Monday, May 22, 2006

Dwindling PhD Student Numbers

Sweden's largest newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, has an interesting headline today: "Research scientists have declined in number by 25%". Fortunately, this is due to a misunderstanding on the part of the person who wrote the headline. What has declined 25% in number from 2003 to 2005 is actually newly admitted PhD students at Swedish universities.

Up until 1998, it was possible and very common to become a PhD student without any funding. Swedish university departments didn't ask how you intended to support yourself. I did it for four years with savings, a little state subsidies (studiebidrag) and a lot of grants from private foundations. Then I got a doctoral student's salary for 2½ years and finally finished my thesis with nine months on the dole.

A 1998 reform meant that universities had to start checking people's funding, and that ideally they shouldn't accept anyone without any money. Some departments tried to work around this by instituting prolonged Master's courses so PhD wannabes could do some of their coursework before being formally accepted as PhD students. But generally, 1998 spelt the end for large PhD student seminars in poorly funded subjects such as archaeology. As mentioned here before, some professors of archaeology are pretty desperate about this.

But as I also mentioned recently, student numbers are declining generally, not just at the PhD student level. The kids may actually be finding jobs instead. It isn't much to worry about in my view. I'm sure there's not a lot of unclaimed PhD student funding lying around: probably the system is just becoming more market-driven, with unprofitable subjects (notice that I mention no names) shrinking and money-making ones retaining their vigor. This is excellent for our academic demographics. Anything that means that young PhDs will one day be able to find jobs is fine with me.

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