What is a 'Cotutelle' degree?

It might be (more than) a little cliché, but I am going to start with a definition:

cotutelle

noun 1.  a partnership between two universities or similar research organisations, offering joint supervision of a doctoral degree and providing a doctoral award from both institutions."

[CO- + French tutelle guardianship]             

-- From the Macquarie Dictionary (the dictionary of champions)

I am currently enrolled in a cotutelle PhD program at Flinders University, in South Australia and Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. See the video below that I created for Flinders Induction Day, describing my cotutelle experience so far:

 
Here I describe the benefits of enrolling in a cotutelle PhD. I speak from my own personal experiences so far, as a PhD student enrolled at both Flinders University in South Australia and Western University in London, Ontario.
 

In short, for me the 'cotutelle' degree means that:

  • I am enrolled in 2 universities
  • I am required to be on-campus at each university for a minimum of 1 year (cumulative)
  • My PhD will take 4 years minimum
  • I have a supervisory panel/committee/team (depending one where you are from) that contains both local (for me Adelaidian) and international experts in my field of study
  • I have to meet the requirements of both universities at every stage of the process
    • 2 ethics committees
    • 2 sets of 'progress milestones' (e.g., coursework, progress seminars, formal progress documentation, proposals etc.)
    • 2 examination processes (in my case this will be both the examination of the written thesis, per Flinders protocol, and examination by public lecture and oral defense, per Western protocol)
  • I will write one dissertation/thesis
  • I will finish the program with 2 doctorates

I know right?! It sounds too good to be true! Two doctorates for the price of one (for just a little bit of extra effort)! 

Now 18 months into the program, the full weight of my decision to do a PhD, and to do a cotutelle degree nonetheless, has caught up with me. To be very honest, I initially really just liked the idea of incorporating travel into my doctoral studies, without having to move away from home completely! ... And, of course, I wanted to work with some of my international research heroes. Of course! ;)

But now the reality has set in. PhD is hard (why did nobody tell me this!?!?). So I feel that I can now very openly and honestly provide a (perhaps) more balanced view on the cotutelle... so that people considering doing a cotutelle PhD, or people who have just started one, will have some idea of what they might face: the good and the not so good (in place of the ol' 'pros and cons' list). Enjoy!

GOOD

  • You get 2 PhDs
  • Scholarships can travel with you (may need to be negotiated)
  • You will have remote access to 2 library databases
  • You will have access to 2 internal scholarship databases
    • many universities are now offering 'cotutelle-specific' scholarships
  • You will be challenged like never before
    • did I mention that it is hard?!
  • Your degree will have an international flavour
    • you get to experience a different culture and meet new people
    • you are forced to broaden your perspective
  • There is a potential increase in post-PhD employability
    • double the professional development opportunities
  • You will have greater opportunities for international collaboration during and beyond the PhD
  • You will have greater opportunity to travel for pleasure
    • I had Christmas in New York and New Year in Quebec City- so easy when you are living in the northern hemisphere!
  • You may have greater opportunity to travel to international conferences (the big ones!)
    • Many of the major conferences are hosted in North America or Europe, and if you are already nearby it can be easier to attend
    • In 2016, I went to the Gerontological Society of America's Annual Scientific Meeting, at which there were over 4,000 attendees. It was in New Orleans and I was able to attend because it was only a short 3hr flight from where I was living
  • You benefit from the diversity of 2 different programs
    • Each university runs slightly different courses: I have taken courses in research methodology, in statistics, in theory and in academic writing, all of which are so valuable
  • You get 2 PhDs!

NOT SO GOOD (not bad, but things to consider)

  • For people coming from universities with a 3 year program, the cotutelle may be longer (4 or 5 years, as is typical in North America)
  • You will likely experience homesickness at some stage
    • You are often far from established supports (family and close friends)
    • I was badly homesick for much of the 7 months I spent in Canada, but was much better once I had made some good friends and got immersed in the university culture
    • FYI: Now I miss Canada- sometimes you can't win!
  • You may experience a sense of transience and threats to sense of place
    • I had a long period of time when I felt that I didn't belong at either university -- kind of like a limbo student-- this is still something I am working on
  • At some universities, you will be required to do an oral defense
    • This will be hard (I try not to think about it too much) but many many people have done it before, so I don't think that this should be a deciding factor. I say this now, but will likely not share this optimistic view in the lead up to my own defense (save the date- July 2020)
  • There can be some double-up in what is required from each university
    • I have had to do 2 plans of study, proposals etc.
    • I will have 2 processes to establish my candidacy (I am currently a PhD candidate by Flinders' standards, but still a PhD student by Western's standards-- oh the joys!)
  • The cotutelle adds complexity to an already complex process
  • Negotiating finances can be tricky
    • flying is expensive
    • moving house is expensive
    • travel insurance is expensive

If that is not enough to help you make up your mind, I have a couple of additional comments:

FUN FACTS WITH JESS:

  1. A cotutelle can often be arranged even if you have already commenced PhD study.
  2. Many universities have pre-established connections with international universities (most often in the hard sciences). This is a much simpler way to go, but not available in all fields of study.
  3. Many universities also have the option for a 'design-it-yourself' degree/cotutelle arrangement (as mine is).
  4. Most universities have a cotutelle advisor (or equivalent) nowadays to assist with arranging a cotutelle degree (cheeky shout out to the wonderful Emily Davis, former cotuelle advisor extraordinaire at Flinders University- who also happens to be a fabulous musician- check her out).
  5. It can take a long time to finalise the agreement to even start a cotutelle degree. For mine, it was just over a year between when I first contacted our local advisor, and when all the paperwork was finalised at both ends. It is a long process.

And finally, I have also written a short testimonial for the Flinders university website on this topic:

“I am a Speech Pathologist with a passion for dementia care and communication. I am currently enrolled in a Cotutelle PhD with Flinders University and the University of Western Ontario, Canada. Engaging in PhD study as a Cotutelle student has allowed me to maintain invaluable local relationships with leading researchers at Flinders, whilst also learning from and engaging with inspirational international researchers. In my first year of the program, I have been able to make the most of the opportunities and resources that both universities offer, have had some amazing travel experiences (living through a Canadian winter, visiting New York for Christmas, attending an international conference in New Orleans - just amazing), and continue to build an incredibly supportive and engaging international network of mentors and collaborators. I feel very lucky to have had this wonderful experience and couldn’t recommend it more highly!”

Feel don't hesitate to ask any questions below, or contact me privately by email!

Also check out this post on The Thesis Whisperer- some additional food for thought!

Jessica YoungComment