At the 2003 conference in Berlin, for the first time doctoral studies and synergies between the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and the European Research Area (ERA) have been discussed. Whereas the Bologna Declaration referred to two cycles which include all programmes of tertiary education (“The second cycle should lead to the master and/or doctorate degree as in many European countries”), the 2003 Berlin Ministerial Communiqué consequently defined doctoral programmes as the third cycle.
As the first and second cycle, the third cycle is described with the Dublin Descriptors. However, no credits or range of credits have been assigned to it. Generally, in the framework of the Bologna process doctoral studies are referred to as the third cycle.
The third cycle includes a broad variety of doctoral phases from pure (doctoral) study programmes to fully independent research. These models have various implications for
- the structure of doctoral studies (free, partially or fully structured)
- the responsibility taken and the resources invested (e.g. staff and facilities for taught parts of the programme) by the home institution
- possible links with enterprises and/or professional bodies
- the relation of mandatory and optional elements for the doctoral student
- the status of the doctoral candidate (student, employee, researcher).
Especially in countries and/or disciplines where traditionally free individual research dominates the doctoral phase, the individuals carrying out these projects are not regarded as students but as early stage researchers/young professionals. At the same time, occasionally it is doubted that in fully taught doctoral programmes original research remains the essence of the doctorate.
In Europe, the core element of doctoral studies in almost all disciplines for centuries had to be self-contained research including a scientific dissertation. However, with influences from overseas, a range of innovative doctoral programmes have been emerging in response to the changes in society and to challenges of a global labour market.
For all three cycles it is important to remember that the variety of programmes mirrors the diversity of higher education in Europe. However, readable and comparable degrees do not necessarily include equivalency of learning outcomes of all qualifications at the same level.