Unmasking the doctorate

The significance of the doctorate has been both overemphasised and underemphasised in dominant conceptualisations, with implications for how we understand the purpose and value of this important qualification.

A problematic overestimation of its significance lies in the use of the number of doctorates per hundred thousand people of a country’s population as an indicator of a country’s economic development. Leaving aside the question about whether economic development as it is currently conceptualised is good for the public, this measure requires some interrogation.

In education research, we often have a problem with numbers. We are inclined to turn proxy metrics which stand as a representation of a particular issue, into the thing itself. We forget its proxy nature and so we strive to achieve the number as an endpoint in itself. The National Development Plan and the Department of Science and Technology have set ambitious targets for numbers of doctorates, and our higher education sector has put in place various drivers in the form of funding mechanisms and enrolment targets to achieve this.

I am not for a moment suggesting that we have anywhere near sufficient doctoral output. Indeed, I am calling for bold interventions to achieve more. But I am cautioning about using a reductionist argument to make this call. We notice that countries with stronger economies have more PhDs per hundred thousand in the population and a greater research output - and then we make the leap from correlation to causation.

The simultaneous existence of economic development and increased doctoral output occurs in an open system – this is not a laboratory where variables might be controlled and their effects measured. The emergence of this correlation may be through the interplay of any number of underlying mechanisms.

And if there is indeed a causal relationship, what if it is the other way around? What if it is the having of a strong economy that provides the kinds of structures, in the form of well-resourced universities and libraries, needed to produce so many doctorates? What if it is the having of a strong economy that provides the kind of culture needed for a whole lot of people to be able to engage in the indulgent luxury of postgraduate study? In other words, what if it the economic development that drives doctoral output rather than doctoral output being a driver of economic growth?

The danger of our looking at this relationship as being simplistically causal and unidirectional, is that we potentially open ourselves up to rushing after numbers in an instrumentalist way and thereby undoing the very purpose of the doctorate.

A public good?

In a piece that Liezel Frick from Stellenbosch University, PhD scholar Evelyn Muthama and I wrote, we provided a critique of the recent Australian Council of Learned Academies, or ACOLA, report entitled “Review of Australia’s Research Training Systems”, in which there is the strong recommendation that industries play a greater role in doctoral education through direct funding pathways and even through research problem identification. This opens us up to a number of ethical dilemmas and to the danger that the doctorate becomes a training ground for industry and we neglect the crucial role the doctorate plays as a public good.

We need to be vigilant in this time when universities and other institutions meant to safeguard democratic spaces and public values and protect us from the excesses of the market, are increasingly conceptualised as tools working in service of that market.

If our PhDs are subsidised by government, and indeed the doctorate is the most highly subsidised qualification, then we need to remember that the government doesn’t make any money, it simply dispenses the money collected. So, we need to be able to argue that having a whole lot of people with doctorates has some kind of good for the country and the planet beyond those goods accrued by the individual graduate.

We know that government funding of higher education as a percentage of GDP has reduced over the last decade and universities have been stretched to make up the shortfall. We need to be in a position to make strong arguments for why this trend should be reversed. It is easy to understand the temptation then to jump on the argument that the doctorate is primarily an economic driver if this is the means by which we can be assured more funding for the PhD.

Topic choice

So how is the PhD a public good? In part, it is through the topics we choose to research – interrogating social justice issues that guide us towards becoming a better society and better carers of the planet. But it is not only through our choice of topics that we achieve the public good responsibility that I argue is central to doctoral education. If we were to understand our public good responsibility only in these narrow terms, then there would be no call for PhDs in pure mathematics and other blue sky research areas.

People sometimes call this “knowledge for its own sake”, but I would like to challenge that phrase. When we produce knowledge that takes the discipline forward we are not doing so “for its own sake”, even though we may be unable to know yet what potential good this knowledge has for the planet and those who inhabit it. When we undertake such research in an ethical and reflective manner, we do not need to have immediate translation of that knowledge to application for it to be a potential good.

The doctorate also has a significant public good role to play in nurturing critical citizenry with particular high-level skills capable of challenging powerful interest groups including the state when necessary, as was argued in news articles written with PhD scholars Nimi Hoffman and Temwa Moyo.

So, I believe we need to be cautious in thinking about the doctorate only in terms of private good for the individual or even for the private sector, and to consider how it provides public good too. We have to be wary of the overestimation of the PhD as a driver of economic development. Making bold promises in this regard may well get us access to additional funding in the short term but could entail narrowing the scope of what this key qualification seeks to do.


