PhD courses in nursing in a cotutorial international regime: a chance to be experimented

Cintia Silva FassarellaI; Lolita Dopico da SilvaII; Maria do Céu Barbieri FigueiredoIII
IRegistered Nurse. Graduate Nursing student at the Porto University and Rio de Janeiro State University International Co-Mentoring Program. Coordinator and Assistant Master Professor at Grande Rio University – Prof. José de Souza Herdy. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. E-mail: cintiafassarella@gmail.com.
IIRegistered Nurse. PhD in Nursing. Permanent Professor of the Nursing College Graduate Program and Coordinator of the Critical Care Nurse Specialization Course at Rio de Janeiro State University, Brazil. E-mail: lolita.dopico@gmail.com.
IIIRegistered Nurse. PhD in Nursing Science. Professor at Porto Nursing College. Porto, Portugal. E-mail: ceu@esenf.pt.

ABSTRACT: This article aims at updating the debate on graduate programs on an international co-tutorial basis in addition to describing key issues in planning and developing this cooperation. The experience reported by a PhD student and supervisors between September, 2012 and July, 2013, described that unique academic training  between the  University of Porto, Portugal and the University of the Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil. International cooperation between both parties proves to be of capital importance. Therefore, it must be organized and planned to assure students’ individual and professional development, as well as to favor international cooperation on graduate courses between Brazil and Portugal. This approach to international educational exchange in nursing is expected to enhance personal and professional experience to the PhD student, on one hand, and to strengthen the relation between the stricto sensu graduate programs involved, on the other.

Keywords: Nursing; international cooperation; graduate education; international educational exchange. 



This paper aims at providing an updated review of the opportunity of an international co-mentoring program for PhD courses in the field of Nursing and describing the main points involved in planning and developing this cooperation model.

The PhD degree taken in the international co-mentorship system is that in which a regular student from one university registers in a different higher education institution abroad1; in this model the student´s thesis will be subject to double mentorship and the student will receive titles from both institutions in strict compliance with prior written agreement between the two institutions.  Such a partnership agreement is possible when the PhD programs of the two foreign universities are comparable and mutually acknowledged, and follow the reciprocity principle2,3.

Currently, partnerships between foreign institutions are a reality, and also a necessary experience for students seeking to gain competitive edge and to globalize their career. It is expected that the development of such partnerships may bring a wealth of knowledge exchange and cooperation which favor students, professors and the institutions themselves4.

The international co-mentorship PhD program between two universities of comparable level is a chance for graduates to enhance their learning and research skills, to stand out in the international academic scenario and to get prepared for future international job opportunities.

In Brazil, students increasingly seek international opportunities.  One of the goals of these arrangements is to improve the quality of higher education, to bring greater knowledge from the contact with different cultures and languages and, above all, to guide the university towards achieving excellence in learning and research5.

The partnership model also fosters scientific development and favors the country´s position in the international scenario.  CAPES – the Government Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education, encourages Brazilian universities to send an increasing number of graduate students for this experience in order to further develop the educational system and bring new knowledge and also welcomes foreign graduate students and researchers to promote further exchange and partnerships and to increase the number of publications produced jointly with international teaching institutions.  For this purpose, CAPES´ National Graduate Plan aims to increase by 2020 the number of PhD´s in Brazil from 1.4 to 2.8 per one thousand inhabitants between 25 and 64 years of age6.

International partnerships expanded with globalization, and the Brazilian government has been encouraging students to pursue stricto sensu education – master and PhD degrees – and successfully entering into international partnerships that encourage scientific production through joint collaborative research and publications7.

In Portugal, the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) encourages international exchange among researchers through bilateral and multilateral scientific, technological and cultural cooperation agreements with international institutions. One of the goals of the FCT is to support international partnerships between Portuguese scientific and teaching institutions and their leading counterparts around the world. At the level of bilateral relations, treaties and agreements, Portugal actively supports the participation of the country´s scientific community in joint projects with foreign institutions. This is supported by the fact that in 2011, when the last report was published, 123 new bilateral projects were kick-started, most of them – 34 – under cooperation agreements with CAPES in Brazil8.


