Greek Doctoral Students: Facing an Uncertain Future

Uncertainty is the lot of the Greek PhD student. There is no conformity in the way PhD programmes are organised and there are substantial differences in how PhD students are funded, supervised, and assessed--not only between universities, but also across different academic departments within the same university. Because of this, the experience of one student cannot act as a useful guide to the next.

The creation of master's programmes at Greek universities began only in 1992 and is still in its infancy. But despite the fact that doctoral studies predate master's programmes, most PhD programmes now require that those admitted hold a master's qualification. The focus of government and the universities on postgraduate studies in the last 10 years has in fact been almost exclusively on master's degrees, with the organisation of doctoral research being largely overlooked.

Although the government has laid down certain provisions with respect to doctoral education, Greek universities are basically authorised to organise and run postgraduate programmes (including doctoral studies) as they wish (see sidebar). For example, admission standards are set by the Ministry of Education, but they are quite vague and it is up to each academic department, sometimes even the supervising professors, to interpret them and apply whichever criteria they wish for admission.

The criteria may be defined in the postgraduate programme of studies of each university, but usually this is not the case, so that when submitting a research proposal, the prospective PhD student does not know on what grounds it will be evaluated.

Although there are legal provisions concerning the supervision and monitoring of a PhD student's progress, none of these concerns the student-supervisor relationship. So, there are no official guidelines concerning a situation where, for example, a student finds it difficult to get on with one of his or her supervisors, or the main supervisor does not have the time or interest to properly support and follow the student's progress. Some universities and departments, because of their long experience in providing PhD courses, have established informal procedures for dealing with doctoral students' problems. In other places, however, the procedure followed in the case of a complaint is different each time and depends on the people involved, as well as on intra-department politics. The development of some centrally specified and organised procedures would provide a welcome safety net for PhD students.

Top Priorities for Greek Policy-Makers

*Harmonise the legal provisions concerning doctoral studies, particularly those relating to supervision and admission.

*Provide more funding for research at the PhD level and more financial support for doctoral students.

*Give PhD students better access to resources and training in research methods and processes.

There is also no legal regulation concerning fees or funding. Most PhD courses in Greece do not have fees, though a few departments charge for PhD studies, just as they do for their master's programmes. There are also some programmes that provide funding for their PhD students, as if they were employed on a full-time basis. However, both these categories are very scarce.

Instead of fees, the majority of the academic departments impose on students a certain number of hours work for the university each week. This can be between 5 and 15 hours, and the work might be lectures, supervision of undergraduate practical classes, and exams, or general support and administrative tasks for professors and academic services such as the library. For example, in my department we are supposed to provide 12 hours of work per week. The working schedule is not officially controlled and can in fact be quite flexible, because much of this time takes the form of assistance to one's supervisor. However, it is almost certain that the requisite number of hours will be worked.

Of course, since Greek PhDs have the status of students they enjoy certain financial advantages, such as social and health insurance, lower fares on public transport, and reduced costs for spectacles and various services. But despite these benefits, and the fact that the majority of Greek PhD students do not have fees to pay, they still need to eat and pay the rent. How do they finance themselves? Since most are aged between 24 and 35, they are at an age when to ask for assistance from one's family is seen as a desperate recourse. Nonetheless many need to fall back on this source of income from time to time due to the limited alternative options.

A few scholarships are available (see sidebar), although there are only enough for about 13% of postgraduates (both master's and PhD students), and the level of the stipend is not nearly enough to live on. Under the law universities can employ postgraduate students on an hourly basis, to assist with academic, lecturing, or research tasks, and some PhD students partly finance themselves in this way. But the average pay rate for a 1-hour lecture to a master's class is only approximately 30 Euro. In addition, students often get paid for their participation in research projects that are carried out within their research groups. If they are lucky this paid work may even form part of their PhD research. Such funding may come from industry, the government, or the EU. Unfortunately, although a considerable source of income, such projects are mostly sporadic and cannot be counted on.

To make ends meet many students rely on part-time employment outside the university sector, in companies, other private educational institutions, research centres, and so on. This need to depend on nonacademic employers for their financial stability is one of the biggest problems faced by Greek PhD students.

Those studying for a PhD constitute a particular and special group in the student community. They are older, they often have some previous work experience, and it is hard for them to depend on their families for financial assistance. Being forced to take a job outside the university causes students to lose focus and delays their research. Having some of the most competent, young researchers waste their time on work irrelevant to their subject in order to survive, thereby extending their period of study, is a great loss of productivity for Greek society. Indeed only 11% of the total of PhD students acquire their doctorates each year. 1 That means that only approximately one-third of those who should finish each year (assuming a 3-year PhD) actually do so, a statistic that could easily be attributed in part to the difficult financial situation and the necessity to find work unrelated to academic study.

If the government cannot afford to support doctoral students financially, it is essential that the universities create the necessary conditions to employ PhD students preferentially--even for a few hours. These are, after all, the organisations that should benefit from this highly qualified group. Students' research may well still be hindered. However, by working within the university the student would be able to arrange his or her schedule more easily and waste less time travelling. His or her professional development would be enhanced by the opportunity to establish professional relationships with people with common interests and experiences, and by working within an environment sympathetic to the needs of his or her research.

* At the time of publication Greece does not have a national PhD student organisation. Eleanna has started a national PhD student e-mail list and would welcome assistance in developing this new group. She would be delighted to hear from any Greek students interested in joining the e-mail list, or anyone seeking further information about the situation of Greek PhD students.


1. ESYE (National Statistic Services of Greece): Annual Data--Department of Education matters. Statistic Catalogue for the Year 1999.

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