Quality Assurance in Doctoral Examination Procedures

Recommendation by the HRK Executive Board to higher education institutions entitled to confer doctoral degrees, 23 April 2012

I. Quality assurance in doctoral examination procedures

The German Rectors' Conference (HRK) has previously issued several recommendations regarding doctoral studies and in so doing has established fundamental principles and also addressed current developments (see Guidelines on Doctoral Degrees, 1996, Guidelines on the Organisation of Doctoral Studies, 2003, Guidelines on the Future of the Doctorate in Europe, 2004). Furthermore, several German and European academic organisations have issued statements and recommendations on the optimisation of doctoral programmes (for example, the EUA(1), LERU(2), the WR(3) and UniWIND(4)). There is consensus in these statements both in terms of analysis and in terms of the concrete recommendations. With the 11 guidelines outlined here in the following, the HRK offers universities basic guidance on quality assurance in doctoral examination procedures. In the case of doctorates in Medicine and special forms of doctoral degrees, such as cumulative and publications-based doctoral studies, it is necessary to make statements that are more closely related to the specific subject in a separate recommendation. 

Aims of doctoral studies and the role of quality assurance

Doctoral studies enable a person to demonstrate the ability to conduct in-depth, scientific work independently. A doctoral student carries out an independent research project and is not merely engaged in a ‘third stage’ of university studies. Doctoral candidates are early career researchers whose doctoral research projects will make significant and innovative contributions to scientific advancement and to the future strength of the academic system. Doctoral candidates must, therefore, be encouraged and supported in taking initiative and responsibility. The main aim of
doctoral studies is to qualify a person for work in research and academia, and also for management roles in the academic community.

Each doctoral research project represents an individual academic achievement, and also benefits from a structured doctoral programme. Particularly effective are those structured programmes that also include the acquisition of transferable, cross-discipline skills, especially within the framework of research training groups (‘Graduiertenkollegs’), graduate centres and graduate schools.

Details of how the structure and substance of quality assurance in doctoral examination procedures is regulated are to be defined in the doctoral examination regulations. Transparency and institutional monitoring in particular must be guaranteed. In addition to the responsibilities of the dean of the respective faculty, the doctoral committee and the faculty board, the duties of the Commission on Professional Self-Regulation in Science with regard to quality assurance of the doctoral process must be clearly defined.

II. Guidelines on quality assurance in structured doctoral programmes

1. Responsibilities of the university regarding doctoral programmes

The right to confer doctoral degrees is awarded to universities and equivalent higher education institutions (in the following ‘universities’) by the German state. Universities are cognisant of their responsibility for the quality of doctoral programmes and for ensuring compliance with academic standards. This includes a general commitment to securing appropriate qualification standards, upon which each university stakes their reputation in conferring the respective doctoral title. Consequently, the HRK has repeatedly emphasized the belief that universities have an institutional responsibility to ensure that doctoral candidates are adequately qualified and to safeguard the integrity of doctoral studies as an academic examination. This applies equally to joint doctoral programmes with universities of applied sciences.(5)

2. Transparent admission and selection procedures

The selection procedure for doctoral candidates must be transparent. The admission requirements must be clearly formulated. Furthermore, admission requirements should take account of the candidate’s knowledge of the principles and rules of good scientific practice. In the selection of doctoral candidates, the use of interviews, research colloquia or, more usually, a talk in combination with a letter of motivation have proven to be effective.

In the interests of the legal protection of the doctoral candidate, the application for admission as a doctoral candidate should be submitted to the faulty or relevant institution before work on the actual doctoral research project is commenced. Once the proposed doctoral thesis has been accepted for supervision, the doctoral candidate is to be registered by the university as a member of the student body.

3. Administrative and research conditions

All doctoral candidates must be provided with suitable working conditions in which to conduct their own research. A particularly favourable situation is one in which a larger number of qualified researchers working in related fields are connected to enable mutual support and scientific exchange. This critical mass does not necessarily need to be available at the same geographical location, but can also be provided through networks across several regions. Outstanding research also requires (with some exceptions) an international framework. In this way, doctoral candidates are introduced earlier to the international research community and have the opportunity to develop their own international networks.

4. Supervision

On acceptance of a doctoral candidate, the university makes a commitment to provide academic supervision. It is highly recommended that the relationship between doctoral student and supervisor is supported and supplemented by a formal agreement on doctoral supervision in which the fundamental expectations of both the doctoral student and the supervisor are recorded.

This agreement should include statements regarding the number and the responsibilities of subject supervisors (as a rule there should be two supervisors, with one main supervisor and the other acting as an additional point of contact), on the mode and timing of supervision (e.g. status meetings, work reports, frequency of contact), as well as further supervision elements. Furthermore, good supervision ensures that the doctoral studies can be completed within a reasonable time frame. The specific requirements of the respective discipline, as well as the career-related needs of the doctoral candidates must be taken into account.

Supervisors and doctoral candidates should take note of the fact that work on the doctoral thesis can in general be concluded in three years. Responsibility for this begins at the point at which the thesis question is formulated, continues in the regular progress and supervision meetings and includes the necessity in the concluding stages for prompt conducting of the doctoral examination procedures.

One of the fundamental responsibilities of a professor is to ensure that the next generation of academics is able to acquire necessary qualifications. In addition to professors, the leaders early career researcher groups – in a similar way to junior professors - should equally be allowed to take on some of the duties of supervisors and assessors.

