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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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The evolution of doctoral study

The traditional Ph.D. is frequently referred to as the ‘gold standard’ of academic achievement. However, the awarding of the first Doctor of Philosophy in 1920 by the University of Oxford took place amid ‘a significant amount of resistance from the vice-chancellors of English Universities’ (Bourner et al. 2001: 66). In the USA, Yale University awarded the first Ph.D. in 1861, but it was the establishment of the John Hopkins University in 1876 and its attitude to higher degrees that led to the growth of the Ph.D. Originally within the John Hopkins University the Master of Arts Degree (MA) and the Ph.D. ‘were not considered separate degrees, or more accurately, they were awarded for different things’. However, by 1909 the University deemed the MA appropriate to ‘college teachers’ while the Ph.D. was ‘reserved’ for a ‘small group of individuals who it judged able to make a first-rate contribution to original research’ (Baez 2002: 49).

Professional doctorate awards originated in the USA, where the first award of such a degree was conferred in 1921. It was ‘calls by the professions for high credentials’ that led to a ‘rethinking on doctoral education’ and ‘to a recognition that the Ph.D. was not actually producing researchers’ and hence that other degrees were needed (Baez 2002: 50). During the 1990s professional doctorates were introduced in Australia and the United Kingdom (Bourner et al. 2001: 66).

The professional doctorate is mainly subjected to critical comparison with the traditional Ph.D. that is attained either through research or publication. However, five categories of doctorates have been identified:

  1. the traditional, research-based Ph.D.;
  2. practice-based doctorates;
  3. professional doctorates;
  4. the new route doctorates;
  5. Ph.D. by publication.
    (Hoddell et al. 2002: 62)

Despite the original controversy surrounding the introduction of what is now termed the ‘traditional’ doctorate there is:

a reasonable level of consensus about the nature of the traditional Ph.D. degree. It is a programme of study requiring an extended research investigation leading to a significant original contribution to knowledge and recorded in a written dissertation.
(Bareham et al. 2000: 394)

In the United Kingdom the traditional Ph.D. may have difficulty aligning itself within the National Qualifications Framework which includes provision for defined skills not typically specified as outcomes within the traditional Ph.D. Professional Doctorates are defined as ‘the personal development of the candidate (either in preparation for professional activity or to advance further personal skills and professional knowledge) and advancement of the subject or profession (United Kingdom Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE), quoted in Hoddell et al. 2002: 65).

As will be outlined later, professional doctorates have a number of defined learning outcomes and these learning outcomes are strongly linked to the development of the student.

As institutions seek to align their doctoral programmes within the National Qualifications Framework this may result in a ‘convergence towards doctorates with a significant amount of teaching’ (Hoddell et al. 2002: 69). Tinkler and Jackson (2000), in their study of institutional policy and the Ph.D. examination process in the UK, concluded that while there is commonality among institutions in respect of key criteria for the award of Ph.D. there is not uniformity among institutions as to how these criteria are conceptualised and operationalised (Tinkler and Jackson 2000: 179).

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