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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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An argument for consensus and conflict

Professional doctorates represent the recognition by the academy of work-based learning at the highest level and as such the ‘legitimisation of alternative forms of knowledge within the academy’ (Bourner et al.: 74–75). I hope there might be consensus within the academy that knowledge and its origins, form, purpose and application are always open to contestation and new development. Chomsky (2003: 192) in discussing the barriers to reform and innovation in the academy calls for a spirit of ‘radical social inquiry’, ‘a loosening of institutional forms’ to permit ‘experimentation’ and a ‘home for the free intellectual, for the social critic, for the irreverent and radical thinking’. Chomsky comments:

The primary barrier to such development will not be the unwillingness of administrators or the stubbornness of trustees. It will be the unwillingness of students to do the difficult and serious work required and the fear of the faculty that its security and authority, its guild structure, will be threatened.
(Chomsky 2003: 192)

The concern is that a costs and benefits approach to the production of knowledge may lead to a compliant academy: a place where contestation becomes ‘politically incorrect’, a place where for the doctoral student the last full stop at the end of their thesis signifies the end and not the beginning of their engagement with knowledge creation.


This article has examined the growth in popularity of professional doctorates and attempted to interpret what this growth implies for knowledge in the academy of the twenty-first century.

Professional doctorates and other new forms of doctoral study are subject to not unexpected comparison with the traditional or ‘gold standard’ doctorate by research or publication. The development of professional doctorates has led to a questioning of the suitability of the traditional doctorate to develop professional researchers.

Professional doctorates reflect a move on the part of the academy to facilitate a larger number of professionals undertaking a doctoral programme that is relevant to their profession and promotes application in the workplace. The development of professional doctorates allows for the inclusion of a wider range of knowledge producers and importantly provides for the inclusion of knowledge producers based outside the academy. Professional doctorates have conferred recognition on the contribution that experienced practitioners bring to the production of knowledge.

The development of professional doctorates highlights how the academy, by responding to the demands of lifelong learning and economic drivers, has made doctoral study a more attractive proposition for students. While it may be unrealistic to expect that all students who complete a professional doctorate will go on to undertake post-doctoral study, examining how post-doctoral work might be conducted and supported is I believe worthwhile. The students who have undertaken professional doctorates provide the academy with a link to many professions and organisations. These students and their organisations are potential sites for ongoing knowledge production.

Finally, a challenge facing the academy is whether in responding to economic demands the academy will have to compromise on the possibility of developing an academy where all stakeholders are free to contest the production and application of knowledge in the twenty-first century.

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