Conversations About Complex Issues. Part 6: When Elevation Could Mean Downfall

Conversations About Complex Issues. Part 6: When Elevation Could Mean Downfall

This issue of the blog is dedicated to one of the questions of scientific state certification, which has again become very relevant for the university community again due to the recommendation of the Russian Higher Attestation Commission (HAC) under the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation dated 2022.10.26 “On expanding the forms of submission of dissertations for the degree of Candidate of Sciences, who prepared a dissertation in graduate school.”

According to the Bologna system, the degree of Candidate of Science can be equated to PhD. To do this, the holder of the Candidate degree will have to go through the procedure for recognizing this degree in their home country. In the Russian Federation, after receiving the degree of Candidate of Science, one may work on a doctoral dissertation, after which the degree of Doctor of Science is awarded. This degree is equivalent to the degree of Dr Habilitatus in the European system, with the assignment of the academic title of Professor.

– Professor Galazhinskiy, at the end of the last issue of your blog, you announced the topic of our next conversation, which is “The role of the social sciences and humanities in shaping the cultural identity of the younger generation.” However, apparently, today you intend to talk about something else?

– Yes, but we will most definitely get back to the topic announced last time. Moreover, it is the cultural-civilizational issue that worries everyone today, regardless of which line of the ideological front they are on. This was shown by the heated discussions on social networks that flared up after the release of the last issue of this blog. But now I would like to focus on another issue which was recently outlined by the HAC. It recommended expanding the dissertation submission formats used by applicants attempting to obtain a Candidate of Sciences degree. It should be noted that universities involved in the training of scientific personnel were invited to discuss this recommendation and send their comments and suggestions to the HAC for their consideration before making a final decision on this issue.

– It turns out that dissertation research and dissertations in the usual sense are not the same thing, since the formats of the former are expanding, and the latter is being replaced by scientific reports?

– Quite right. A dissertation research is a research paper, the successful defense of which allows the applicant to be awarded an appropriate qualification or academic degree. And it can be executed and presented by the author in at least three formats: a fairly voluminous and coherent text, based on the results of the conducted research (150 pages or more), a published monograph, or a scientific report. In fact, all these formats were known before. However, the most traditional of them was the first, which we all call dissertation out of habit. As for such formats as a monograph or a scientific report, they were presented for defense relatively rarely and, as a rule, only by applicants for the degree of Doctor of Science, who by that time had several dozen publications.

Now it is a matter of allowing Candidate degree students to submit a report based on at least five scientific papers published in highly-rated peer-reviewed journals instead of a dissertation. So far, this recommendation applies only to full-time graduate students in technical, mathematical physics and natural sciences specialities who have completed research programs “requiring significant experimental research” on time. Probably, such a reservation is due to the opinion that three years of postgraduate study is not enough time to conduct truly significant research and formalize it in the form of a dissertation. At the same time, it is noted that at least 25% of graduate students will be involved in the experiment, and if it is successful, this form of defense will subsequently spread to a wide range of scientific specialties.

– Over the past two decades, we have gotten used to the requirements of the Higher Attestation Commission regarding the preparation and defense of candidate and doctoral dissertations constantly being tightened. And then this sudden indulgence for applicants! Why is it happening?

– Despite the fact that the graduation statistics in Russia have improved significantly in recent years, there is still a shortage of highly qualified scientific personnel. Taking into account that our country has switched to import substitution and almost complete self-sufficiency, we feel the shortage of such personnel intensely. There is one more point which isn't very positive: the number of post-graduate students defending on time is about ten times lower than the number of successful graduates. Hence, the desire of the Ministry of Education and Science to solve this problem with even the most non-trivial measures, in general, is understandable.

However, representatives of the academic community have different attitudes towards the proposed innovation. Some believe this will greatly facilitate the work of graduate students and motivate them to more serious experimental research; others are sure the report defense format can only take place in an absolutely exceptional case.


– What is the position of Tomsk State University regarding the indicated recommendation of the Higher Attestation Commission?

– This position was formed after a series of working meetings with the heads of the Science Department and the TSU Department of Training and Academic Attestation. It is based on our common opinion that a positive decision on the draft recommendation of the HAC requires significant preparatory work. In this regard, we formulated several specific and well-founded proposals that were sent to the Higher Attestation Commission. And we hope that they will be carefully considered and taken into account when making a final decision.

– Is it possible to give us more details?

