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PhD Program in Kazakhstan: Prolonged Transit or a Catching up Development?

“Kazakhstan, having based its quality assessment of scientific work on Western standards of assessment (Indexes), did not take into account the fact that its science finds itself on the periphery of contemporary Big Science. This situation severely limits, for example, the possibilities for Kazakh researchers being published in Western journals”, – Irina Chernykh, specially for cabar.asia, identifies problems and specificities of implementation of PhD programs in Kazakhstan.

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chernyhHigher and postgraduate education system in Kazakhstan has undergone systemic reforming over the years of independence, which was shaped by a dynamic socio-economic development of the country and its entry into the global market, and thus by the need to improve competitiveness of its human capital. For a period of more than twenty years, new conceptual approaches have been formulated and are being promoted (life-long education), pursuant to which a drastic change of educational model of the higher education has been made. Republic of Kazakhstan is one of the first countries in the former Soviet Union to have introduced a credit system of education (according to the Bologna Convention) and adopted a three-cycle academic system (higher basic education (Bachelor’s degree), higher specialized / academic and pedagogical education (Master’s degree) and Doctorate – PhD).  A key element in the framework of a three-cycle higher education system is a program for preparing PhDs, as it is they, who are expected in accordance with their status to set a general benchmark in scientific and academic development, promote innovative projects and, on the whole, work towards qualitative modernization of the country in all spheres. This analytical review is devoted to topical issues of preparing Doctors of Philosophy (PhDs) in the field of social sciences and the humanities in Kazakhstan, and identifying ways to improve the program.

Factors of adoption of PhD programs of study

In accordance with the official position, the academic program for higher scientific personnel in the PhD format was introduced in Kazakhstan with the aim of the country’s entry into the world educational space within the framework of the principles of the Bologna Process – namely, the adoption of a system of comparable academic degrees. This doctorate is seen as a logical continuation of the preparation of specialists in the framework of undergraduate and graduate programs. Also, as a motivation for the introduction of the PhD degree, a requirement was put forward to improve the academic quality of higher scientific personnel through the inclusion of a mandatory educational component in the framework of full-time study. Currently, the duration of a doctoral thesis is of at least three years with a mandatory attainment of no less than 75 credits.[1]

The question of the quality of the PhD program was determined by at least three factors:

  • Kazakhstan lost its symbolic capital of scientists; to study science became undervalued; a growing outflow of specialists from the sciences was ongoing; scientific degrees were awarded to people who are not involved in the actual research process, that is the officials and businessmen;
  • in Kazakhstan, no academic schools were established in the social sciences and the humanities, based on an internal assessment of a scholar’s contribution; the criteria for evaluation of scientific achievements by public bodies were blurred and became a mere formality;
  • research programs were commercialized and the education system came to be regarded primarily as a business.

As a whole, this has created a serious potential for corruption in the system of degree awards.

The three-cycle structure of higher and postgraduate education in Kazakhstan was introduced in 2004. The PhD program started out in an experimental format for a number of disciplines in 2005. From 2005 to 2011 PhD students who successfully completed their program and defended their thesis, were awarded the academic degree of PhD. The right to assign this degree was granted to institutions of higher learning that carried out relevant educational activities. Since 2011 PhD candidates who have completed their program and thesis defense are being granted the science degree of PhD. That said, the key difference is that the science degree is being awarded by the Committee for Control of Education and Science (CCES) of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan, based on the decree of dissertation councils on thesis defense for the award of the PhD degree, Doctor in the respective field.

Diagram 1. PhD defenses in Kazakhstan according to specializations.


