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Esper Cavalheiro: Doctoral training

UNIFESP neuroscientist heading graduate planning committee discusses proposed changes to advanced degree programs

Esper Cavalheiro: the future of master’s and doctoral programs now under debate

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

The Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES), a Ministry of Education agency responsible for evaluating and funding the country’s master’s and doctoral programs, last July created a 38-member committee to design the next National Graduate Education Plan (PNPG) for the period to 2030. The plan, which provides a blueprint for program growth over the coming years, was due to be released in 2020 but was postponed to mid-2023 due to the pandemic. Chairing the committee is Esper Abrão Cavalheiro, a professor emeritus at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) and a neuroscientist with significant contributions to his name in epilepsy research. Cavalheiro has previously been involved in science policy-making as Secretary for Policies and Programs at the then Ministry of Science and Technology from 1999 to 2001, and as chair of the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) from 2001 to 2003. In the following interview, Cavalheiro talks about the ideas being discussed on the committee and the challenges that the new PNPG will be up against at a time when Brazil’s graduate education system is faced with contracting graduate demand and a slump in new advanced degrees (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 315).

What are the main challenges the new National Graduate Education Plan will need to address?
I was involved in developing several of the previous PNPGs. Each of these plans was concerned with expanding the system and the regional distribution of graduate programs. Another frequently occurring issue was the need to train master’s and doctoral talent not only for academic roles, but also for roles in other sectors of society and the economy. Over time, the regional distribution of graduate programs improved, professional master’s and doctoral programs were launched for roles in industry, and the number of new degrees increased substantially. This expansion was desirable, but largely occurred without any strategic direction. Surveys on graduate alumni have shown that most graduates go on to follow a career in academia. They also show that most alumni remain in the region where they completed their degree, with few venturing out of major urban centers. We have also seen large numbers of people with advanced degrees who are unemployed. Our new plan needs to address issues like these.

What approaches are being discussed?
We’ve seen that graduate programs have been centered mostly on a single type of deliverable—dissertations and theses—and related deliverables like papers and patents. To earn a degree, students basically need to earn credits and write a thesis. And that’s it. Programs have never discussed what skills or attributes a PhD needs to develop to be an accomplished professional or researcher. A thesis doesn’t have to be the end goal—instead it should be a tool through which individuals develop an understanding of why we do science and how it is best done. Graduate advisors set out the objective of the thesis, provide guidance, point the way, challenge their students’ solutions, and suggest potentially better ones. This journey provides a rich and challenging experience. The product of this journey, rather than a thesis, is a new individual. And what kind of PhDs should we be developing? What knowledge, attributes, and research interests should they have? What I have seen is that most PhDs know a lot about the specific subject of their thesis, but very little across their broader field of study.

And what skill sets should they develop?
That’s one of the questions we’re trying to answer. But teamwork skills, for example, are critical whether you’re looking to work at a company, create a startup, or work in a policymaking role at a government agency. PhDs also need to be prepared to use a multidisciplinary approach because many of the issues they will be dealing with are cross-cutting. In dealing with issues such as violence or obesity, for example, is a subject-matter expert able to find the answers they need on their own? Certainly not. But solutions can be found through researchers in different fields working together. This reminds me of a conversation I had with professor Isaías Raw. He said: researchers need to go deep down the rabbit hole and acquire knowledge along the way until they have a full command of their field. But now and then they need to go back to the surface and look at what’s happening around them. Otherwise, other fields could end up passing them by. This is the biggest challenge we have today: redesigning our current graduate education strategies by imagining the future roles for graduate alumni and helping them get there, if possible in a career that meets their aspirations.

But making the change will likely not be an easy task. What will need to change in program curriculums and structures?
In the first place, as I said previously, we need to understand what skills will be needed in a world where the dynamics of interpersonal and inter-social relationships are changing faster than ever. I believe it’s more than just about modifying program structures and curriculums; professors and advisors need to believe in their student’s potential and, instead of using a top-down approach to teaching, should show them how to fully develop their potential and apply it in their chosen field of science. This may seem trivial, but giving students freedom of choice would disrupt a long tradition in education.

Most PhDs know a lot about the specific subject of their thesis, but very little across their broader field of study

Do we currently need more master’s and PhD degrees?
I don’t really like setting numerical targets. What we might do is benchmark our PhD headcount against other countries (per capita) and set targets accordingly. I prefer to think in terms of how capable the students graduating from our National Graduate Education System [SNPG] are, and how well they can contribute to the development of Brazil in particular and science more broadly. Training people in strategic fields is probably more worthwhile than having a large number of PhDs in just any field.

What fields are strategic for Brazil?
Many fields that are strategic to our country are also important to humanity. Take, for example, social and economic inequality, which has continued to increase rather than diminish; issues related to sustainability in general—water, energy, food security, conservation, the oceans; forests, etc.; the challenges of population growth and an aging society; emerging and reemerging diseases; space exploration; and the world of artificial intelligence and its ramifications. I also hope that science and technology will engage more closely with basic education.

