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International dual PhDs gain popularity

A small but growing number of doctoral students are earning their degrees with supervision in two countries.


A new trend in doctoral studies is emerging on the Canadian university landscape. A growing number of doctoral students are choosing to study under a thesis supervisor at two universities – one in Canada and one abroad. The joint thesis supervision tends to go by its French name, cotutelle, and in Canada it is most common with students studying at francophone universities in Quebec who are doing a joint degree with an institution in France.

These are among the findings of a recent survey on joint and dual PhD programs (PDF) in Canada, undertaken by Fred Hall, former vice-president of graduate studies at the University of Calgary, for the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies. Dr. Hall sent the survey to 68 institutions and had 48 responses.

The cotutelle – which literally means “joint guardianship” – is a formal agreement between two universities that allows a student to do part of their academic activities at each. The student must register at both institutions and meet the requirements of their respective doctoral programs. The student has two thesis supervisors but typically only one thesis defence, before a single examining committee appointed by both institutions. Most of the time, the student gets two degrees – a model the students prefer, although often each degree notes that it was issued simultaneously with the other institution. An alternative, the “joint degree” model, offers a single degree signed by both participating institutions.

Université de Montréal is by far the largest adopter of cotutelles with 175 doctoral students pursuing them, according to the CAGS report. Université Laval and Université de Sherbrooke are also heavily involved, said Dr. Hall.

“The agreements concluded between Quebec and France since 1995 have gone a long way to making joint thesis supervision easier,” said Hélène David, vice-rector of international relations, Francophonie and institutional partnerships, at Université de Montréal.

Dr. David notes that French students who study in Quebec now pay the same tuition as Quebec residents (about $2,500 a year) whereas other international students pay close to $6,000 a semester. In 1996, the Conférence des recteurs et principaux des universités du Québec concluded a framework agreement on cotutelles with its two French counterparts to speed up the administrative process. A separate agreement created the Frontenac Scholarship, awarded annually to 10 Quebec and 10 French students doing a cotutelle to finance their stay at the foreign university.

Émilie-Jade Poliquin, a PhD student enrolled in a joint classics program at Université Laval and Université Toulouse II, learned of the cotutelle option during two undergraduate exchanges in France. Ms. Poliquin, who’s on a Frontenac Scholarship, said she found the most appropriate supervisor for her thesis – Mireille Armisen-Marchetti at Toulouse II – by searching the list of authors she had cited most frequently for her master’s thesis.

In recent years, interest in cotutelles and other kinds of joint international doctoral programs has spread to the rest of the country. Almost half of the 48 respondents to the CAGS survey offered some kind of joint or dual degree PhD program. The more involved the institution is with international students, the more likely it is to have these kinds of degrees, the survey found.

The University of Ottawa was the first university outside Quebec to implement a policy on cotutelles, in 2008. “It enables students to gain experience in two different laboratories,” said Martin Bouchard, associate dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies at U of Ottawa. “Sometimes there are opportunities at another lab that don’t exist here.”

The number of agreements with countries other than France, specifically with Germany, China and Belgium, are also on the rise, according to the report. Dr. David of Université de Montréal said that her institution is very interested in developing cotutelles with institutions in Brazil. The joint degrees allow students to broaden their worldview, she said, and professors also benefit – by building networks in international research and publishing in foreign journals.

To be sure, cotutelles come with challenges for both the institution and the student. The survey revealed concerns about language issues (except for French); residency requirements; lack of agreement over which institution is paid tuition; registration requirements; and approval procedures.

Moreover, each province faces its own particular set of challenges. For example, the University of Ottawa opted for the dual degree model, so that it didn’t need to get accreditation from the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities for each student doing a cotutelle.

The time, effort and resources needed to set up some kinds of dual PhD programs are considerable, said Mr. Hall during a presentation at the CAGS annual meeting this past November. Supervisors need to get approval from colleagues to create a new program and help raise funds for travel and student support. The cotutelle model allows the university to work within existing programs, but the administrative processes can still be taxing for both staff and students, as application deadlines are rarely synchronized.

Because these programs are challenging, the report recommended choosing top students and said the student needs a champion at both institutions. One of the best practices uncovered in the survey, said Mr. Hall, is to build on established links of individual researchers who already have international collaborations.

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