Engineering Sciences and Technology 29%, Social Sciences and Economics 19%, Humanities 13%, Natural Sciences 12%, Law 7%, Medicine 7%, Education 6%,  Agriculture 3%, Veterinary 2%, Services 2%

As indicated in the National Report on Science[2], in Kazakhstan by the end of 2014, 1116 persons had the science degree of PhD. The Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan was planning  for the 2010-2014 period to increase the number of PhD holders up to 2220, while, in fact, by 2014, 878 persons defended their thesis. In terms of specializations, in 2014 dominant were thesis defenses in Engineering Sciences and Technology – 129 (29.1%), Social Sciences and Economics – 85 (19.18%); Humanities – 58 (13.0%), Natural Sciences – 51 (11.51%); Law – 33 (7.44%) and Health and Social Services (Medicine) – 29 (6.54%); Education – 25 (5.7%). The minimum number of dissertations were defended in Agricultural Sciences (15) Veterinary (9) Services (8) and Military Affairs (1).[3]

Correlation of preparation systems for specialists of higher qualification

 As with any innovation, the concept of PhD programs has caused serious discussions at an early stage of its implementation. First and foremost, the discussion touched upon the idea of a three-cycle system of education – Bachelor – Master- PhD: to what extent it is appropriate and more effective than the old Soviet system – Specialist- Candidate of Sciences- Doctor of Sciences. The discussion concerned the period of study in each cycle, the format of the organization of the program, formulization of correlation systems of the cycles within the different systems. Despite the active deliberation on the issues, the ultimate solution to them is not yet found. Thus, if currently a specialist in the framework of the educational process is actually equated to the bachelor, then the correlation of the degrees of candidate of sciences, doctor of sciences and doctor of philosophy (PhD) remains uncertain. In fact, the doctors of sciences, whose  program is no longer being conducted in Kazakhstan, occupy a position above that of a PhD. For example, in accordance with the Law On Education, the teaching staff in public organizations who hold a candidate of sciences and doctor of philosophy degree (PhD) are being remunerated with a fringe benefit in the amount of a month’s minimum wage, while a doctor of sciences is allotted the equivalent of two.[4] Thus there is a formation of a “closed” group within the scientific hierarchy that cannot be replenished and transformed.

The lack of a clear correlation system of academic degrees is still causing complications in Kazakhstan in the process of recognizing educational achievements of a scholar or a scientist, credited in foreign universities. Thus, a person who has received a degree abroad (mainly in the countries of the former Soviet Union), in order for it to be recognized in Kazakhstan is required to publish articles in Kazakhstani journals, recommended by the Committee for Control of Education and Science, Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan. The Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union, signed in Astana on May 29, 2014[5] de jure guarantees the citizens of the EAEU Member States direct recognition of documents on education, but in practice does not solve the issue. It specifically stipulates the procedure for recognition of diplomas of specialists applying for work, for example, in pedagogical, legal and medical sectors. In order to be admitted to these activities in another member state, it is necessary to undergo a procedure of recognition of documents on education, established by the national legislation. The same practice applies to the acknowledgment of academic degrees and academic titles.[6]

The transit nature of the PhD program and the complexity of its development

Today, the PhD program in Kazakhstan has become a given. At the moment, the key issue remains the quality of instruction and development of adequate criteria for effectiveness assessment of the PhD program. Despite the fact that Kazakhstan accepted the contemporary Western model of preparation of PhDs, both the quality of instruction for the specialists and their final product – the theses – raises serious criticism.

The analysis of Kazakhstan’s model of PhD is based on its comparison and contrast with two “external” approaches, which one way or another exert influence on it:

  • the Soviet, implying an academic career with two theses defenses – a candidate and a doctorate, as well as strong governmental regulation;
  • Conventionally Western, with certain nuances as existing in the United States and Europe, as well as in most of other countries.

Moreover, the critics of the system and its supporters alike, rely solely on their own intuitive, essentially – subjective assessments. The reason for this is that, there is no serious independent analysis to date, based on quantitative and qualitative indicators of efficiency and quality of the Kazakh PhD program and its theses (the author, at any rate, was not able to find relevant information in the public domain).

On the one hand, this program offers obvious advantages, foremost among them, is the material support. It includes funding from overseas doctoral fellowships, instructions delivered in the course of the educational process by foreign experts, co-supervision of doctoral students by foreign professors. It also means less of a red tape when submitting documents to dissertation councils, and then to the Committee for Control of Education and Science.