– Firstly, we need a procedure, and hence an appropriate document, conclusively confirming that the applicant has indeed carried out significant experimental research with significant results. This means that objective criteria for such significance must be defined. Secondly, the applicant must submit an extended abstract (at least 50 A4 pages) that adequately and fully reflects the results of the study. For example: in India, post-graduate chemistry students (under the Anglo-Saxon scientific tradition) submit dissertation abstracts of 130-160 A4 pages! Thirdly, the author's abstract, in addition to copies of the applicant's scientific publications, must be accompanied by evidence of his or her personal contribution to the process of preparing the materials published in the articles, since a group of researchers is usually involved in experimental work. Finally, it is necessary to clearly define what is meant by "publications": articles, reviews, patents, or conference proceedings included in international databases.

In general, we consider it inappropriate to introduce the institution of defense of candidate dissertations based on reports right now, since:

– graduate students with the required high performance without problems, publicly and openly defend their dissertation in the dissertation council, which has a great educational effect and resonance in the graduate student community (especially when stimulating early defenses);

- the introduction of the institution of defense of candidate's dissertations on scientific reports will lead to the creation of two subsystems of candidates of sciences and, possibly, manifestations of corruption. It will become in the near future the cause of the multiplier effect of a decrease in the quality and level of reproduction of scientific personnel, which contradicts the strategy of scientific and technological development and security of Russia;

– writing a thesis as a holistic scientific work is a special, creatively saturated period in a person’s life, when not only the scientific worldview “matures”, but also the groundwork and own ideas for future scientific and practical activities occur.

– Does it mean that you admit that applicants for a Candidate of Science degree can submit not a dissertation, but a report for defense, albeit subject to certain conditions?

– We allow it, but only as an exception, not the rule. Let's say the applicant actually managed to conduct very significant pilot studies with significant results that need to be put into practice as soon as possible, which is confirmed by authoritative experts. Obviously, such an implementation will be more successful if the applicant participates in this process in order to control certain aspects of it.

But let's be honest, this doesn't happen very often. For the most part, graduate students do not rise to such a level, often for objective reasons, due to the lack of special competencies and experience necessary for this. Of course, very special cases cannot be ruled out. When, for example, the genius of the applicant, as a pioneer in any technical field or science, is combined with an innate inability not only to write too voluminous integral texts and even more correctly, but even to read them. At the same time, persons with dyslexia and dysgraphia have a very developed imaginative thinking and creativity. Although in childhood, they are often mistaken for lazy or mentally challenged. It is known that Michael Faraday, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein suffered from dysgraphia and, at the same time, dyslexia. Special cases are geeks who have not “burned out” by adulthood. Lev Landau, who graduated at the age of 13 and studied at the university in two faculties at once — physics, mathematics and chemistry, — at the age of 26 was awarded a Doctorate in Science without defending a dissertation for the discovery of a new direction in science. Thus, exceptions only confirm the general rule.


– Nevertheless, the authors of the HAC recommendation are apparently very optimistic about the real possibilities of the modern average graduate students, since they cite experimental studies as the main argument, the essential nature of which does not allow graduate students to formalize their results into a full-fledged dissertation over a three-year period of study. In other words, it is a priori assumed that the vast majority of graduate students are still capable of such serious research. But they simply do not have enough time for both significant experiments and detailed description, so only 10% of graduate students defend their dissertation time.

– I don’t want to offend anyone, but I’m afraid that the reason for such sad statistics is not at all in the complexity of the ongoing research and not in the short period of graduate school, which, by the way, has not changed for decades. It is because the remaining 90% of graduate students are simply not fully prepared for either. By the way, if we conditionally imagine today's average group of students of thirty people, then here the effectiveness is about the same: no more than three or four people manage to do everything on time with high quality. The rest are constantly hampered either by extremely “short” deadlines, or problems with the computer, or something else. The statistics on timely dissertation defense is also affected by such a factor as formal selection for graduate school. But there is another very important reason.

The current graduate students are mainly people born at the junction of generations “Y” and “Z”, forming the so-called echo or mixed generation with all its advantages and disadvantages. They are partial carriers of the values and characteristics of both the “Y” (“millennials”) and the “Z” (“zoomers”). Moreover, some of the characteristics of both are common. So, for example, compared to the even earlier Generation X who loved to learn and valued education, the Ys and Zs love to get an education, studying not disciplines as a whole, but those aspects that seem useful and, as a result, are without a systematic education and its benefits. Others have degrees to spare. But, in general, the level of skepticism about obtaining a diploma of higher education among this mixed generation is very high.


