Training through and for research

Can doctoral candidates still be considered students? Or are they already research scientists? A programme established by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), offers a dialectical solution to this false alternative and produces an impressive fifty doctorates a year.

Young scientists work for three or four years at EMBL to earn a doctorate, which is awarded by their home universities.
Young scientists work for three or four years at EMBL to earn a doctorate, which is awarded by their home universities. Young scientists work for three or four years at EMBL to earn a doctorate, which is awarded by their home universities.

Every year, more than 500 candidate files from all over the world land on Anne Ephrussi’s desk. The first – and perhaps the hardest – task before the Dean of Doctoral Studies at the EMBL is to whittle them down to a hundred, the number of applicants who will be invited for a week of evaluation. ‘This initial selection is very difficult. We always have a great many excellent candidates, and we cannot take them all.’

The procedure of this evaluation week is well established. Each student has already been asked to designate two areas of interest from the various units at EMBL’s five sites – Heidelberg and Hamburg (DE), Grenoble (FR), Monterotondo (IT) and Hinxton (UK). Within each unit, team leaders interview the applicants individually, take them around the laboratories, and ask them to rank their choices. After this, a final interview tests the depth of the candidate’s knowledge of their subject. Once this selection process – which is designed to match the students’ wishes to the needs of the team leaders – is complete, fifty students will be offered either an EMBL bursary (about EUR 1 800 a month), if they come from one of the 19 participating Member States, or some other form of financial assistance, such as Louis Jeantet Foundation bursaries for students from Central European countries. ‘This very selective recruiting system is a key factor for EMBL, for the team leaders, often very young themselves, may not be in a position to attract the most experienced post-docs. This means that they try to choose doctoral candidates who will build up the scientific reputation of their group,’ Anne Ephrussi explains.

The path to a PhD

The lucky few begin with two months of intensive work in Heidelberg, EMBL’s central laboratory and the most important for fundamental research. The 350-hour programme includes lectures, discussion groups and practical work on the fundamentals of molecular biology. The object is two-fold: to give students with different undergraduate backgrounds a common foundation (this is particularly important for those with degrees in mathematics and physics), and above all to create a “class spirit".

‘Getting to know all the other students in my year on that pre-doc course was the best possible way to start my PhD,’ says Johanna Höög, a Swedish doctorate at the EMBL. After completing theoretical training, each candidate drafts a research proposal and submits it to the Thesis Advisory Committee, which comprises a direct supervisor, who will monitor the day-to-day work, two other EMBL scientists and a professor from their home university.

Once the project has been approved, the students set out on a superb adventure: during the course of the next three to four years they will conduct original research and write a thesis that will have to be defended publicly. During this time they will, of course, be guided by their advisors, to whom they will make regular reports on the progress of their work; but they will also experience the thrill of being a fully qualified participant in the world of scientific research.

The title of PhD is at stake. EMBL has been entitled to award the prestigious degree since 1997, and does not abuse this prerogative. ‘The mission of the EMBL is to foster collaboration between molecular biologists in the Member States. That is why we prefer this system of co-supervision and co-awarding of degrees jointly with our partner universities,’ Anne Ephrussi continues.

To date, 26 agreements with universities in 18 countries have been concluded. Not without difficulty, however, for the conditions under which these degrees are awarded vary considerably from country to country. At the end of the day, common ground is generally found, for the greatest good of all concerned, including the faculty. As the Dean of Doctoral Studies notes, ‘Having professors from the affiliated universities present on a thesis advisory committee has often been the starting point of interesting new scientific collaborations.’