Having said that, I would argue that the doctorate is also underestimated as a qualification. To make sense of this, let’s begin by looking at the Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework, or HEQSF, which states the doctorate must “make a significant and original academic contribution at the frontiers of a discipline or field”.

Although knowledge is not only produced in the university, and hopefully it is not only at postgraduate level that students move from being knowledge tellers to knowledge producers, it is by definition at the doctoral level that we have to be able to do this.

There are of course a number of assumptions underpinning this phrase. Where, for example, are the frontiers of a field? The wicked nature of many of the problems our doctoral candidates are tackling entails working across fields and becoming adept in the conversations happening in the intersections between and across multiple disciplines. The shifting terrain of disciplinary boundaries in the 21st century era of supercomplexity has enormous significance for the doctoral scholar’s endeavour.

And it is this context of supercomplexity that we have had calls over the last many years by students, by those in academic development and by academics, to consider the need for decolonising our curricula. Most of these calls have focused on content, and there has been far less deliberation around pedagogy and curriculum structure. Also, most of these calls have focused on the undergraduate qualification. I would now like to bring this focus briefly to bear on PhD-level teaching and learning and the extent to which the doctorate’s colonial baggage might be holding it back.

In the humanities and social sciences we have inherited the Oxbridge structure of doctoral education, also known as the master-apprentice model, in which there is a one-on-one relationship between student and supervisor in which the student develops her own project and is mentored in its design and implementation by her supervisor.

If such PhD scholars are lucky and are full-time students they may get to meet other PhD scholars on campus. If they are luckier still to be in a research-rich institution with its many seminars and workshops, they might get to attend these and engage with others in such forums. But these are not necessarily built into the doctoral curriculum.

In the master-apprentice model, it is possible for students to complete their production of knowledge at the frontiers of the field without actively engaging with fellow scholars and other supervisors. This places an enormous burden on the supervisor-student relationship which becomes a place where power can play out in very harmful ways. We need to ask ourselves why we have held so strongly onto that model.

Alternative doctoral models

Alternative models are now being embraced, many of which draw from the doctoral curriculum structures of the natural sciences, where groups of scholars engage in shared project areas and draw on shared theoretical frames, and where programme-based doctoral events are built into the PhD journey.

It is the research product, the thesis, which needs to be an independent piece of work. It is, I think, a mistake to conflate the desire for an independent research product and independent research skills with a call for an individual learning process. Indeed, I would argue that the idea of the lonely scholar engaged on a solitary journey is inappropriate, when knowledge no longer gets produced in isolated disciplinary silos and when collaboration is so central to the nurturing of highly skilled critical citizens.

Programme projects bring together not only teams of scholars but also teams of supervisors and this provides spaces of mentorship and support for the supervisors involved too. The Academy of Science of South Africa report of 2010, the Council on Higher Education/Centre for Research in Science and Technology report of 2009 and the doctoral study published by Cloete, Mouton and Sheppard in 2015, among other research, all raise concerns about limited supervision capacity in South Africa and argue that our current teaching and learning processes in doctoral education do not provide sufficient support for novice supervisors, or offer opportunities for the kinds of shared engagement that might enhance quality in supervision practices.

Decolonising the curriculum structure

Decolonising the PhD curriculum structure in such ways would of course need to be matched with the decolonising of content. Now Emmanuel Mgqwashu and others have pointed out the dangerous folly of dismissing knowledge simply on the basis of its most recent geographical heritage. The very nature of knowledge building is cumulative and transnational. But if we do not critically consider our knowledge inheritances, we may well legitimate the powerful of the past without making use of those knowledges that have been sidelined.

On the one hand, the doctorate is the perfect place for this to happen. It’s where the challenging conversations are happening. We’re working at the frontiers of the field, we are producing original ideas, concepts, research tools. It’s the ideal place for us to be questioning whose knowledge is legitimated, and what potential silenced knowledges might have for us. But there are a few challenges in this regard. The first is that the supervisor is steeped in the traditional knowledge content – my expertise comes from years and years of incremental understanding within a particular field; this is what I have to offer as a supervisor.

To ask supervisors to support the decolonising project is to ask them to be wide open to critique and challenge of that which provides us with our very credibility and to actively seek, alongside our scholars, additional viewpoints and ideas. We have to be able to supervise in uncomfortable zones where we fiercely defend access to powerful knowledge, but at the same time question what aspects might be simply the knowledge of the powerful.

