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"What light do professional doctorates throw on the question of what counts as knowledge in the academy at the start of the twenty-first century?" (Bourner et al. 2001: 81)

Author - Sandra Fisher

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Unmasking the ‘gold standard’ Ph.D.

The aim of the traditional Ph.D. is to promote ‘the capacity to make an original contribution to knowledge in a particular discipline through research’ (Bourner et al. 2001: 72). The traditional Ph.D. is seen as the appropriate vehicle to provide an ‘apprenticeship’ for practising researchers, i.e. academics. However, as indicated earlier in this article Rhodes (2001) and Baez (2002) dispute the effectiveness of the Ph.D. to produce practising researchers. It has been argued earlier that the Ph.D. has become valued as a prerequisite for academic progression. If this is the case it could be further argued that the aim of the Ph.D. as outlined by Bourner et al. (2001: 72) has lost its connection to its intended function of making a ‘significant original contribution to knowledge in a particular discipline’ and is instead serving academic career progression.

A doctoral programme, the ‘new route Ph.D.’ specifically developed to prepare students for careers as academics has emerged (Hoddell et al. 2002: 66). The ‘new route Ph.D.’ is similar to a professional doctorate in that it is a taught programme delivered over four years. It would appear that students of the ‘new route’ Ph.D. may also be attracted to the more flexible and supportive nature of this award and share the same needs as students undertaking professional doctorates. Frame and Allen (2002) in their review of the training of Ph.D. students who are sponsored by the Wellcome Trust note there was some agreement among Ph.D. supervisors that it was ‘neither realistic nor necessarily appropriate to train students solely for a career in academic research’ (Frame and Allen 2002: 99).

To participate in lifelong learning is possibly less attractive and feasible when learning is delivered via the traditional Ph.D. Perhaps when promoting post-doctoral studies among both researching professionals and professional researchers, this should be borne in mind.

I have argued in this article that value-free knowledge production is not possible as there are always interests involved whether these emanate from the academy, academics, industry, etc. I think terms such as ‘disinterested inquiry’, ‘academic autonomy’ and ‘academic freedom’ have become inappropriately connected to each other. ‘Disinterested inquiry’ I do not think is possible. However, freedom to challenge and contest knowledge needs to be separated and guarded in a new ‘ivory tower’. While the academy might maintain this new ‘ivory tower’ it must be situated in society. The introduction of professional doctorates aimed at the development of researching professionals is not a reduction in the influence of the academy in the production of knowledge. Rather it is a recognising and sharing of knowledge gained through research, experience, and application produced by and with members of society located outside the academy. It may also be the academy’s admission that the ‘gold standard’ Ph.D. is not the sole or perfect expression of high standards of knowledge creation in society in the twenty-first century.

The academy, knowledge and professional doctorates

An aspect of professional doctorates that appears to be neglected in the literature I have reviewed for this article is whether an institution can move to delivering professional doctorates without providing for the professional development of academic staff. Professional doctorates have become recognised as a form of work-based learning (Bourner et al. 2001: 75). However, work-based learning challenges ‘academic identity’ and academics may be concerned that their academic knowledge may not stand up to testing and review by the world of work (Boud and Symes 2000: 25).

The development of professional doctorates requires a more radical overhaul of institutional doctoral and post-doctoral policies lest these awards become subjected to the same criticism that undergraduate awards are receiving from industry (which sometimes maintains these do not prepare students for employment). Also, will professional doctorates result in more practising researchers beyond a student’s completion of assignments/thesis while on the programme?

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