At the same time, there is a record of significant problems related to the “transitional” nature of the PhD program in Kazakhstan: it continues to combine elements of both the Soviet system, and conventionally Western. Let us consider two points to illustrate this state of affairs:

  1. As already mentioned, at the end of the doctoral program, its graduates receive a science degree of PhD, which is provided by the state entity – the Committee for Control of Education and Science. Additionally, the basis for the degree award is the obtainment by a doctoral student of the required number of credits in the course of study, the thesis, and publication of a certain number of articles in the publications identified by the Committee for Control of Education and Science. In fact, the state agency can monitor the quality characteristics of only the last two criteria. The educational process is almost completely transferred to institutions of higher education within the concept of academic freedom. Combined with continuing public funding of PhD programs and, accordingly, the lack of a real competition of higher education institutions in PhD programs, this situation leads to the fact that the field in contemporary philosophy of science, referred to as “personal knowledge”, turns out be outside the scope of quality assessment of PhD programs.
  2. There remains the Soviet tradition of dividing science into academic and university categories. However, when it concerns research in the field of social sciences and the humanities, universities have not yet become the centers of scientific research. An analysis of the activities of relevant departments reveals the following tendencies:
  • Lack of a systemic link between research activities and implementation of their results into the educational process as courses of study;
  • Decline in prestige and significance of research activities among teachers and a decrease in the number of teachers (young ones, in particular) involved in research activities;
  • discrepancy between results of research activity of teachers and their salary, which is calculated against their teaching load (“I get paid for my teaching load, therefore it is not necessary to engage in research”);
  • Reduction of research activity, as a rule, to preparation of a qualifying work in pursuit of one degree or another. Availability of a degree does not always guarantee an instructor’s ability for high level research and teaching;
  • A large teaching load (650-700 hours per year) does not allow the instructor to develop all the courses he or she teaches, based on research. Costs required for the development of an individual course (based on research) are disproportionately higher than for the development of a basic compulsory course.

Yet another issue is the question of academic supervising of doctoral students. Only a supervisor who is engaged in research activities, can prepare a high-quality PhD. In the universities of Kazakhstan research work in the social sciences and humanities is virtually nonexistent as a practice. This does not suggest that the universities do not have talented researchers, the problem rather lies in the high volume of the teaching load, bureaucratization of the educational process, requirement of a huge number of various reports, social work (supervisory responsibilities, advising, dormitory duty shifts, etc.) which is very time-consuming.  A factor of no less importance, is to motivate accomplished scholars and talented teachers, with incentives (including financial) to assume responsibility for supervising doctoral students. As of late, there has been a reduction in financial incentives for doctoral supervising. Furthermore, if a doctoral student, for whatever reason, was not available for thesis defense, a large part of the responsibility falls on the supervisor, including for the quantity and quality of articles published in journals with a non-zero impact factor.

The problem with the outflow of specialists from academia still remains to date. As stated in the National Report on Science, prepared by the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan, “in Kazakhstan, the problem with replacement is caused by a slow rate in growth of research personnel capacity, a low absolute number of doctorate defenders, and the fact that most of them find occupation in the fields outside of academia”.[7] In accordance with the report, by the end of 2014 the number of PhD degree holders in Kazakhstan was1116 while the number of PhDs engaged in research work amounted to only 335, or 30.0%.

Peripherality of Kazakhstan’s science and the problem of establishment of academic schools

A common problem of social sciences and humanities in Kazakhstan is the lack of academic schools here, as an association of people working in the framework of a single theoretical and conceptual approach, of a unified methodology. In the best case scenario we can speak of “quasi-schools”: a situation where a few people defended their theses under the supervision of a professor and in the framework of a similar subject. This leads to the fact that the level of theoretical understanding and methodological basis of doctoral students remains insufficient in order to meet the criteria set for the PhD thesis defense.

The results of the research process, as a rule, are presented in the form of descriptive texts, in which the declared findings are not supported with a theoretical and methodological basis and, therefore, cannot be either verified or denied, as required by the standards of academic research.

In matters of comparison of the Kazakh model with Western ones, it is important to structure contemporary Big Science along the center-periphery lines. Kazakhstan, having based its quality assessment of scientific work on Western standards (Indexes), did not take into account the fact that its science finds itself on the periphery of contemporary Big Science. This situation severely limits, for example, the possibilities for Kazakh researchers being published in Western journals. The main obstacles on this path are unrecognized abroad Kazakhstani “quasi-schools”, inaptitude of articles to Western standards (with description of the research methodology, formulation of hypotheses, as well as – the summary of evidence and clear arguments), poor quality of academic language (English—foremost).

