"To be a PhD student is to be at the heart of knowledge production"

"To be a PhD student is to be at the heart of knowledge production"

  • Doctoral School's dean Pierre François ©Sciences PoDoctoral School's dean Pierre François ©Sciences Po

Of Sciences Po’s seven graduate schools, the Doctoral School has a unique status. This school awards both Master’s and doctoral degrees, and supports aspiring researchers at the beginning of their research careers in law, economics, history, political science and sociology. At the Research Forum – an annual event for students that promotes careers in research – the Doctoral School’s new dean Pierre François, a researcher at the Centre for the Sociology of Organisations, sat down for an interview.

What is a Doctoral School? What are its missions at Sciences Po?

The Doctoral School is one of Sciences Po’s seven graduate schools and offers programmes starting at Master’s level. What makes it different is that it also awards doctoral degrees. While each of the other schools focuses on a certain field, the Doctoral School’s course offerings are primarily organised by discipline, including the five disciplines that structure Sciences Po’s intellectual mission: law, economics, history, political science and sociology. Less formally, I would say that the Doctoral School is the nexus for Sciences Po’s two fundamental missions: research and teaching. Pedagogy is central because the goal is to educate students by teaching them the concepts and methods of social science research. But the Doctoral School is also a key player in research at Sciences Po; as is the case at all higher education institutions, PhD students are critical to our institution’s research capacity. This is true in both quantitative terms – Sciences Po’s permanent faculty includes around 200 researchers and research professors, and double that number of PhD students – and in qualitative terms, because PhD students’ research reflects the most advanced theoretical and methodological innovations in their respective disciplines.    

What defines your school compared to others in the research landscape?

Compared to its counterparts in France and worldwide, the Doctoral School stands out in two ways. In France, it was one of the first to take the form of a standalone school that integrates Master’s and doctoral programmes on the one hand, and education and research centres on the other. This early structuring allowed the school to initiate crucial reforms and implement an organisation of studies that allows us to go much further today. But the Doctoral School also owes some of its distinctiveness to the special link between Sciences Po’s history and the history of the social sciences. Sciences Po and the social sciences were founded at the same time, in the last third of the nineteenth century. The origins of both derived from the contention that Western societies were experiencing a crisis which science could help understand, if not resolve. That is not to say that the histories of Sciences Po and of the social sciences are one and the same, but rather to emphasise that in France they are closely related, and that the transformations in doctoral education need to take account of this long history.       

You have just joined the Doctoral School: what is your initial assessment?

A lot of work was done under my predecessors, especially Jean-Marie Donegani whom I succeeded as dean. The first major accomplishment was to change the model and ensure that all PhD students would be funded, which is the case today. This is exceptional for a French doctoral school, especially in the social sciences. The other major change was to integrate PhD study into a collective approach. For a long time, thesis supervision depended on the interpersonal relationship between the PhD student and the thesis supervisor. Now PhD research is part of a collective dynamic within the research centres. Admission into a PhD programme is based on a collegial decision. The thesis supervisor obviously plays a key role, but the research centre has a say, as do the Doctoral School and the department. PhD students then pursue their research within Sciences Po’s research centres, where regular meetings are held with the doctoral committees. 

What are your future goals?

My mission is to continue this significant transformation process within the school based on three development priorities. The first priority is to encourage Master’s students from other Sciences Po schools to enter the Doctoral School. The second priority is to develop a multidisciplinary approach. The third is internationalisation.    

Will a research-based Master’s programme no longer be the only path to PhD study?

Research-based Master’s will of course remain the main path, as they offer the most direct access and the most comprehensive and relevant training. But we would also like to give students the option of pursuing their PhD after any Master’s programmes, not just the research-based ones. It goes without saying that we will not compromise on the academic requirements for obtaining a PhD, which remains a highly demanding and necessarily selective programme. Sciences Po must maintain a very high standard of doctoral education if it is to position itself successfully as a research university. The idea is to adapt our course offerings at Master’s level so that students from other schools can test their interest in the basic disciplines and acquire the skills that they would need to pursue a PhD.

You said that your second development priority is a multidisciplinary approach? What is that exactly?

Sciences Po’s research policy defines a disciplinary perimeter encompassing five contiguous disciplines, which share a great many productive points of contact. At the doctoral level, we now need to organise and intensify the dialogue between them, whether through teaching (giving historians the possibility of taking law courses, for example), or through forums for interdisciplinary dialogue, workshops and conferences on a shared topic in which one or two guests from outside the university might take part. Sciences Po’s Laboratory for the interdisciplinary evaluation of public policies (LIEPP) in particular has a long experience with interdisciplinary initiatives that will be extremely useful to us.

Has progress been made with regard to internationalisation?

Initiatives have already been undertaken concerning joint PhD supervision, dual degrees and mobility, and since 2011 international students have represented 40 percent of our PhD students. Now the idea is to internationalise further through a more institutional approach, rather than solely based on individual initiatives or isolated measures. Our goal is to continue attracting excellent students from French institutions – and obviously Sciences Po – as well as top international students.

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