Supervisors need to act with responsibility in carrying out this basic duty and should schedule sufficient time in order to provide a suitable level of supervision. This will necessarily have an effect on the number of doctoral candidates for which each supervisor is responsible and would suggest a need to limit numbers so that all doctoral students receive the optimal amount of supervision.

It is considered absolutely essential to establish an ombudsman position that can be activated for arbitration and negotiation in cases of conflict. This could, for instance, be an arbitrator with a distinguished reputation and with the ability to act in a neutral capacity. All doctoral candidates and supervisors have the right to appeal to an adjudication body in cases of conflict with regard to doctoral studies.

5. Professional development and training

Universities should offer doctoral candidates access to professional development and training, enabling doctoral candidates to gain key academic qualifications, as well as skills in teaching and supervision. Taking advantage of such opportunities should not, however, result in an extension to the time needed to complete the doctoral studies. These courses will be considered as part of teaching duties and counted towards the official teaching load.

Colloquia offer doctoral candidates an opportunity to present their research progress to a broad group and to discuss any issues arising.

6. Assessment of the doctoral thesis

Principal responsibility for the assessment of the doctoral thesis lies with the doctoral committee appointed by the faculty. Examiners must be selected on the basis of their area of subject expertise.

Evaluation reports must always be compiled independently and must be written without having read the reports of the other assessors. External – when possible, international - assessors provide additional quality assurance in the assessment process. The doctoral supervisors are also entitled to submit an evaluation.

The grade must be justified in a transparent manner in the evaluation reports. As regards consistency in quality requirements, it is recommended that subject-specific criteria be defined for use in the grading procedure.

Moreover, it is recommended - as previously proposed by the HRK in its 1996 resolution Guidelines on Doctoral Degrees - that the oral examination be conducted as a doctoral defence that provides an opportunity for open access to members of the faculty.

The doctoral thesis must also be submitted in a digital format to allow at least a random sample of the work to be checked for plagiarism. This check does not mean there is a general assumption of guilt. Consequently, any further investigations following the random check are only undertaken in cases where there is a specific cause for suspicion.

7. Declaration on oath

Laws on higher education and the doctoral examination regulations must include a requirement to submit a declaration on oath to the effect that the candidate has completed the academic work independently. Doctoral candidates must be made aware of the importance of the declaration on oath and alerted to the criminal consequences of a false or incomplete declaration.

8. Invalid doctoral research and withdrawal of the doctoral degree

The rules and procedures for declaring doctoral research invalid and for the withdrawal of a doctoral degree must be clearly defined in the doctoral examination regulations. The basis upon which doctoral research is judged to be invalid is provided by the rules governing good scientific practice, which the HRK has previously formulated in its recommendation Guidelines on dealing with scientific misconduct at higher education institutions based on the advice given by the DFG(6) with specific adaptations for HEIs(7).

9. Anti-discrimination, gender sensitivity, family and academic life

There is to be no discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnic, national, cultural or social background, religious or political beliefs or sexual orientation in the selection and admission of doctoral candidates, in the supervision and assessment of the doctoral thesis, and in the evaluation of the oral doctoral examination.

Equal conditions must be made available to men and women on doctoral programmes in order to make it possible to combine having a family with doctoral studies.

In contrast to Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes, the number of female students on doctoral or post-doctoral programmes has declined significantly. Women must be given stronger support in
undertaking doctoral studies, or rather in engaging on an academic career, for instance through mentoring programmes
and gender sensitivity (e.g. a working environment defined by an equal respect for women and men). It is strongly recommended
that coaching is made available for this purpose.

10. External doctoral studies

External doctoral programmes (that is doctoral programmes that are not undertaken within the framework of an employment contract with a university or on a scholarship) can represent a special contribution to the body of scientific work. External doctoral programmes can involve particular challenges in terms of supervision and require special support, above all if the doctoral researcher is also in employment and is working part-time on the doctorate. Naturally, the same quality standards must be applied to these students as are expected of internal doctoral programmes.

11. Fast-track doctoral programmes

Fast-track doctoral programmes can play a role in attracting outstanding doctoral candidates especially from those countries in which a three-year Bachelor’s degree represents the standard prerequisite for commencing doctoral studies. The criteria used in the selection of candidates should define high standards of entry requirements in the specialist subject area. The HRK declares itself in favour of only offering fast-track doctoral programmes with an integrated Master’s degree.

1) European University Association. Salzburg II Recommendations: European universities` achievements since 2005 in implementing the Salzburg Principles. 2010

2) League of European Research Universities. Doctoral degrees beyond 2010 – Training talented researchers for society. March 2010

3) German Council of Science and Humanities. Requirements of quality assurance in doctoral studies. Position paper from 9.11.2011

4) ‘Universitätsverband zur Qualifizierung des wissenschaftlichen Nachwuchses in Deutschland’. Young researchers – recommendations regarding doctoral studies at German universities. 2011

5) See, also: HRK, “Aspects defining the profiles of universities and universities of applied sciences“, acknowledged and agreed upon at the 181st Plenary held on 24 - 25 February 1997

6) ‘Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft’ (German Research Foundation - DFG): Advice on safeguarding good academic standards. Recommendations of the Commission on Professional Self-Regulation in Science, Weinheim 1998.

7) Guidelines on dealing with scientific misconduct at higher education institutions, Recommendation of the 185th Plenary, held on 6 July 1998