"More and more thesis supervisors are asking for better training".

1,900 students are currently enrolled in doctoral programs at the University of Montpellier. To supervise these students, the teaching and research staff are required to pass a "habilitation à diriger des recherches", but many of them would like to receive further training to take on this rapidly changing role. The doctoral college is now offering them additional, optional modules. Details from Gilles Subra, its director.

What has changed in the relationship between a doctoral student and his or her supervisor?
Initially, doctoral supervision was seen as a master-student relationship, with a professor and his apprentice. Fortunately, this concept has evolved. Today, the PhD supervisor is no longer simply a mentor, but assumes the leading role within a training team. In many cases, the supervisor shares the management and supervision of the thesis, which also makes it possible to involve and train future thesis supervisors. The internationalization of doctoral theses, the interdisciplinary nature of research topics, and thesis work in companies have all contributed to the development of co-directorships. Today, the doctorate is seen as a genuine professional experience, requiring appropriate training and not simply mentoring.

Is the thesis becoming more professional?
Yes, whereas the thesis used to be seen as a period for producing scientific knowledge, today it aims to prepare PhD students for high-level positions. For supervisors, this means extending their role beyond research and publication, helping PhD students to develop their skills, identify their career aspirations and advise them on how best to achieve them.

And what does the law say about thesis supervision?
These changes are driven in part by French legislation, which stipulates that doctoral students must be offered additional training. Since 2022, the law has also required the setting up of more in-depth annual individual thesis monitoring committees, to check that the thesis is progressing well, including psychologically, and to prepare for professional integration. As a result of these requirements, more and more PhD supervisors are asking for better training.

What training do supervisors receive today?
The Habilitation à Direire des Recherches (HDR) is a diploma required for those aspiring to supervise theses. To obtain it, you need to justify your supervisory experience and active research activity within a laboratory. Doctoral schools play an essential role in evaluating candidates for the HDR. However, the law does not currently impose mandatory training courses dedicated to doctoral supervision.

To meet this need, the Collège doctoral now offers complementary training courses. What topics are covered?
We organized the first session a few weeks ago, over a total of two days. The first half-day, open to an unlimited number of participants, covered topics such as ethics and scientific integrity, publication strategies in relation to the challenges of open science, and regulatory and administrative issues associated with theses. We also addressed the prevention of psychosocial problems and harassment, and ways of anticipating and detecting such problems.

For those who wished to go further and benefit from more intensive training, we organized a day and a half in small groups, with a maximum of fifteen participants.

Are these workshops?
Yes, that's how the second part of this last session took shape. Participants were able to reflect and exchange ideas on recruiting doctoral students, providing support, resolving difficult situations and managing working time. Generally speaking, they were able to acquire the keys to establishing a healthy and productive relationship throughout the duration of the thesis. For example, we addressed the issue of thesis supervisors' expectations of their doctoral students and the latter's perception of their supervisor. This analysis helped to highlight any gaps that may exist, and to encourage greater mutual understanding.

Who are these courses aimed at?
The courses are voluntary, not coercive, unlike some universities where attendance is compulsory. The majority of participants, around 80% of them, were either HDR candidates or people considering becoming HDRs, but the topics covered, such as publication strategies and open science, can be relevant to all researchers, at any stage of their career.

Who runs these training modules?
We set up a two-person team to run the workshops. A member of the private training firm we hired worked in tandem with Jean-Jacques Vasseur, former director of UM's Balard Chemical Sciences doctoral school. This approach guarantees a local perspective and in-depth knowledge of the problems encountered in the field.

What motivates teacher-researchers to take their HDR?
The HDR is a crucial step in the career of any researcher: it's a regulatory requirement to be authorized to supervise theses, and this investment gives you the legitimacy to lead teams and submit and develop projects. For a laboratory, having a large pool of HDRs enables it to welcome a large number of doctoral students, which contributes greatly to the dynamism and influence of its research teams. It is precisely these PhD students who sign nearly 80% of scientific publications, and thus make a major contribution to the vitality and scientific productivity of the laboratory. Last but not least, there is a financial benefit for laboratories, which receive support from their research establishments in proportion to the number of HDR holders on their research teams.

What about career prospects?
The HDR offers the opportunity to take stock at a crucial point in one's career. After the thesis, the first post-doctoral years are often synonymous with a wide variety of scientific subjects, working environments and an openness to collaboration with different laboratories. At a certain point, it's important to define one's scientific orientations and objectives in greater depth. The HDR is the ideal moment for this. It also assesses your ability to conceive original projects, direct them and raise the funds to implement them. This skill is highly valued in the academic world, so it's a valuable opportunity.

What is the outcome of this first training course?
To guarantee the quality of our training courses, we regularly ask participants to complete satisfaction questionnaires, and the feedback has been very positive, which is encouraging. One particularly interesting aspect of the course was its grounding in real-life situations. The first morning was attended by vice-presidents from the University and the Research and Doctoral Studies Department. This gave rise to a rich exchange of views that went beyond the issue of doctoral supervision.

When will the next session take place?
We haven't yet set any specific dates, but we hope to offer at least two sessions a year. The aim is to hold as many as are needed to meet the needs of our scientific community. We'll adapt formats and content to meet demand.