What progress is being made on these discussions within the committee?
We’ve begun with the following questions: how important will graduate education be in the third decade of this century? What skills and attributes do graduate alumni need to have? I am very concerned to see young people becoming disillusioned with pursuing advanced degrees. We need to find out why and what can be done about it.

Should universities offer more joint graduate programs?
The idea of creating cross-university graduate programs is not new; there are now several of them in Brazil. Looking at how joint programs create a rich, mutually complementary experience, we believe many of our current programs could benefit from working toward common goals. This would also open up new horizons for students and give them an understanding that the world of science is much vaster than what they experience in their limited academic space. But this would require radical changes to the requirements and rules existing in the current system, plus funding for students to travel across a country as vast as Brazil.

Sociologist Simon Schwartzman has drawn attention to what he sees as a negative aspect of Brazil’s graduate education system: the requirement to have a master’s degree as a prerequisite for pursuing a PhD, forcing students to spend long years in college. Do you agree?
The ideal age to enter a graduate program should be determined by the level of one’s curiosity, creativity, and ability to deal with risk. The age when this happens is not the same for every individual. And it is true that there are always exceptions. But most doctoral programs no longer require a master’s degree. Master’s degree programs were previously designed to introduce students to the world of science at a time when this was poorly explored in undergraduate education. They were a way to level up students and fill knowledge gaps. Today they no longer make sense and, as Schwartzman says, only serve to delay students getting doctoral degrees. Today’s youth live in a faster-paced world than I grew up in. Many are put off by having to spend 6 years to get a graduate degree, when most undergraduate degrees take just 4 years. They’re eager to live independently and are only willing to postpone independence if the trade-off is really worth it.

Training people in strategic fields is probably more worthwhile than having a large number of PhDs in just any field

In what ways is the plan being developed to address society’s needs? For example, there are currently a number of graduate programs within industry. Can these be expanded?
In the 1990s, I worked with several prominent professors and business leaders to create the University-Industry Institute (UNIEMP), an organization designed to help graduate students connect to companies with robust research and development programs. Our discussions were initially difficult because the parties were mutually unfamiliar with each other’s interests. But UNIEMP ultimately helped to forge several high-profile collaborations. Communication remains a challenge today; just look at how difficult it has been to gain buy-in for and implement the Innovation Law. It’s inconceivable that this is happening and that our graduate education system has been unable to build collaboration with a sector that is so important to our development.

The most recent graduate program assessment has been challenged in court, and the results for the last four-year period have been disclosed only to universities pending adjudication. How can a consensus be reached on the assessment process?
I believe a consensus has already been reached. I have long learned that the assessment has more aspects to it than showing the strengths and weaknesses of our graduate education system. There are many more interests—financial, reputational, visibility—at stake. A graduate program’s assessment results determine the amount of funding it receives for grants and fellowships, which today account for a considerable portion of university budgets. This means that all universities are eager to perform well. I believe we need to allow enough time for universities to appeal for a review of their assessment results. It will take maturity and good judgment to prevent these things from ending up in court, where cases are not always adjudicated based on the same values as those of the SNPG.

CAPES chairman Abilio Baeta Neves conducted a study last year to inform the discussions on the proposed PNPG. His study reveals a number of concerning findings, one of which is that many graduate research programs are underfunded. How can this be addressed?
The main issue isn’t underfunding, but inconsistent funding. FAPESP has built a reputation for maintaining a reliable stream of funds for approved research projects and grants. When a grant is awarded, a researcher can rest assured that they will receive the awarded funding throughout the grant period. But this is not the case at the federal level. It’s like a bad joke when you get the news that science funding has been curtailed and the money for your research is now “frozen.” They then freeze a little more of it before canceling your grant altogether. Sometimes the fellowships linked to a given research project are maintained, so students will continue working even when the flow of grant funding has stopped. In short, what we need is that grant commitments are kept once research projects have been duly assessed and approved. This would already be a major improvement.

What are the committee’s next steps?
We’re selecting high-level issues that the professors on the committee will now discuss in groups. We’re also currently in discussions with the Center for Strategic Studies [CGEE] to get strategic foresight to inform our priorities in the next PNPG. Foresight is critical in designing the education we will provide to students who will go on to work in fields that are as of yet poorly understood, and where the possibilities are still blurry. We’ve already started the discussion, but there are still more voices that need to be heard. Many more people will be invited to provide their inputs and opinions. Our approach to strategic foresight uses both quantitative and qualitative aspects to model different scenarios. And at each step, after we’ve reached a conclusion on a given subject, we then hold public hearings to collect wider views. We want this PNPG to be as inclusive of diverse views as possible so it accounts for Brazil’s many complexities and humanity’s present challenges. Students in graduate programs need to be aware of these challenges and equipped to help find the best solutions. This is what Brazilian taxpayers expect from us.