More women complete doctoral degrees in technology

Doctoral education and doctoral students have changed over the years. The doctoral graduates of today are younger than ever and, in the field of technology, a quarter of them are women.

When the Aalto University Ceremonial Conferral of Doctoral Degrees in Technology begins on 15 June, professor of geoinformatics and conferrer Kirsi Virrantaus will be there to lead the fresh graduates to the renovated Kaleva hall inside Dipoli.

Every one of the doctoral graduates in technology and architecture from the past couple of years has received the invitation to attend the event – 400 in all. Many embarked on postgraduate studies right after finishing their master’s degrees.

‘There was a time when the doctoral dissertation could be the life’s work of a researcher. It could take decades and be completed at the tail end of a full career. These days, the dissertation marks a beginning, not the end. For young doctoral graduates, the dissertation is a scientific driver’s licence that certifies them as full members of the scientific community’, Virrantaus says.

The change is partly due to the development of postgraduate education. Where before it was customary for doctoral students to work alone, today’s doctoral studies are systematic and well supervised.

Every school of Aalto University has its own doctoral programme and doctoral school. Students benefit from courses designed to help in preparing the dissertation, with subjects ranging from research methodology to conducting a literature review. The majority of doctoral students are employed by the university. The amount of support is significantly greater than in earlier times.

The ideal is for dissertations to be completed in four years by full-time doctoral students and in six years by those who study on a part-time basis.

The process of becoming a doctoral student has changed as well.

‘Continuing from master’s to doctoral studies used to be a matter of notifying the university. Entering a doctoral programme now requires an application, and only the most promising students are admitted. These changes have resulted in better dissertations.’

Multiple sciences

Virrantaus completed her master’s degree in architecture in 1977 and her dissertation on the subject of municipal geographic information systems at the Department of Surveying of Helsinki University of Technology in 1984.

‘I studied mathematics and information technology in addition to architecture. It was an early kind of multidisciplinarity. Multidisciplinarity is, of course, a current trend in universities and its effects can be seen in dissertations as well.’

Multidisciplinarity is present in the daily lives of all students of Aalto University. The aim is for every student to complete a minimum of one course from another field within Aalto University. Students of technology, then, should also become familiar with business and art. Taking such leaps will teach students to see things from new perspectives.

‘In working life, it is always useful to be able to understand the ways in which others work and think. When creativity is combined with technological and economic expertise, something altogether new may result.’

One in four

Approximately one in four of the doctoral graduates to be invited to the June ceremony is a woman. When Virrantaus completed her doctorate, she had few female colleagues.

‘The number of female doctoral graduates began to grow in the 1990s. In the era of Aalto University, the figure has stabilised at roughly a quarter.’

She says that no single factor can be credited for the change, though the overall improvement in social equality has doubtlessly played a part. Traditional ideas related to the roles of women and men have faded away.

‘It has probably helped that there are now more women as professors. There is a wealth of role models available.’

From studies to employment

Pointed views regarding doctoral unemployment and a postgraduate flood surface in the media from time to time. Virrantaus notes, however, that people with doctoral degrees in technology represent a small fraction of the unemployed. In 2016, only three percent of doctoral graduates in technology reported themselves unemployed a year after graduation.

A little under half of doctoral graduates are employed by companies, the rest by universities and research institutes in Finland or abroad.

‘Doctoral degrees in technology are in high demand. When doctoral graduates are employed by a company, they bring all of their expertise with them – years of study into the latest knowledge in the field as well as personal research experience. This is the most efficient way of transferring research knowledge into the industry. Research is the key to finding new solutions is.’

A dignified task

Inside Kaleva hall, Virrantaus will address the assembled graduates and present each with the insignia of the degree, the doctoral hat. Five of the graduates are her own students. The conferrer’s task was bestowed upon Virrantaus due to her seniority within the professoriate.

‘It has dignified air about it. Serving as conferrer is an honour and I am delighted by the opportunity’, Virrantaus concludes with a smile.

As far as can be determined, she is the first woman to serve as conferrer in the field of technology in the combined history of Helsinki University of Technology and Aalto University.

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