Vice-Dean for Doctoral Studies: Doctoral students deserve a salary for their research work

One of the main goals of Vice-Dean for Doctoral Studies Luděk Bláha, who is in his second term as Vice-Dean, is to improve the position of Doctoral students and the quality of Doctoral studies. He himself completed his Doctoral studies at the Faculty of Science. According to Luděk Bláha, however, the biggest impetus for the developmental changes he is preparing in this area were his stays abroad.

13 Dec 2022 Tereza Fojtová Kevin Francis Roche

Photo: Helena Brunnerová

In your first term, you were also Vice Dean for Science and Internationalisation. Why was the agenda narrowed?

Given the size and diversity of our faculty, it was just too much to handle. I am one of those people who want to finish the things they start. If you chase too many hares, however, there is a risk that they will all run away. That is why I agreed with the Dean that we should narrow the agenda; it’s better that way.

So, you have less work now?

I wouldn’t say the work has decreased under the new setup, but I do have more space to develop individual tasks and devote myself to them in more depth. The role is better defined. The position involves a lot of day-to-day operations, such as approving scholarships, appointing examination boards and so on; but I don’t just want the job to be formal post. The quality of Doctoral studies is important as it affects the overall quality of science at the university. Furthermore, Doctoral studies and their setting have become a much-discussed topic and are now a priority at the national level. Indeed, reforms are now being prepared as part of an upcoming amendment to the Act on Universities.

Are you involved in the preparation of the Doctoral study reform?

I am involved in commenting on the amendment through the working group of the Czech Rectors Conference and, at the same time, I am trying to work within the university and the faculty to make sure we are well prepared for the implementation of changes.

What exactly will the changes involve?

They will affect the amount of scholarships, i.e. the funding of Doctoral students, but also, and this is even more important, their status. My goal is that, in the future, in addition to their status as students, Doctoral students will also have an opportunity to be employed and receive a salary for their research work.

All this is already included in the draft amendment to the law?

Not yet. The proposed amendment envisages that Doctoral scholarships will increase by 50 to 70% compared to the current situation. So, we will be able to support Doctoral students far better than the current 12,000 Kc they currently receive at our faculty. But that is not enough. It should be remembered that income in the form of a scholarship, for example, is not included in the calculation of pensions or when applying for a mortgage. At the same time, Doctoral students are often working full-time, either in research or teaching, for at least three to four years.

So, what do you think should happen?

I would like our PhD students to have the same status as their colleagues at universities west of our borders, where the students are employed and paid for their research work. It is worth remembering that this standard is already achievable, even within the faculty, as shown by examples of good practice at my home department the RECETOX centre. I would like us to have a similar set-up over the whole faculty, even if the law does not yet require it.

What can students themselves do to improve their position?

Their voices should be heard more. While they have their representatives in the Academic Senate, they don’t get a lot of room to speak. Perhaps they could establish their own committee, an informal group, where they could communicate with each other and, through their representatives, push their needs further.

Will improving the position of Doctoral students also help in the fight against academic failure?

For a long time, we have been trying to arrange some form of contract between Doctoral students and the university. The university, for example, provides the student with certain conditions and space to learn and develop; while in return, the student makes a commitment to the university that he or she will successfully complete their studies, because it is important for the school to have quality graduates. I think it will also help in solving the problem of academic failure, though it is not the only way.

Which of your priorities have you already managed to implement?

I consider even small things to be a success. For example, we regularly organise ‘PhD Day’, which now only takes place in the English language, something that no one seems to mind anymore. A few years ago, this was not the case, even though science is international. We heard many negative voices saying that we are in the Czech Republic, so why should we talk to Czech students in English. Furthermore, we have prepared, and the faculty management has approved, a strategy for the early stage researchers, including Doctoral students. This also includes the ‘MUNI Mendel Doctorandus Program’, which has now been successfully launched.

What does the program consist of?

The inter-faculty MUNI Mendel Doctorandus Program supports active students and motivates their supervisors to provide the students with stable financial support. Its participants attend interdisciplinary lectures and soft skills courses, and their PhD defences are international. This “extra work” of theirs is recognised with a formal certificate, which gives them an advantage when looking for their next job. In this way, we try to motivate students to want more from their studies; i.e. more than is defined in the standard curriculum.

You yourself completed your Doctoral studies at our faculty. What is the difference between Doctoral studies then and now?

A lot has changed. I had a scholarship worth 4,000 Kc but I was lucky enough to have part-time jobs at the research institutes where I was doing my dissertation. That was fine, but not standard. Since then, standards have improved, pressure for output quality has increased and support and care for students and communication with the faculty and the university have all improved. Quality of Doctoral education has now, become a priority. I think that in Doctoral studies, we are now very close to what is common abroad. The shift has been dramatic and I’m glad for it.

As part of your academic internship you also worked abroad - what did you take away from your stays abroad?

Staying abroad motivated me fundamentally, both during my post-graduate studies in Canada and later, in early 2000s, in the USA. Afterwards, I was able to bring a lot of new knowledge and ideas to my professional and scientific roles, including my managerial and administrative functions. I see a stay abroad as a vital factor in the life of every person who wants to work and develop within academia.

How willing are students to go abroad?

Demand from students is improving, but there is still room for improvement in my opinion. Supervisors of doctoral students can play a big role in this; they should see it more as a priority and work together with students to find opportunities to travel. Mobility programs are available, not only at the faculty, and they can be combined.

Do you still have time for science?

I am very lucky to have people around me who help me stay involved in science. I meet with colleagues, scientists and Doctoral students, all of whom complete projects independently, for several hours a week and we solve scientific tasks and write articles together. Even though I don’t have so much time for research, I don’t want to cut myself off from science completely because I enjoy it.

What are you currently researching?

I am currently dealing with flame retardants, i.e. substances that are added to materials to prevent them burning, and particularly with their health impacts and toxicity. Unfortunately, such chemicals often have side-effects and can affect the development of diseases, causing reproductive disorders or cancer. We try to identify the substances that are most dangerous so that we can replace them with others with better properties.

How did you get into this field?

I had wanted to become a scientist since elementary school. Even as a child, I wanted to help nature rather than people, and I basically succeeded. First, I wanted to be a biologist. Later, I also became interested in chemistry, so I combined the two subjects. At the end of my Master’s degree, thanks to Professors Holoubek and Maršálek, I started researching the impact of toxic substances on the environment.

What advice would you to give current students if they are to be as successful as you in their future careers?

Mainly, I would recommend to be authentic and to do things that they feel are good and in line with their life values, though it is good to clarify what these are first. I don’t consider a career to be a success, but good relationships with the people around me. So, I would advise students to pursue what really fulfils them and care about important things rather than some temporary career that will soon pass away.

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