Higher education is known as the sphere of knowledge which strongly influences globalization9.  According to the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO), higher education is in a continuous state of fermentation in its pursuit of excellence and higher quality10.  There is no doubt about the present evolutionary phase of our globalizing world, in which higher education institutions have a duty to be ethical and socially responsible, to apply science for the benefit of society and the economic, social and educational development of the country.

Obviously, the term globalization embraces the development of international relations, and even more so for higher education.  The globalization of higher education and of communications created an closely interconnected world.  However, in order to formalize and materialize these partnerships, we must follow a long and not very well known path, especially because we are forced to face terms filled with very specific and particular values at their core4,5,11.

Advancing globalization in higher education, particularly in Nursing, is troublesome and costly, and at the same time very sensitive, because of the necessary investments from all the parties involved: students, professors and institutions.  Building and monitoring the process requires immeasurable dedication, besides the risk lying in the frontier between success and failure7,11.

Nonetheless, globalization remains of great value for the field of Nursing, promoting individual professional development.  For CAPES, interest in international partnerships has grown year after year, increasing cooperation in the production of knowledge6.

Globalizing education is without any doubt the way to the ultimate goal of expanding knowledge in higher education. The university´s responsibility is enormous, for being efficient in this role and ensuring excellence requires increasingly and permanently globalizing education. In this reality, the university must embrace a dimension beyond the international one; the intercultural dimension in its three branches: teaching, extension and research. It is a given that globalization fosters cultural diversity and better understanding between different cultures and peoples; based on attitude, respect and tolerance between and among distinct societies6,12.

The kind of relationship deriving from international cooperation must be employed in enhancing and broadening higher education through more and better efficiency in the educational process, especially in extension and research, by means of concerted efforts and actions.  By doing this, we will be able to use globalized higher education as a response to the globalization of education.  It is certainly something to experience and explore7,11.


Activities that must take place during the four years of the course are basically focused on compliance with Resolutions N. 3085/2009 of Porto University (UP) and N. 18/2009 of Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ). At UP, the first year in the PhD course is considered as a probation period for execution of the thesis project and to achieve the necessary academic credits to meet the yearly plan.  At UERJ, on the other hand, in the first year students take a combination of mandatory and extracurricular subjects and develop their thesis project with the assistance of a student counselor2,3.

In Portugal, the Bologna Process mandates joint actions for higher education in the European Union countries through their Education Ministers and emphasizes discussion on policies for higher education and future reforms. In Brazil, CAPES, linked to the Education Ministry (MEC), performs an essential role in the development of policies and consolidation of stricto sensu graduation - Masters and PhD degrees – in all states of the country.

One of the most relevant challenges for the graduate Nursing programs in entering into this partnership concerns the different models and methods used by each university.  Knowing and understanding the specific path followed by programs in different continents becomes a necessity7.

At UERJ, the Nursing Graduation Program (PPGENF) is conducted by the Nursing College (FENF) since 1999 with the master degree in Nursing; the PhD in Nursing began in 2009 and includes 58 credits corresponding to 870 hours of activities distributed in three phases: theory, practice and thesis. At Porto University, the program results from a partnership between the Abel Salazar Biomedical Science Institute (ICBAS) and the Porto Higher School of Nursing (ESEP), since 1993 offering the Master´s Course on Nursing Science and since 2001 offering the PhD Course in Nursing Science which, in compliance with the European system for credits transfer (ECTS), includes a total of 240 credits, 60 during the probation year and 180 during the doctorate thesis, corresponding to the total number of 6480 working hours.

The mission of the PPGENF is to provide Masters and PhD training for Nursing graduates with a social and psycho-social focus on health, disease and care processes that are compatible with local, regional and national social reality.  The PhD degree in Nursing at ICBAS aims at assessing health issues among the population and accounting for all elements involved in nursing care, with priority to provide and restructure knowledge in this field2,7.

With regards to application, the co-mentorship system is offered by partner universities with common and acknowledged programs to graduate students participating in the doctorate programs and mentored by at least one guidance counselor from each of the two universities, as agreed and regulated by both institutions.  At the end of the course, students are given a PhD in Nursing Under Co-Mentorship Program which has double validity1-3.

