Five thousandth doctorate awarded today at EPFL

© 2011 EPFL

© 2011 EPFL

On the occasion of the award of the 5000th doctorate today, Jacques Giovanola, Dean of the Doctoral School, reflects in an interview on how the doctorate has evolved and on the steps EPFL is taking to adapt to these changes.

 Why do people say that if the doctorates are doing well, the entire institution is doing well?
Jacques Giovanola - Our doctoral students are brilliant. They are the inspiration for EPFL. They are the vectors for innovation. It is they who will become the professors and scientists of tomorrow and who will in turn provide a framework for undergraduates and doctoral students. Alternatively, it is they who will initiate the renewal of our businesses to enable them to meet the ever-changing challenges. Without our doctoral students, EPFL would not be where it is now.

What is the appeal of the Doctoral School?
Jacques Giovanola - The doctorate has evolved over the last twenty years. Before that, a doctoral student was a research assistant who was doing his thesis. Today, the doctoral student is a professional in training and it’s important to prepare him or her for the challenges that lie ahead. 60% of our doctoral students will follow a career in the private or public sector, in major companies, start-ups or SMEs, and it’s important that these 60% are also prepared for an environment that is quite different from the academic world. Furthermore, research is increasingly being done in teams and breakthroughs are the result of interdisciplinary collaboration. EPFL adapted to this development by setting up its Doctoral School. Since 2003, every student who wishes to produce a thesis must enroll on one of our doctoral programs.

What do the doctoral programs bring to a doctoral student?
Jacques Giovanola - They are designed to act as a support for the doctoral students. One of our aims is to promote interdisciplinary work. It’s no longer possible to do your thesis all alone in a corner. Communication with others is essential in order to share ideas and acquire the knowledge necessary to complete your research. Doctoral programs will give students the opportunity to establish networks between the various disciplines. Interdisciplinary courses and seminars are organized. The photonics program, for example, brings together representatives from the disciplines of Basic Sciences (SB) and Engineering (STI). However, there is still much to do in this area of scientific emulation.

Does the selection of the candidates operate across this program?
Jacques Giovanola - Yes. Candidates have to support their proposed thesis, which enables them to confirm the validity of their subject and to make good where necessary. Our role is to work closely with the doctoral students. We accompany them throughout their thesis in the form of sponsorship that enables them to refer to contact persons whom they can approach. Our campus counts over 120 different nationalities, with no less than 1900 doctoral students working under the supervision of 350 thesis directors. Suffice it to say that this cultural melting pot demands certain adaptations, in view of the very different backgrounds from which the candidates come. Our objective is to ensure the quality of the education so that our doctoral students can produce the best work possible, in the best conditions that can be.

How do you see your role as Dean of the Doctoral School?
Jacques Giovanola - My role is manifold, but one of the tasks that I take very seriously is to help the doctoral students to find a job commensurate with their training once they have qualified. We start preparing for this in the first year of the doctorate. The thesis director must ask the student what his or her career plans are. It is imperative that the student has career plans in place, which he or she will refine throughout the preparation of the thesis. This is why the Doctoral School also provides training to help doctoral students to position themselves on the job market. They must learn essential skills that will enable them to put a value on their research and to make prospective employers see what they can bring to their business – in other words, what their added value is. I can think of nothing more disappointing than to see young PhDs signing on the dole.

Does the Doctoral School have any links with industry?
Jacques Giovanola - We have a committee that works with industry to lead discussions on what industry expects from our doctoral students, and how they might meet these expectations whilst making best use of their scientific knowledge. Major companies and startups regularly hire our PhDs. Yet we still have work to do in order to change attitudes at the SME level. I would very much like to see our collaboration with EPFL’s Innovation Square put on a firm basis. We are preparing to put in place a framework of conditions so that our doctoral students can do their thesis in collaboration with businesses based in Innovation Square, either directly at the company’s premises in Innovation Square or on campus. This will create a first-rate opportunity for our doctoral students. It also illustrates the vital links that EPFL is developing with industry in order to circulate knowledge.

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Evolution of the doctorate at EPFL

The Doctoral School was established in 2003 and became obligatory for all EPFL doctoral students in 2006. It comprises 18 doctoral programs.

The first doctorate (Thesis no. 1, presented at l’Ecole d’ingénieurs de l’Université de Lausanne [University of Lausanne Engineering School]) was awarded to Roland Zehnder-Spoerry in 1920. The thesis is available to readers on the library website. Thesis no 5000 will be by Arne Vogel, in mechanical engineering.

The figures:
1995: 550 PhDs
2000: 735
2005: 1422
2010: 1901
This represents an increase of 245% over the last 15 years.

Number of PhDs per year:
1970: 14 (one per month)
1980: 38
1990: 76
1995: 132 (two per week)
2000: 208
2005: 268
2010: 363 (one per day!)

Over half of EPFL PhDs were completed in the last 10 years:
Up to 1969: 2%
1970 to 1979: 6%
1980 to 1989: 10%
1990 to 1999: 28%
2000 to 2009: 54%

Percentage of foreign PhDs:
1990: 65% of our PhDs in 1990 were Swiss nationals or residents, and 36% were non-residents
2009: 37% were Swiss nationals or residents, 63% were non-residents.

The careers of EPFL PhDs:
According to information at our disposal:
72% are working in Switzerland
15% are in Western Europe
8% are in the USA and Canada.

40% are pursuing an academic career.
60% are working in the public or private sector.


Source: EPFL