– It seems to have been recently asserted that among young people, it is now “fashionable to be smart”? 

– Rather, "to be considered smart", which is not the same thing. To be truly smart, you need to know a lot and have critical thinking. Most of today's young people in their twenties and younger, like all digital natives, are well versed in the ways of obtaining information, but it is difficult for them to systematize it and turn it into knowledge. They can multitask, but it is extremely difficult for them to focus on any one task in order to study it in depth and solve it. However, even such seemingly universally recognized advantages as the ability to work with information and the ability to multitask are now being questioned by some researchers and are classified as "urban legends". We have already talked about this in an earlier blog post. Not having the habit of memorizing (and why, if you can always turn to the Internet or a database on a flash drive?), they do not have the necessary amount of knowledge and information offline. Preferring to do only what is interesting, it is difficult for them to force themselves to do what is necessary, but not very appealing. While they have experience in various kinds of testing such as the Unified State Examination, they do not have the experience of discussions or the experience of argumentation. Finally, the lack of close reading skills prevents them from mastering (that is, reading to the end and understanding) complex, voluminous texts. To deny this state of affairs is to turn a blind eye to reality. True, it should be noted right away that the existing variants of the socio-psychological profiles of both "Y" and "Z" differ significantly depending on the reference points of these generations. 

– In any case, all these profiles need to be seriously studied. And not only to provide the necessary data to marketers, right? 

– The fact that today it is marketers, and not educators, who continue to be most active in trying to better understand the younger generations, indicates that modern society is still thought of as a “consumer society”. In order for it to finally really become a “knowledge society”, school teachers and university professors, of course, must be even more active in studying the characteristics of new generations. Unfortunately, practical pedagogy is still one of the most inert areas of professional activity. Meanwhile, in order to teach modern “zetas” and “alphas”, previous knowledge and rich teaching experience are absolutely not enough. The same applies to postgraduate studies. In the next year or two, graduate schools will no longer accept a mixed generation, but pure "zoomers", whose socio-psychological profile is unlikely to please their future academic supervisors. 

–Based on this profile, it turns out that the vast majority of "zoomers" in principle will not be able to study in graduate schools due to the underdevelopment of their analytical thinking, inability to solve large complex problems and control "deadlines". Then, perhaps, the desire of the Higher Attestation Commission to at least to some extent reduce the requirements for the format of a Ph.D. dissertation is quite justified? 

–Firstly, postgraduate studies were originally conceived not for the “overwhelming majority”, but for the most talented and capable. That is, approximately for those same three or four people from each student group who always manage to do everything on time and with high quality. Of course, to one degree or another, they will also have some not-so-great Generation-Z features, but individual qualities such as talent and hard work will override them and evoke all other characteristics. Another thing is that it is these young people who do not always reach graduate school due to their lack of a strong interest in science. This is where universities should focus, relying on the generational characteristics of the “zoomers” to bridge the divide and to continue to tirelessly support this interest in graduate schools. To do this, academic leaders must change their thinking and reconsider their style of working with graduate students in terms of how they fit the zoomers' idea of an ideal leader.

 This does not mean that they should indulge them in everything, praise them all the time and politely remind them of publication deadlines. This means that, first of all, there should be no "routine", outright boredom and useless work, which the Zoomers are most afraid of. The leader must constantly inspire his students with his own attitude to work and passion for science. Feedback, since it is so important to the Zoomers, should be given as often as possible and preferably through the communication channels that this generation loves so much. Why not go along with the preferences of Zoomer graduate students to work on a flexible schedule or remotely, at least for some periods, if this does not contradict the nature of the experiments being carried out?


– How can one develop interest in science among the “talented and capable” even at the university?

– There are many ways. The main thing is that they are applied constantly, and not from case to case. Olympiads and various competitions, conferences, scientific tourism, exhibitions, installations, live meetings with famous scientists. Yes, a lot of things have already been invented! It is important that all this is done not just for show, and that at the same time students are not so much spectators and listeners as interlocutors, organizers, and inventors. It would also be nice to introduce a mandatory course like “The History of Great Scientific Discoveries”, domestic and foreign, into the program of all educational areas. Then there will be an interest in science as such, and an understanding that Russian scientists have always made and are making a worthy contribution to world science. This course should be not only very informative, but also clear, memorable for its unique cases, so that the very word “science” evokes bright positive associations. And, of course, try to create appropriate conditions for the manifestation of any scientific initiatives of students, no matter what level and scale they are.

