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Who Cares About Slovak Ph.D. Students?


The life of a Slovak doctoral student could be characterised thus: feverish activity or extinction. The only certainty in his or her life is 6000 Slovak crowns (?135) of state funding per month (see sidebar). Therefore, he or she might be found assiduously writing grant applications, leading seminars, co-operating on several different projects, presenting at conferences, and trying to find a research fellowship abroad. Oh, and carrying out research for the thesis! As a reward for all of his or her extra activities, the student might be lucky enough to receive some additional money, and might be even more fortunate to find the support of good people.

The system of doctoral study in Slovakia was changed after 1989 from the Soviet system of "Candidatures of Science" (C.Sc.) to the Western system of Ph.D. In fact, except for the change of title, only small differences between the two can be seen. Doctoral candidates are registered as students at one of Slovakia's 16 universities, at the Academy of Sciences (SAS), or at one of seven national research institutions--for example, the Slovak Postgraduate School of Medical Science. Full-time study officially takes 3 years and part-time 5 years. According to the law, doctoral students are required to pass some exams in the middle of the period of study and to defend their thesis before a jury at the end (see sidebar). Some institutions, moreover, oblige their Ph.D.s to pass several exams every semester.

One of the greatest problems of Slovak Ph.D.s is the lack of clarity with respect to their rights and obligations. There is no precise definition of a Ph.D. student's study and research duties, participation in the research tasks of the institution, or teaching responsibilities. This means that the conditions are set by the director of the institution and by the supervisor, a situation leading to great variability. "The relationship with the supervisor is a great problem," says Zuzana, who is studying for a Ph.D. in the Department of Anthropology at SAS. "I know students who have not met with their supervisor for more than 2 months," and the project leadership given by these supervisors is very poor, she adds.

Few mechanisms exist to help Ph.D.s who find themselves in such unsatisfactory situations, so they must resort either to negotiation or self-help. For example, doctoral students at the SAS Department of Polymers have been trying to improve the quality of lectures for a long time. Finally, they decided to supply the missing information at special meetings where each of them prepares a short lecture in a certain area.

Another problem is the very low level of Ph.D. stipends, which are lower than the wages of most people with a high school education. Recently, the low wages of state employees were increased substantially by a new civil service law. According to a government proposal, Ph.D. students should have benefited, with the stipend raised from the seventh to the ninth salary band. But, it turns out that Ph.D.s will receive only 81% of the ninth-category wage. In real terms, this means exactly the same amount of money as before the "increase"! Although this is clearly important news for Slovakia's students, there has been almost no discussion of the changes in the media.

Perhaps these difficulties would not be so bad if the Slovak Ph.D.'s prospects were brighter on finally completing his or her thesis. Most would like to work in research in the university sector, but this work is still poorly paid.

The basic problem for everyone is finding somewhere to live. By the time most Ph.D. students acquire the title, they are over 27 years old and very probably already married, and most of their former high school and university colleagues live in their own flats. The wages of a full-time young researcher at SAS, or of a young teacher in a university, are about 10,000 SKK per month (?225). A one-room flat in the capital city, where most young researchers live, costs at least 700,000 SKK (?15,800). Sharing the rent with some of your friends, you pay at least 2000 SKK per month, so even if you had the most modest expenditure, it would take 6 years to save 300,000 SKK. Fortunately, when you have that money, you can get a credit from the state (another 400,000 SKK). However, this makes you a debtor for another couple of years.

In April 2002, the Bratislava City Council promised to build some flats for young researchers who have completed their Ph.D.s. However, the deputies of the city refused the proposal because of the lack of consensus between political parties. Nonetheless, the housing problem is a serious one for the Slovak economy. According to an informal survey of 53 of his colleagues by Martin Plesch, a Ph.D. student at the SAS Department of Physics, the prospect of obtaining a flat would motivate most of the Ph.D.s who have been studying abroad to return home.

Top Priorities for Slovakia's Policymakers

  • Define the status of Ph.D. students as workers, and introduce a charter of their rights and duties.

  • Collect improved statistics about Ph.D. students, to better assess their needs, quality of research, and flow through the system.

  • Provide Ph.D. students with better salaries and special loans to help them buy their own flats.

  • Improve the career prospects of Ph.D.s by creating more postdoctoral- level posts in state research institutions.

Financial conditions force a lot of Ph.D.s to engage in activities by which they can earn some extra money. Naturally, this diminishes the time and energy available for their study and research. In fact, many Ph.D.s do not finish the course of study. Andrej L., studying for his Ph.D. at a university that educates students in the field of traffic and communications, says that only 4% of its Ph.D.s finish the doctorate, "since they prefer to work in firms." Another Ph.D. student who took part in Plesch's survey, David P., thinks that "it is a shame that my students who have been working in the private sector have higher wages than me."