The partnership agreement between the universities must include in detail the entire specific program taken by the student, with all conditions for attendance and co-mentorship.  It is vitally important that the partner universities commit to respect each other´s laws and regulations.

Based on the regulations of both partner universities, the agreement must include: identification of both higher education institutions, graduate student´s identification and the thesis theme, identification of assigned guidance counselors, identification of the participating doctorate programs and their length, the period during which the graduate will remain in each of the institutions to fulfill the necessary credits, the working plan elaborated, and the language and venue for the thesis presentation.

Additionally, the agreement identifies the responsibilities of each party with regards to: covering travel expenses for the jury members; providing certificates from both institutions; enrolling the student regularly in each university and renewing every year or semester, according to each institution´s rules (payment of fees is the students´ responsibility and depends on how much time they stay in each university.  Students must work in each institution for a minimum of one year.  The jury for the thesis presentation must be composed of at least five members, being at least two from each country2,3.

At the end of the process, the agreement must be approved by the following areas of both partner institutions: presidency, administrative board, coordination, guidance counselors and students.  It must be signed in five copies by all the competent levels1-3.


As an example of international cooperation recently established between two universities under the co-mentorship agreement, I would like to share my experience with Porto University - UP and Rio de Janeiro State University – UERJ, from September 2012 until the final signing of the agreement in July 2013.

In July 2012 I left Brazil on vacation and visited a few countries in Europe.  During the tours I visited some universities, envisioning the opportunity of obtaining an international degree.   I must admit that at UP I had an excellent reception and was warmly welcome by the secretariat, who introduced to me the International Co-Mentorship PhD Program. I was not acquainted with this kind of international cooperation and decided to seek the unknown. One month later, upon returning to Brazil, the selection process was about to begin for graduate students, just in time for me to participate and win, thanks to the support of my institution and my family. I went to some universities in Rio de Janeiro which already had covenants and partnerships with UP proposing to materialize a future graduate level cooperation project in the field of Nursing.  When I arrived to submit the proposal at the PhD program, I found a broad lack of information or knowledge, only surprise and questions.

Every successful partnership requires in the first place the development of clear and straightforward dialogue among the parties.  We also know that in order to be efficient, the process requires face-to-face contact, thus demanding that one of the parties travel.

However, when one strongly believes in the successful materialization of a partnership, it does happen.  And that is how we believed and engaged in enforcing the co-mentorship agreement and in materializing it between the two universities.

Precisely in June and July, 2013, after a long and understandably slow bureaucratic journey – for the first time two graduate-level Nursing programs collaborate being in different countries with all their peculiarities – the agreement was signed by the Deans, Directors, Nursing Graduate Program Coordinators, Guidance Counselors, and the graduate student.  Both universities received a copy of the agreement for filing and monitoring.


The process of signing the bilateral agreement is quite time-consuming and may take many months until the final conclusion.  Developing bonds and mutual trust among the parties is of the essence for the partnership to be entered into successfully between the universities.

Since this was a pioneer process for both graduate Nursing programs, we can state that participating in a doctorate course with co-mentorship is, first and foremost, an immense challenge; given that both institutions need to have their rules observed as well as their diverse methodological models.  Besides the possible inherent risks in any international process, there is need for efficient and careful planning in order to favor the stricto sensu graduate programs involved.

The present model of international studies in Nursing certainly brings an extremely invaluable personal and professional experience, besides the chance to get to know a foreign institution, developing bonds and partnerships, experiencing different learning and research models, participating in professional training, observing diverse didactics, experiencing different educational  processes; ultimately, an unmatched opportunity which must be fully enjoyed and which may open doors for new agreements, since this was the first of many future expected joint programs.

As in a typical dating process, international cooperation programs involve risks. Although we know where we start, rarely do we know where we will end up.  The road is dark and winding but at the same time challenging and worthwhile.


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2. The State University of Rio de janeiro. Rules relating to the establishment of arrangements for co-supervision of Phd programs between the UERJ and foreign higher education institutions. Resolution n. 031/2011. Rio de janeiro: UERJ; 2011.

3. University of Porto (UP).  Regulation of Doctorate in Regime of Co-Tutela Internationalization of the University of Porto. Porto (PT): Porto University; 2010.

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