High-stakes space

And it is not a given that students would want to engage with the multiple voices that address their study phenomenon beyond those at the top of the most cited lists. To do so, to make spaces for knowledge inclusion, entails rocking the boat. And the PhD is a very high stakes space to do such rocking. The doctorate is about seeking to become a recognised member of the discipline. So, it is a risky place to be challenging entrenched theoretical territories defended by stalwarts of that discipline.

The examiners will themselves no doubt be steeped in dominant theories and methods. There are risks in including other, less highly cited, less publically known perspectives. To reiterate, this is not about dismissing any knowledge for the sake of it, it is about earnestly seeking out and critically engaging with other strong accounts. It is about asking: what must the world be like for these other accounts to have been dismissed? It is about asking: do they offer anything valuable to the frontiers of the field? And then it is weighing up different accounts with scrupulous judgmental rationality.

People speak of decolonising the curriculum as if it is about undoing the legacy from our colonial and apartheid past. I think this interpretation is decidedly narrow. I would argue that a major threat to the Global South is the colonialism of the present.

Let me take the dissemination of academic knowledge as just one example. Data is collected in the Global South and then transposed to the Global North for analysis and publication, in much the same way that gold and diamonds were taken in the past in their raw form for turning into profitable final products in the North.

Traditional research production from the Global South is very low indeed. But even in cases where the raw data is analysed and written about within the Global South, there are problems. First, we need to recall that the data collection and analysis process is subsidised via our university funding by our taxpayers in the South; we then write and submit articles free of charge and undertake peer review of such articles free of charge; and then after we have completed all these stages of intellectual and other labour, the final products are sold back to us by the Global North in the form of books and journals.

There is enormous profit in academic publication – Erik Engstrom of Elsevier is among the top 10 highest paid CEOs in the world – and this profit is vested in the Global North. When we speak of decolonising doctoral education, we need to start to challenge the entire knowledge dissemination process and to seek ways of publishing on widely-accessible, rigorously peer-reviewed platforms that do not simply reinforce these knowledge inequalities.

When we publish books that cost a thousand or more Rands, when we publish articles in journals that require access to databases far out of financial reach of most universities on this continent, we may well accrue kudos in terms of impact factor counts, but we are complicit in a system that keeps knowledge out of the hands of the Global South.


In the HEQSF definition of the doctorate, it says the PhD “must be of a quality to satisfy peer review and merit publication”. We have a problem in this regard in South Africa where many PhD scholars do not have a single publication, even years after their graduation. Why would we subsidise these studies if the knowledge remains locked in a thesis, which despite excellent moves towards open e-repositories, will probably only be read by five or six people?

Doctoral scholars have a responsibility to disseminate their work within their specialist fields, contributing to the very boundaries of those fields, but they also have a responsibility to translate this research into publications that speak across disciplines and in forms that are accessible to the general public. And in this task, I think the doctoral process has been greatly underestimated.

Another way in which the doctorate is often underestimated is the extent to which it is, as my friend Liz Harrison put it, ‘the ultimate identity journey’. No scholar should be able to finish a PhD the same person as they were when they started. You should have access to other perspectives, you should have been made uncomfortable, you should have new knowledge creation practices. My work on conceptual threshold crossing and the liminal space leads me to argue that the identity journey aspects of the PhD must not be underestimated in our attempts to increase retention and throughput.

This conceptual threshold crossing data also suggests that for many women doing PhDs, particularly middle-aged women, the identity journey part of the doctorate has meant a challenge to the roles they have traditionally occupied in their families and at work. And this can be a daunting time for them as they have to re-negotiate their ways of being within the family, the church and the workplace.

But while the identity journey might take an individually idiosyncratic form, it need not be traversed alone. My research strongly supports the idea of the need for collaboration in multiple ways for a successful journey – not just successful in the sense of culminating in a graduation ceremony, but also successful in the sense of learning how to be open to and supportive of others. The best PhDs see people forging connections both within and outside of the university.

Perhaps some people are able to build academic careers that happen entirely independently of others, but I would argue that to do this is to miss the opportunity for impact that collaborative endeavours have. When we work with doctoral scholars, I believe we need to imbue in them a sense of responsibility to their fields and to the sector. Individual research and publication no doubt have potential to grow the specific discipline but they won’t necessarily contribute to the building of the field of people. Part of the identity journey of the PhD is learning how to collaborate, to negotiate perspectives and to critique and take on the challenges that our supercomplex context throws at us.