Despite the low level of state support, not only in terms of stipends but also the standard of laboratory and library equipment available, Ph.D. study is extremely popular in Slovakia. In 2001, there were 1860 full-time and 5994 part-time Ph.D. students, and this number has been increasing year on year by between 500 and 1000 students (see sidebar). Indeed, such is the attractiveness of Ph.D. study that part-time students are not only willing but eager to pay fees of 10,000 (?225) or more crowns per year for the privilege. In addition, such part-time students are often simultaneously paying back a student loan from their undergraduate days and earning low wages as university graduates in the first year of employment.

Why is a Ph.D. so sought after? Jaroslav, a young chemist, explains that "after finishing my Mgr. study [Slovak M.A.], I did not know where to start working. I have not any internationally recognized title. However, I believed that after receiving a Ph.D. in my field, I will have a title which is acceptable worldwide. Of course I am interested in my field of study, and I would like to do research. Moreover, I still hope that after the entry of Slovakia into [the European Union], the conditions in Slovak science shall improve."

There are other reasons for the popularity of Ph.D. study. According to the law, civil service employees have to acquire a certain degree of education, and the higher the level of education they have, the higher the post they can hold. If the employee does not have that degree of education when enrolling in the institution, he or she is obliged to acquire the degree within a certain time. Moreover, employers can increase the wages of an employee with a Ph.D. by 5%. (The law does not state in which field the civil service employee has to acquire the Ph.D. title.) Some private firms, e.g., Bukoza, encourage their employees to start part-time Ph.D. study so that they will solve research tasks relating to their job in the firm more effectively.

Many Ph.D.s see a short period working abroad as a solution to financial problems. Biologist L'ubka K. acquired her Ph.D. in September 2001. Today, she is a postdoc at a research institute in the United States. She plans to stay there for 3 years to earn enough money "to start her living" in Slovakia. Not only can she make more money, but also her working conditions are much better than at home. She says: "Thanks to laboratory equipment, it took me 1 month in the USA to finish the same experiment that had taken half a year in Slovakia." What conditions will she find after her return? Will she bother to do the same job, for far less money, using the old, slow equipment? According to unofficial estimates, after 1989 about 200,000 people--approximately 10% of the population--left Slovakia in order to find a better life abroad. It is to be expected that those venturing to make a new start in another country were the most talented and courageous. Imagine Germany if it lost 8 million of its most gifted people!

Yet, the Slovak Ph.D. system has some advantages. For example, "Ph.D. students can lead their own seminars at university and not [just] assist professors' lectures," points out Tatiana D., a doctoral student of political science. "I find it fantastic, because I can use my methodology and have good contact with students." Teaching is voluntary and not paid, but it is counted as professional experience, which, after 2 years, means a small increase in the stipend (of just 300 SKK per month). The necessity for Ph.D. students to try to obtain grants for extra research, or to get involved in another project, can also be a good thing. The student broadens his or her knowledge and experience and can get extra money, more contacts, and access to additional literature. However, few grants are available from the state, and opportunities to obtain money from foreign sources are uncertain.

The shortage of money is often cited when complaints are made about limited budgets in many areas of Slovak life. But, if we allow ourselves to become even more backward in science and research, we will have no option but to buy technologies from abroad, which will be far more expensive for the country in the long run. Moreover, because other countries triumph over Slovakia in terms of availability of cheap labour and raw materials, technologies are our only chance of developing exports.

Today, there is almost no national measurement of the quality of the research of Slovak Ph.D.s. However, they are surely an important part of the technical, cultural, and economic growth of our society. The success of Slovak researchers abroad shows that the rate of growth could be much greater. The Slovak government should, therefore, make maximum use of the enthusiasm of its young scientists for research by encouraging them, despite the difficulties they face. Our leaders should take as their example Finland, a country that also has some 5 million inhabitants. Ten years ago, Finland's research expenditure was less than 2% of its gross domestic product (GDP). Today, it is higher than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development median. Undoubtedly, thanks to this, the Finnish economy overcame recession; since 1994, its GDP has been increasing every year by about 5 percent.

But, we cannot simply rely on the state to provide first-rate conditions for Ph.D. students when the students' voices cannot be heard. The improvement of Ph.D. conditions in other European countries came about thanks to the activity of Ph.D. students' organisations. They made visible the specific problems of Ph.D. students and proposed how to solve them. Slovak Ph.D.s also have the power to improve their research conditions. The basic precondition is that they speak out.

* Gabriela Gregu?ová is forming a Slovak Ph.D. students' organisation. If you would like to join her in speaking out about the situation of doctoral students, please e-mail her.

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