If you go to the main TSU website in the news section, you can see how much importance we attach to systematic work with young people, developing their interest in science. Every week there are scientific events and events in which students participate in one way or another. This is also evidenced by the fact that Tomsk State University is traditionally among the leaders among Russian universities in terms of the number of medals and prizes of the Russian Academy of Sciences for young scientists and students. But we can't stop there, we need to look for and apply new methods of involving young people in science, keeping in mind the differences between generations.


–Yet, let me ask you the most sacramental question: why do most graduate students need to write a dissertation today? Why can't we limit ourselves to a more concise genre - a scientific report? At first glance, it really corresponds more to the real capabilities of the "Zoomers"!

- As Lomonosov would probably say, then you need to write a dissertation, that puts your mind in order. Today, many experts note that the Zetas, like all digital natives, have big problems with analytical and critical thinking. If a dissertation in its classical format is removed from graduate school, then, by and large, there will be nothing to develop the intellectual abilities of graduate students. What kind of "scientists" will they be if they are incapable of a serious analysis of certain aspects of human life and society? In the absence of a critical attitude to already existing scientific theories and technologies, will they be able to create their own theories and technologies? In the process of working on a full-fledged dissertation, such invaluable competencies as the ability to analyze and systematize sources are worked out; identify a problem situation in a particular area of knowledge or practice; generate it to the level of the main problem of your research; to formulate in accordance with this its main goal and break it down into separate, but interconnected tasks; to select the most optimal and effective methods for their solution, and not the first available methods; put forward and prove their hypotheses; build the structure of the dissertation and ongoing experiments; logically, competently and reasonably express their thoughts. I'm not talking about the fact that when writing a dissertation one has to study a very large number of domestic and foreign scientific sources, which immediately leads to a significant expansion of the scientific horizons.


Even if a graduate student, in accordance with the new recommendations of the Higher Attestation Commission, writes not five, but more scientific articles, this still will not replace the qualitative change in his cognitive potential that the preparation of one full-fledged dissertation gives. The number of neural connections acquired by him in the latter case will be incomparably greater. All of the above acquired research competencies will be in demand in every new scientific, technical, defense, social and business project that a young Candidate of Sciences wants to take on later. Not to mention the fact that having prepared a dissertation, a young scientist will write a monograph much easier and master any other scientific genres: an article, a critical essay, a review, and others. The development of all these competencies is the formation of complex thinking, the possession of which is mandatory for every real scientist. This is the main goal of postgraduate studies, which cannot be achieved without working on such a fundamental genre as a dissertation. "Elevating" as many young people as possible will not in itself improve the situation in domestic science, economics and other spheres of society, if at the same time they do not fully develop research competencies and complex thinking. The abolition of dissertations, if it is introduced, ultimately, for all graduate students and all scientific fields, will nullify the main tenets of the three-year graduate school training.

– Maybe it’s worth at least facilitating the procedure for defending a dissertation? Do not force the applicant to experience three hours of nervous stress, speaking to the members of the dissertation council and listening to their often harsh assessments of the work he has done. Limit yourself to posting the text of the dissertation on the site, taking into account the fact that the dissertation has already passed the examination and pre-defense. Isn't that enough?

– In this case, this is not just a formal procedure. This is a very important rite or ritual of initiation or matriculation, marking, as they say in dictionaries, the transition of an individual to a higher stage of his development within any social group with the assignment of a new status to him.


It must be understood that initiation is not only an attribute of ancient civilizations and secret societies, reflected in their myths and legends, but also an integral attribute of all traditional cultures, which undoubtedly include university culture. The main function of this ritual is to symbolically transfer the knowledge and experience of the older generation to the younger one. The importance of various kinds of initiations lies in the fact that, thanks to them, the cultural identity of a particular social group or institution is maintained. And the longer these rituals live, the longer the cultural identity persists.

At one time, I was struck by a fact revealed by Clark Kerr, president of the University of California at Berkeley. I have already spoken about it more than once in this blog, but it is very relevant for today's topic, so I will turn to it again. So, according to Kerr's research, 70 of the 85 European institutions founded before 1520 (including the Catholic Church and the Swiss cantons) that still exist are classical universities! From this, we can conclude that the identity of the classical university is the most successful identity ever developed by European institutions. Everything passes, and such centuries-old universities as Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, remain in their places, engaged in the production of new knowledge and new generations of researchers and specialists. Such an extraordinary, almost unprecedented institutional vitality of the traditional classical university is explained precisely by the fact that its culture, like the culture of the church, is based on rituals that the bearers of these cultures try to preserve at all costs. In a classical university, these are initiation rituals for students, as well as bachelors, masters, doctors of sciences and honorary professors with the issuance of appropriate robes and headdresses; annual university processions.


