeeds, there will be 1000 additional PhD job-seekers coming to the labour market within a very short time. I predict that we will educate many of these for foreign job markets that can accommodate them more easily.
  3. The eligible research areas were purposefully limited. 80% of the positions are restricted to research areas related to the Academy's Flagship programs. I don't know who decided to use the flagships as a means to target the funding. Despite personally profiting from this decision, I would have preferred the Finnish industry to have been more involved in the discussion. After all, these 1000 PhDs are supposed to be educated for the needs of the Finnish labour market.
  4. Many current PhD students have complained about the decision to limit the funding to new PhD students. One of the reasons why a PhD takes on average seven years to complete is the lack of funding. The salaried PhD positions from the doctoral schools cover only a minority of all PhD students. Many PhD students have to work for a living, and many of those who have scholarships spend a good chunk of their time applying for money. Scholarship funding is often given for a year, and once you get lucky, you immediately have to start applying for next year's funding. Sepp Herberger's quote applies not only to football but also to academic fundraising: After the game is before the game.
  5. One thing is for sure: This pilot will radically change the Finnish PhD as we know it. Finland is one of the outliers concerning the requirements for a PhD degree. Although it is theoretically possible to write a monograph, close to 99% of PhD theses in the STEM fields are publication-based. In the "good old times", typically, 4 to 5 publications were required before you were permitted to defend your thesis, but this number started to decline years ago. At the moment, three publications are sufficient in most Finnish universities. One understandable reason to reduce the requirements is the attempt to make the Finnish PhD more similar to the PhD of the big European countries (Germany, France, Italy, Spain, UK). The current idea is that you would need three publications only. Since the third publication does not have to be accepted (submission or preprint deposition is sufficient), it means that you can start the graduation process after your second paper has been accepted.
  6. It is still unclear whether three years will be enough. I fear that this time limit will encourage the selection of "safe but boring" projects. Exciting, cutting-edge science is unpredictable. If you have only three years, it would be unfair to put a PhD student on a high-risk, high-reward project. Science is characterized by NOT knowing the outcome of your project. Bean-counting (or year-counting) might work if you learn a profession which requires a certain set of skills, but it's poison for inherently unpredictable processes like innovation and discovery.
  7. It is unclear how the PhD students will be selected. I assume that the applications that are submitted by the universities this week contain proposals on how to do the selection. I predict that the application call for the new PhD positions will be published without significant upfront announcement and will be open only for a short time. That would benefit insiders and prevent too many foreign applicants from getting to know about it, which might be one of the goals of the government.
  8. Where to take the required resources for supervision? After subtracting the PhD student's salary from the 85000€, how much of the leftover will be directed to the individual research group that teaches, supervises and needs to pay for the experiments? Again, if history is a predictor, much of the money will get stuck elsewhere and not benefit those who do the heavy additional lifting.