The shifting landscape of doctoral education

The doctoral education landscape has changed dramatically over the last decade. One of the most important factors driving this change is the greater participation rates in graduate education from all segments of society.

As such, doctoral programmes are increasingly diverse in terms of the demographic make-up of students as well as the increasing diversity of programme and degree types. Another important factor is the changing needs of society and of the education sector.

Doctoral faculty and programme leaders realise the importance of making doctoral programmes relevant to the contemporary needs of society (the public beneficiary) and to students (the private beneficiary). Thus, the modernisation of doctoral programmes has become a top priority at most universities around the world.

Denise Stockley and I, together with several international educational scholars, examine these and other issues in the book, Emerging Directions in Doctoral Education.

Programme and degree types

The word doctorate is derived from the Latin word docere, meaning, to teach. The first doctoral degree was awarded about 800 years ago in Europe and today’s universities trace their roots to the European medieval university model.

Traditionally, the Doctor of Philosophy or PhD degree has been the most commonly awarded type of doctoral degree. Despite its name however, the PhD is not exclusively a degree in the field of philosophy – many disciplines, as a matter of historical tradition, award this degree type.

Many other types of doctoral degrees exist including the Doctor of Education or EdD, the Doctor of Medicine or MD, and the Doctor of Arts or DA, among others. Some doctorates, like the EdD, have both a research and professional focus so holders of this degree work at all levels of education – primary, secondary, tertiary – in teaching, research or administrative capacities.

Doctoral degrees are generally classified as research, professional, hybrid or honorary degrees. The focus of the degree and how it is designed and classified ultimately depends on the institution awarding the degree, together with the approval of their accrediting body or governing agency.

In addition, with the continued internationalisation of higher education there is a trend to harmonise programme structures across national borders (for example, the Bologna Process).

The most important aspect of a doctoral programme is not the particular degree type or the name of the institution awarding the degree but rather the fact that doctoral education is a rigorous form of advanced academic apprenticeship and learning. The central aim of any doctoral programme is to immerse and inculcate the student into the respective community of academic scholars and professional practitioners.

Opportunities and challenges

With respect to student demographics, today’s doctoral students are more diverse in terms of their race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, gender, age, disability and other characteristics.

The internationalisation and democratisation of higher education have helped increase diversity and inclusivity. For instance, part-time and online or blended programmes have been created to meet the needs of non-traditional and working adults. This stands in stark contrast to what was happening a few decades ago when most doctoral programmes were designed mainly for traditional age, full-time residency students.

In addition, doctoral programme leaders struggle with what counts as appropriate forms of intellectual work – that is, what should be counted as valid epistemic knowledge and experience. The dissertation or thesis has been the main form of evidence – often together with extensive coursework and comprehensive examinations – to validate that a candidate has mastered the requisite knowledge and experience.

The major educational research methods used by many of today’s doctoral students to develop their dissertations or theses are illustrated in the educational research methodology framework.

However, some programmes now include – as evidence of valid epistemic knowledge and experience – academic portfolios (for example, journal or book publications and internships) as well as other competencies that extend beyond the student’s particular discipline, including leadership training, community service and interdisciplinary projects.

Doctoral students today are expected not only to become subject matter experts in their discipline but they are also expected to engage in varied professional development activities (for example, conference presentations, teaching internships, committee work) to develop them into more well-rounded researchers, practitioners and leaders.

In addition, there is increasing pressure on students to complete their studies on schedule while, at the same time, build a record of significant academic accomplishments. This situation is further complicated by the lower probability of securing a full-time position in higher education after graduation due to the increased number of graduates in the job market.

Thus, the challenge for educators today is how to design programmes that meet the contemporary needs of students while maintaining academic quality and intellectual rigour.

Alternatives and options

Given these new realities, today’s doctoral graduates are also looking at alternative career pathways. For instance, more are pursuing careers outside of higher education, such as primary or secondary education, government agencies, NGOs, research institutes and business organisations.

Many doctoral holders today work as contingent university faculty and, in some countries, they now represent the majority of instructors in higher education.

Doctoral students should be made aware of this new landscape. They should also receive advice on the options available to them after graduation, either by their faculty mentors or by their university career services department. Within this context, doctoral programmes should place more emphasis on creative learning and on acquiring strategic and transferable knowledge and skills so that graduates are more prepared for a variety of career options.

Just as global higher education has evolved, doctoral education also continues to evolve from an elite activity focused mainly on acting as a pipeline for future research professors structured around strict disciplinary boundaries towards more interdisciplinary programmes that prepare students for a variety of positions in and out of academia.

To sum up, these changes have challenged long-held traditions and beliefs about the nature and purpose of doctoral education. The changes occurring in doctoral education are part of the broader global movement to democratise higher education at all levels and make it more responsive to the changing needs of society and students.

Thus, in addition to academic development, doctoral students should also learn how to build social and cultural capital that will better prepare them for life in the 21st century.

Patrick Blessinger is an adjunct associate professor of education at St John’s University in New York City, USA, and chief research scientist for the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association. He is co-editor with Denise Stockley of Emerging Directions in Doctoral Education.