In a certain sense, academic councils of the faculties and the university can be attributed to rituals, which are always carried out according to certain regulations. And, of course, modern “initiations” are the defense of dissertations - master's, candidate and doctoral, which, although they have undergone very big changes, have not lost their symbolism, status and function of maintaining the cultural identity of the university community. If we continue to simplify protection procedures or even get rid of them, then very soon there will be an irreversible "depersonalization" of the university cultural identity. And in the end, the University will indeed die. And no longer symbolically, but in fact, everywhere turning into just a digital learning platform.

Preservation of the dissertation defense procedure as a special “initiation” is of great importance not only for the university, but also for the applicants of scientific degrees themselves. After experiencing it, they feel much more attached to the academic community than if this procedure had not been in their life. Public defense of the results of your research increases confidence in your new Ph.D. status and self-esteem, which is also very important. Yes, the applicant is always worried, anxiously waiting for the end of the defense. But on the other hand, he also experiences a great sense of joy and pride when it ends successfully for him. In addition, when preparing his speech at the defense and answering the questions of opponents and members of the council, the applicant develops such competencies and skills as stress resistance, argumentation, the ability to quickly understand the essence of the issue, oratorical skills and others. The dissertation defense procedure is already simplified to the limit compared to the past.


In many European universities of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, there were three mandatory stages for obtaining a degree, not counting the preparation of the dissertation itself: a public examination in the presence of faculty professors, which could last several days and at which any questions that occurred to the examiners were asked; reading several public lectures and the actual defense of the dissertation, which also sometimes lasted several days. However, they then celebrated too and for a long time as well.

Today, the entire defense takes place, as a rule, in three hours. Can it get any shorter? A candidate for a PhD degree is given no more than 10–15 minutes to speak today, a doctoral degree - no more than 20 minutes. In fact, the most risky stage for the applicant is the defense, when he must answer questions from the members of the dissertation council, as they say, "here and now. But it, as a rule, lasts no more than half an hour. As for the pre-defense, you need it, too. As you need a dress rehearsal for a successful premiere.

– If, nevertheless, the recommendation of the Higher Attestation Commission, which so far is still in the draft phase, acquires the status of an order, what will change in the work of TSU dissertation councils?

– I think we have quite clearly stated our position on this matter. Of course, in those very exceptional cases, when applicants carry out serious research with no less serious results reflected in at least five scientific publications and which need to be urgently put into practice, dissertations in the form of a scientific report will be allowed to be defended.

– How do you think the graduate students themselves will react to the news about the possibility of defending with a report instead of a dissertation?

– Of course, there will be different reactions. Surely, many will think that this really can save them from the "unnecessary routine." But this is an illusion. By the way, to prepare and publish five articles instead of two, as before, it also takes a lot of effort and time. But I am sure that those who consciously came to graduate school for the sake of self-development and science, and not just for the sake of prestige, will perceive this news adequately. And there will be a lot of those too. My optimism is based on the impression I received at the December Congress of Young Scientists in Sochi at the Sirius Center.

If you open its program on the website of the Congress, you can see what a huge number of interesting events were organized for students, graduate students, and young scientists who have already chosen their path to science and managed to do something useful. While watching the broadcasts (and there are more than 140 of them on the site), you can understand WHAT exactly worries them the most. And this is not the format of a dissertation work. They are concerned about issues directly related to a particular branch of science, finding investors to implement their projects, processing grant applications, obtaining additional competencies, and the like. They already have something to offer to their regions and country, so at the Congress prizes were awarded to the winners of the competitions of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Russian Academy of Education for their research developments. Among them were young scientists of TSU.

– What would you wish students and young scientists on the eve of the New Year?

– May the new year be a year of exciting research and remarkable discoveries for each of them, regardless of their scale! A year of continued intellectual growth and the realization that they live in a great country, and that the future of this country largely depends on them. We believe in our youth!

TSU Rector Eduard Galazhinskiy

The conversation was transcribed by Irina Kuzheleva-Sagan

Translated by Snezhana Nosova




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