Yet, there are internal problems with publication of scientific results as well. Kazakhstani journals, included in the list of scientific publications, recommended by the Committee for Control of Education and Science for publication of the main scientific results (publication in which is required for admission to the thesis defense), often do not meet even a minimum level, both in terms of formal criteria and content.  In these journals, widespread is the practice of publishing articles for a fee, charged to the author (one of the few exceptions are the journals published by the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, in which publication is free of charge). At the same time, the published articles do not undergo an actual review. Moreover, these journals do not meet the criteria of journals, that have, in accordance with the database of  Thomson Reuters Company (ISI Web of Knowledge, Thomson Reuters) a non-zero impact factor, or are included in the Scopus Company database. The demand on these journals by the academic community, with a rare exception, is extremely low – they are simply not being read, which leads to a lack of competitive academic environment with open scientific discussions.

In these circumstances, the publication of academic articles in journals of Kazakhstan becomes a mere formality, without making young scholars recognized while adding, at the same time, to the latter’s financial burden.

Conclusions and recommendations

Thus, one can affirm that in general the apt decision to introduce in Kazakhstan the three-cycle system of education Bachelor – Master – PhD is being in a transit state. This leads to the fact that there is still a number of problem areas that need to be addressed in order to improve the effectiveness of the program on the preparation of PhDs.

One of the key tasks of the Ministry of Education and Science at present, according to the author, is to work towards the formation of a competitive academic environment and academic discussions, which should be based on academic journals (primarily of domestic publication). In this respect it is advisable:

  • to develop a national Science Citation Index (similar, for example, to the Russian Science Citation Index) – a national bibliographic database for academic citing, accumulating publications of Kazakhstani authors, as well as information about the citation of these publications;
  • ensure inclusion of articles in the list of academic publications recommended by the Committee for Control of Education and Science, for publication of the main results of research activities—only in those publications that conduct actual article reviews acceptable for publication;
  • initiate and support development of Kazakh academic journals with the aim of their acceptance in the database of Scopus and Thomson Reuters.
  • Given that the Ministry of Education and Science, represented by the Committee for Control of Education and Science is the key structure in awarding the PhD degree, there is all the more reason for it to have a more active involvement in the shaping of the PhD program curricula. Thus, there is the obvious need to include courses on academic writing skills, research method and mandatory seminars on methodology, in which doctoral students would develop their own research methodology on specific topics, and publicly defend them.

Already at the outset of the PhD program’s implementation, it became apparent that there is a need for a post-doctoral institution, which is present at almost all foreign universities. This mechanism could be one of the most effective incentives to maintain motivation of the PhDs to develop university research.

The question of funding for doctoral studies remains to be a challenge. Whereas until recently it was provided exclusively by the state, now a doctoral student can study on funding from any concerned agency or other institutions. However, this does not eliminate the question of what criteria are considered by an institution of higher education to earn public funding. Contemplations are being made that it would be desirable to develop and implement an independent rating of university PhD programs, which could serve as a guideline for applicants as well as the Ministry of Education and Science in the allocation of funding.


[1] The Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Decree of August 23, 2012 № 1080 On approval of the state compulsory standards of education of respective levels of education (amended as of May 13, 2016)

[2] National report on science. Astana, 2015.// http://sc.edu.gov.kz/697/?L=0

[3] National report on science. Astana,2015. – С.48-49// http://sc.edu.gov.kz/697/?L=0

[4] Republic of Kazakhstan. The law of 27 July 2007 № 319-III «On Education” (with alterations and amendments as of April 9, 2016)

[5]Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union, May 29, 2014// (http://www.consultant.ru/document/cons_doc_LAW_163855/)

[6] Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union, 29 May 2014, Chapter XXVI «Labor Migration”, paragraph 3, article 97.

[7] National Science Report. – Astana: Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2015.

Author: Irina Chernykh, Chief Researcher at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Doctor of History, Professor (Almaty, Kazakhstan).

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect that of cabar.asia

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