A ‘soft’ revolution underway at UTC’s Doctoral School

“Ever since 1985, UTC’s Doctoral School has experienced several important evolutions that are now being pursued to bring the School up to the very best internal standards”, explains Olivier GAPENNE, appointed Director of the School in January 2012. There is, however, a small, ‘soft-shoe’ revolution under way at the moment, designed to conciliate scientific excellence, professional credence and societal well-being.

A ‘soft’ revolution underway at UTC’s Doctoral School

The battle order of the day is quality and this will be a standing order for years to come", opines Olivier GAPENNE by way of an introduction. 'Charity begins at home', as the adage has it: Doctoral School staff agreed to conduct an in-house exercise, focused on adaptation and openness (the training programmes, analyses, roles distribution, etc.) the aim being to attain some ambitious objectives.

"What we really need is to improve our level of attractiveness, both to recruit PhD candidates from the best universities in France and elsewhere and the best among our own UTC engineers and those with the Master's diploma", stresses Director GAPENNE. At this point in time, only a small number - marginally in excess of 2% of UTC's 700 diploma award graduates per year - actually choose to purse studies to PhD level.

Brushing up the image of becoming a PhD candidate

"We must make this situation evolve. It would be terrific, for example, if we could reach, say between 7 and 10%, bearing in mind that at MIT the figure is 20%", says Olivier GAPENNE. "The PhD ratio is one of the factors taken into account for rating comparisons and in current international benchmarking, it is patent that the most efficient establishments show figures in excess of 15%".

So how do you brush up the image and the offer? The Doctoral School has implemented a series of measures to boost interest here, and to generate higher awareness as to the missions that doctors have in enterprise, in higher education institutions and research establishments, thereby creating a dynamic community of PhDs. The 'hard sell' approach includes events such as the PhD Forum or Late-night research shows, where those interested can exchange with the professionals and get a clear answer as to benefits of defending a PhD thesis.

"We shall continue to be inventive ourselves to improve the offer. One last point here, the RED2 (network of PhD students and young PhDs) is now very active again."

RED2 is revamped

Tifeen RAULT, President of RED2, confirms that "after two years of low-key activity, the new class of PhDs has decided to give new impetus to the association and for this purpose three poles have been created: the networking and professional future pole, the events pole and the scientific mediation pole. The first named will help prepare PhD students to enter the entrepreneurial world when they have successfully defended their PhD thesis. For example, in January we held the Doc'Matinales and we're busy preparing a new edition for the start of the next academic year, in a partnership with the 'Rives de l'Oise' Techno-Park. The idea here is to have the students registered in the local innovation ecosystem. The events pole will provide some animation to "life beyond the PhD studies" and the lab isolation and finally the mediation pole proposes that the PhD students share their new knowledge and know-how with others, at events such as the annual Science Fête".

Preparing the PhD students to face up to professional reality

The UTC Doctoral School and the association RED² are also endeavouring to bring the PhD students closer to the entrepreneurial world. This is a national scale challenge. "Contrary to what happens in Anglo-Saxon countries, in German or Japan, where PhDs are immediately recruited into positions with high level responsibilities, French companies that hire PhDs are few and far between. There is an obvious competition with the classic Grande Ecole engineering diploma and the PhD is not a very familiar qualification for corporate manpower managers. This is especially true at SME level where hiring a PhD represents a large financial commitment that carried a degree of risk. Likewise, seen from the PhD's side, enterprise is a largely unknown world. A lot of efforts have been undertaken these past few years to generate mutual confidence between the two worlds", says Olivier GAPENNE. We do, however, see welcome initiatives taken at UTC (the 'Doctorial Days', the 'Research Job Days', the 'Doc'Matinales', etc). In a larger context, it is Olivier GAPENNE's deep desire to see the entire PhD training as part of a less 'scholarly' and more professional culture - from the performance and results assessment system up to and including the relationships between the PhD students and their thesis supervisor and not forgetting the 'manpower social science elements' in the recruitment of candidates for PhD studies. "The first commission was held recently and went fairly well, as I saw it. Our aim is to recruit PhD students on a wider set of criteria than simple scientific excellence. The candidates must be able to prove they are open to the world outside, and that they have connections with what is happening in the world toady. This could in the long run be a vital factor for their success. We should not forget that in France, out of 10 000 to 12 000 who defend a thesis every year, only one have a recruited to a research type professional position. It is in the remit of the Doctoral School I direct to prepare the future 'doctors' to face the professional reality. We have also revamped our training scheme and the changes will be introduced as of next academic year". The new scheme calls for the assembly of a professional promotion kit and also that the students work together on the scientific content and research practice alongside their personal research work. These new elements will be assessed through the 3 year PhD training before the thesis is defended. "We hope to be able to pick and enjoy the fruits of these efforts in about two to three years' time", concludes Olivier GAPENNE.