Back to the monograph?

Finland had become internationally known for producing highly qualified PhD graduates in the STEM fields. This was a result of the requirement to publish 4 to 5 scientific manuscripts in renowned scientific journals. Not surprisingly, it took, on average, about seven years to accomplish that feat. Today, Finnish PhD graduates are perhaps internationally more known for being relatively old once they graduate. I myself was 34 years old when I received my doctoral hat. It took me a bit less than six years.
On the other hand, my supervisor was so smart to let me do what I wanted, and I spent quite a bit of time with side projects that did not really advance me on my trajectory towards the degree certificate. However, it also meant that I acquired skills, knowledge, and connections that I otherwise would not have. If you take the 10000-hours-rule literally, 10000 hours equal pretty much a six-year PhD education.

At the moment, the Finnish Ministry of Education wants to lower the time required for achieving the PhD goal down to 3 years. This article in World University News is to date the most extensive English information piece that has surfaced about this project.

My questions are: Why? and How?

The why is pretty obvious: Finland has fallen behind in the OECD statistics of highly educated professionals. To polish these numbers, Finland needs more PhD graduates. And since attention-span-reduced politicians cannot be expected to wait six years, it is only logical that they would agree to spend money to increase the degree numbers, provided this would happen fast.

But what about the how? How can PhD students learn in 3 years what they normally used to learn in 6 years? If that were possible, it would mean our current PhD education is massively inefficient. Can we squeeze it down to three years without compromising quality? There is clearly an opportunity for optimization. Especially when it comes to the funding of the studies. There has been a constant lack of university-salaried PhD positions. As a consequence, many PhD students spend a significant chunk of their time applying for grants or - even worse - working part-time in order to make ends meet. However, while absolutely a step in the right direction, paying a salary will not cut down the required time by 50%.

There is something annoying about science that politicians might not fully understand: It is impossible to predict the outcome of scientific experiments. This very fact is the only reason you do them in the first place! However, if you cannot predict the outcome of experiments, you cannot predict how long it'll take to get the work done and publish the results. In order to straight-jacket the process of obtaining a PhD degree into a three-year predictable journey, we need to dig deeply into our academic bag of tricks and resurrect the "monograph". The monograph is an alternative way to attain a PhD degree. Although alive on paper, it had practically died in the STEM fields decades ago, with more than 99% of all STEM PhD theses being publication-based. In some fields and faculties, the monograph has held on to a higher share, but its popularity has been diminishing everywhere for very good reasons. But now it is back!

With the monograph, you don't open up your scientific output to the scientific community for peer review, improvement, and appreciation (in the form of citations). Instead, you write up your research results in a hundreds of pages thick manuscript that is only scrutinized by your supervisors and two external experts appointed by the faculty council. What could possibly go wrong? I hope that I am wrong, but a three-year PhD education will likely not be able to offer the same as a six-year PhD education. Besides, there are other factors that unnecessarily slow down PhD education, which are not addressed in the current pilot. The most notably ignored factor is the supervisor-to-student ratio. Due to the sustained relative decrease in the funding of the basic university functions, teachers and supervisors at Finnish universities are already very thinly stretched, and the current "suboptimal" supervisor-to-student ratio will deteriorate with 1000 additional PhD students who will enter Finish universities over the next year.
I fully understand the desire to harmonize the PhD degree at the European level (something that we have done more-or-less successfully with the BSc and MSc degrees starting with the Bologna process in 1999). We don't know many of the implementation details for this pilot yet. But very clearly, most of the real stakeholders were never asked when this pilot had been cooked up.

There have been two articles in the Finnish daily newspaper "Helsingin Sanomat" about this pilot that talk about the two most important points of criticism that have been targeted at the 1000-PhD-students project, namely the decrease in PhD education quality that seems to be inevitable and the very unequal distribution of the funding between different disciplines:

The University of Helsinki has finally posted some information about the upcoming call. The page is not available from the news feed, but you have to know what you are looking for in order to find it. This his is counterproductive given the fact that the application period is only two weeks: