Doctoral Study: The Czech Republic Popular with Foreign Students
According to the figures published by the Czech Statistical Office, higher education has the highest proportion of foreigners of all educational levels. The number of PhD students at all Czech state universities annually exceeds 20,000. The number of foreigners enrolled in full-time postgraduate study has more than doubled in the last nine years from 730 in the academic year 2003/2004 to 1,746 in 2011/2012. The majority of them come from Slovakia, Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Foreign students quite predictably tend to prefer well-respected academic institutions in bigger cities, mostly in Prague, Brno and Ostrava.
Doctoral programmes in the Czech Republic typically consist of three or four years of full-time study which may be extended by another four years of a part-time study. The essential requirements for successful completion of the course include having articles published in international journals, passing the state doctoral examination and an English exam as well as PhD thesis defense. Doctoral students are often involved in research projects carried out by teams of scientists at academic and research institutions. Throughout the PhD programme the students should learn how to independently carry out research, correctly evaluate and interpret its findings, make strategic plans for research, and how to write grant applications.So what is it about the Czech postgraduate study that attracts foreign students?
- Excellent conditions for further study. The Higher Education Act no. 111/1998 states that the same rules apply to all Czech and foreign students at state universities. If a foreign student is enrolled in a course taught in Czech, they don’t have to pay any tuition fees. Moreover, they qualify for a scholarship and are entitled to accommodation in the halls of residence. At state universities tuition fees apply only to students who are enrolled in a course taught in a foreign language. In many countries there are tuition fees imposed on all international students. The serious downside of the courses without tuition fees offered by universities in several other countries is often almost non-existent financial support in the form of maintenance grants or bursaries, and abysmal salaries (several times lower than in the Czech Republic) which are almost impossible to get by on.
- Opportunities to work on interesting and high-quality research projects, including some world-leading ones. Of course, not every lab or institute can offer conditions comparable to world’s top ranking scientific institutions; nevertheless, there are opportunities in the Czech Republic for PhD students to write a very good thesis, especially in the field of natural sciences, as well as some possibilities of international cooperation. Compared to countries such as Ukraine or Russia, the conditions for scientific research in the Czech Republic are considerably better.
- Migration motivated by better future prospects. A substantial amount of foreign PhD students, mostly citizens of developing countries, are not planning a return to their homeland because of bad economic and political situation as well as a rather bleak perspective of finding an employment back home. They would either like to stay in the Czech Republic permanently, or move to other countries with high standards of living. One of the factors that play a role here is undoubtedly the fact that foreigners who are employed in the Czech Republic are entitled to social security and health insurance. This gives them access to the public health-care system, which in many countries is significantly more expensive and in other countries is of a very poor quality.
- These include cross-country differences in degree programmes and the requirement to apply for official recognition of higher education diplomas awarded by foreign universities before being admitted to further study in the Czech Republic. If the application is denied, the prospective PhD student will be forced to look for a suitable course elsewhere.
- Cultural and language barrier. The Czech culture has both Slavonic and western features. For people of those nationalities with a radically different language and worldview integration into local mainstream society may be quite challenging. As a result of that, negative feelings and misunderstandings hinder the students' educational progress and pose an obstacle in effective communication with colleagues at work.
- Lower salaries in comparison with other developed countries. Since PhD students usually work as part-time researchers and are only paid a modest salary, many students from richer countries wouldn’t even think of coming to the Czech Republic for their doctoral studies. However, these worries are to a certain degree unsubstantiated, as the living costs here are also significantly lower.
The majority of foreign PhD students show a great responsibility in their approach to their work and studies, and they value the opportunity to have a job and make advances in their education. Scientific research is an international enterprise, and every research team consists of scientists and students from various countries. The level of satisfaction of research team leaders with the work of foreigners is different in each individual case. Just like any Czech, a foreign employee has to make effort to become a part of the team and be willing to collaborate with others.
The education systems in different parts of the world can vary quite widely and postgraduate programmes of study are no exception. For example, in Russia and in Ukraine PhD students are under a lot more pressure. In Russia they have four years (five years if they study part-time) and in Ukraine only three years (or four if they study part-time) to write their PhD thesis, which is a relatively short time for the task. Unlike in the Czech Republic, extending the length of study is not possible, and neither is re-enrolment in postgraduate courses. The official rules do not permit to burden the students with work that is not directly related to their research project, though, unfortunately, it does not mean that the rule is always followed. A PhD student also has to pass one extra exam apart from the finals and a foreign language exam, there is also a controversial philosophy exam. Russian and Ukrainian dissertation supervisors have more responsibility for the results of their students, and therefore have to pay close attention to their work. If the student drops out of the course or fails their thesis defense, it will also have a certain negative impact on the supervisor. In the Czech Republic, the supervisor’s degree of responsibility for the student’s results is comparatively smaller, and it is typically the student alone who has to bear all the consequences of a failure.
Despite the fact that a postgraduate degree opens the doors to better and more interesting job opportunities, PhD holder can also encounter many difficulties. The financing of modern science is a complicated issue in itself. Finding employment outside of scientific community may not be easy. Scientists who have recently been awarded PhD are frequently rejected by their prospective employers outside of academia because of being “overqualified”. Many companies are simply not interested because they are trying to get cheaper workforce. Foreigners often find themselves in an even more difficult position. Many Czech companies have no previous experience with foreign employees, and therefore are reluctant to hire them. Another problem is posed by the lack of language proficiency in Czech, including the foreign accent. As a result of that, for a foreign PhD holder job-seeking outside the bounds of the scientific community can be a daunting prospect.
Regardless of any possible difficulties, people choose the path of postgraduate study because of the opportunities to do interesting and creative work as a researcher, bring new discoveries and, personally contribute in laying the foundations for the future development of our civilisation.