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Are doctoral summer schools for PhD students worth it?

Doctoral summer schools are popular among PhD students. And indeed, they can be a beneficial part of a PhD trajectory. However, PhD summer schools also have some drawbacks. Learn more about PhD summer schools, and the ultimate question of whether they are worth attending.

What are PhD or doctoral summer schools?

Doctoral summer schools are short intensive programmes providing training to PhD students. Most summer schools last between 1 and 3 weeks and are focused on a specific research theme or a particular methodology.

PhD summer schools that focus on a specific theme often resemble a small conference. All selected participant present their research connected to the theme and receive feedback. Furthermore, some plenary lectures are given and discussions are held.

PhD summer schools focusing on a specific methodology frequently aim to enhance PhD students’ knowledge of study designs and quantitative or qualitative methods. These summer schools teach research skills, while selected participants share their methodological approaches and exchange insights.

Additionally, many PhD summer schools have a strong mentoring component. Several established scholars tend to provide feedback and coach participants in one way or another, providing support outside of regular supervision.

Benefits of PhD summer schools

PhD summer schools can have many benefits. These benefits can be divided into content-related benefits and networking-related benefits.

  • In-depth content-based discussions and exchanges with other PhD students, as well as established scholars, working on a similar topic or utilising similar methodologies.

  • The acquisition of knowledge, insights and new perspectives in a relatively short amount of time.

  • In-depth feedback on the PhD student’s research from people other than the daily PhD supervisor/s.

  • The opportunity to practice public speaking and present one’s research clearly and concisely in a friendly environment.
  • Experiencing a different academic environment, namely that of the summer school host institution.

  • The ability to connect with other PhD students who work on similar topics, share experiences and create a mutual support system.

  • Establishing close relationships with established scholars who organise or act as mentors during the summer school.

International doctoral summer schools

Many doctoral summer schools are ‘international’ programmes. This means that they actively select participants from a variety of contexts. International PhD summer schools also try to invite established scholars from different countries.

Exchanging and interacting closely with PhD students and scholars from other countries and contexts can be very enriching.

Research approaches and thematic discussions can differ quite considerably across contexts. Sometimes, language barriers prevent proper insights but these insights can be brought to light through international academic exchanges.

Supervision styles and doctoral trajectories can differ as well. Not only does it allow for reflection on one’s PhD journey. Understanding how academia is structured in a different country can also be very valuable if one considers pursuing an academic position abroad in the future.

Pros and cons of PhD summer schools

PhD summer schools certainly have many advantages, ranging from content-based exchanges to in-depth feedback and the creation of strong networks.

Above all, doctoral summer schools can be a great experience, exploring a new university, city or country while advancing one’s PhD studies.

However, there are also some cons:

  • PhD summer schools can be very pricey. Some PhD summer schools offer stipends or scholarships, but often just for a few selected participants. For everyone else, fees can be very high and not all PhD students’ home institutions cover summer schools.

  • A PhD summer school can derail a research trajectory. While an in-depth discussion is generally extremely valuable, some PhD students feel overwhelmed when they receive a lot of new information and learn about alternative approaches. They may question their research design and have a hard time sticking to their initial plan to complete their PhD.

  • Not everyone can attend a doctoral summer school. Many summer schools follow an elaborate programme including activities in the evening. Everyone who has, for instance, care responsibilities will find it difficult to follow an intensive 1-3 week programme, often abroad.

Are PhD summer schools worth it?

Overall, PhD summer schools can offer a unique academic and social experience. This makes them worth it.

However, …

PhD summer schools are particularly valuable in the second or third year of a PhD. Or put differently, in the time between a preliminary proposal and the actual thesis writing. In this way, they can inform and improve the PhD without interfering too much in the last months, which should simply focus on ‘getting it done’.

Furthermore,

paying for PhD summer schools out of pocket is a no-go! Attending a doctoral school it is not worth it if it leads to financial hardship.

Ideally, departments have funds for their PhD students to take part in such activities. And summer school should provide enough scholarships to allow for inclusive participation.

Lastly, PhD summer schools should not become the norm or a ‘must-have on an academic CV to secure a position in the future. There are many different reasons why not every PhD student has the ability to attend an intensive 1-3 week programme.

Thus, while PhD summer schools can be wonderful and are very much recommended, doctoral summer schools constitute yet another structural issues that need to be addressed in academia.

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