EPFL's Doctoral School celebrated 15 years of awarding PhDs

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Anyone who wishes to do a PhD at EPFL must enroll in the Doctoral School. EPFL is the only university in Switzerland with this system, which has improved the recruitment process and enhanced the level of support provided to students.

EPFL’s Doctoral School turned 15 in 2018, marking a decade and a half of courses and research programs designed specifically for PhD students. The school – modelled after PhD programs in the US – offers young engineers a comprehensive range of educational and support services. We spoke with Pierre Vandergheynst, Vice President for Education, and Andreas Mortensen, Vice President for Research and the professor who spearheaded the school’s creation, about how they set up the only doctoral school of its kind in Switzerland.

Why did you decide to create a doctoral school?

Andreas Mortensen (A.M.): The school was a long time in the coming. Patrick Aebischer initially put forward the idea soon after he became EPFL president. Before, each EPFL lab recruited its own PhD students – sometimes just by posting an ad on the wall! And there were huge disparities in the qualifications required by each lab. So we wanted to improve the recruitment process, but also provide better support to PhD students. We especially wanted to give them an opportunity to develop skills in ways beyond just their thesis projects, as is done at US graduate schools. For the first few years that the Doctoral School was open, professors could choose whether or not to follow the new system; I’m proud to say that most of them did. Our system is the result of a decision and a collective effort, and it has stood the test of time.

How do you select which students to admit?

A.M.: Each of our 21 PhD programs is managed separately. Students wishing to enroll in a program must submit an application that is similar to those required at US universities, complete with three letters of recommendation, their grades and their research objectives. An admissions committee reviews all the applications and decides which ones to accept. The selected students must find a thesis supervisor, obtain the necessary credits and pass an entrance exam – this process takes about a year – and then they are officially enrolled. We currently have over 2,000 PhD students, and our students typically obtain their degrees in four years.

Pierre Vandergheynst (P.V.): Because our focus has been on creating a collegial atmosphere, the Doctoral School benefits everyone involved. Our professors no longer have to rely solely on their reputations to attract top PhD students, and in turn our students can count on valuable support from the school.

«Because our focus has been on creating a collegial atmosphere, the Doctoral School benefits everyone involved. Our professors no longer have to rely solely on their reputations to attract top PhD students, and in turn our students can count on valuable support from the school.»

What are the advantages of having a separate doctoral school?

A.M.: We are better equipped to recruit and instruct our students, and can continually enhance our PhD programs within a solid framework. The Doctoral School gives PhD students a community extending beyond their research lab and offers a host of activities they can take part in. What’s more, we can better detect conflict situations and spot students who are struggling – students have more people they can talk to since each one is teamed up with a mentor who is not his or her thesis supervisor.

P.V.: We’ve seen that we can attract higher quality students and share best practices more easily, whether in terms of recruitment, course planning, mentorship or guidance. Our PhD students get all-around support and form part of a vibrant community.

How would you define a good PhD student?

P.V.: PhD research is not a 9-to-5 job. You have to be passionate about what you’re doing and willing to put in long hours. You have to enjoy coming up with solutions to open-ended problems and be very creative – while being willing and able to adapt to the world of academia.

A.M.: Good PhD students are those who are highly motivated, committed to their fields and eager to push the boundaries of existing knowledge. They should be creative and have bold ideas, and they should be ready to learn how to lead a large-scale research project so that one day they can set out on their own.

Do your graduates generally pursue careers in research?

P.V.: No, most of them leave teaching and research and go into industry. But studies have shown that salaries rise more rapidly for people with a PhD degree.

A.M.: In Switzerland – unlike in other countries – PhD degrees are recognized for their intrinsic value and not seen as a way for people to prolong their studies.

What do you remember from your own thesis projects?

P.V: I did my thesis in mathematical physics at the University of Louvain. That was my first real experience conducting research and it felt like groping around in the dark for a light switch. It’s exciting to work on a problem nobody has solved, even if you hit some dead ends along the way and occasionally get things seriously wrong. For instance, I spent a year developing a theory, but then realized – after a few long days and sleepless nights – that my initial hypothesis was wrong. At that point I was glad beer is cheap in Belgium.

A.M.: My thesis was in materials science, at MIT, and at one point I almost threw in the towel. I had destroyed a machine and changed my thesis topic twice. But I hung in there because I really liked my thesis supervisor – even though I didn’t see myself becoming a researcher or a teacher. It wasn’t until my final year that I decided to pursue an academic career. Never say never!

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