'Always-already student’

Another underestimation of the doctorate which needs to be unmasked for the myth that it is, is the notion of the 'always-already' student. There is a dominant idea that the doctoral candidate has to be an independent researcher capable of writing this peculiar cultural artefact known as a PhD thesis. It is forgotten that that is the outcome of the doctoral journey and not the entrance requirement. Very few PhD candidates come to this level of study having already undertaken research entirely independently before, or having produced knowledge within the particular genre of the PhD thesis.

The doctorate is, at the moment, primarily or exclusively examined in the form of a written thesis. While supervision of the laboratory or field work is crucial, the supervision of the thesis counts for a lot at examination time.

Unfortunately, the dominance of what is known as the autonomous model of literacy means that many of us believe that good thesis writing is all about the mastery of neutral language skills. We are less aware of the extent to which it is the acquisition of discipline-specific norms and values that allow us to write strong arguments built on chains of claims substantiated by legitimate evidence. And the means by which we build such arguments has far more to do with the structure of the target knowledge and the political histories of our disciplines than it has to do with grammar, as has been so powerfully demonstrated in the work by recent PhD graduates, Sherran Clarence, Karen Ellery, Jacqui Lück and Thandeka Mkhize.

Undertaking a doctorate and becoming a recognised member of the field is a process of acquiring the knowledge production norms of the discipline, and indeed challenging them boldly whenever necessary. This process requires supervision that can focus on how such knowledge production norms are evidenced in the literacy practices of the thesis. PhD scholar, Amanda Mphahlele, made this point cogently during a radio interview about her PhD research recently. The form of knowledge making in the PhD is not ordinary or common sense.

Scholars need very carefully scaffolded induction into knowledge making within our doctoral programmes.

Neutral skills

We need to acknowledge that doctoral success is about far more than the presence or absence of neutral skills in the scholar. The dominant discourse used to make sense of student success and failure in South Africa is what Chrissie Boughey and I have come to call the discourse of the decontextualised learner. Here student success is understood to manifest entirely from factors in the individual such as motivation, intelligence and language skills. The student is not understood as a social being bringing with her norms and values and expectations which may or may not align with what happens in the academy.

And if we unmask this idea that the PhD scholar has to be 'always- already' the independent researcher and academic writer from the start, then we need to challenge too the idea of the 'always-already' supervisor who knows how to teach at this level as soon as she herself has graduated.

But of course this isn’t so, and there is a real need for support for novice supervisors in our universities.

As with the student, the teacher – in this case the postgraduate supervisor – is often understood in decontextualized ways as if her expertise merely comprises the acquisition of a set of neutral teaching skills.

And indeed, recent PhD graduate Kasturi Behari-Leak and I have expressed our concern in a journal article that came out just this week, that the national conceptions of teaching excellence often seem to be premised on this concept of generic teaching performance, a position that has been thoroughly contested in the research on academic staff development undertaken by my colleagues, Lynn Quinn and Jo-Anne Vorster.

As with any social phenomenon, doctoral education emerges through the interplay of the agency of student and supervisor with the structures and cultures within which the doctoral journey takes place.

As PhD scholar, Puleng Motshoane and I argued in a book chapter, a focus on student readiness and supervisor expertise as the explanations for PhD success neglects the extent to which a successful doctoral journey is enabled or constrained by institutional spaces. For both the scholar and the supervisor to flourish requires enabling university structures and a supportive university ethos.

Group supervision

We must not underestimate the work to be done in this regard and we need to more systematically explore the possibilities of group supervision across institutions if we are to build the sector, for we are meant to be a single public higher education sector despite frequently constructing ourselves as competitors in a race for better positioning in the game of institutional rankings.

The need for collaboration and collegiality has really never been more crucial or more difficult. We are living in an era where identity politics and populism trump thoughtful and compassionate engagement. The university is charged with producing new knowledge and nurturing educated critical citizens in a time where the gap between rich and poor is growing to abhorrent levels and where we have to navigate “post-truth” amid rampant anti-intellectualism.

We are in an era described by Heila Lotz-Sisitka and other Education Labour Relations Council colleagues as being characterised "by fragmentation, individualisation, risk, overconsumption and greed”, but they go on to say that this “requires an intellectual community that is orientated towards public good and prepared to put people first, before profit and pollution”.

Collaboration and compassion are central to the doctoral journey. And we should not underestimate the work to be done to place these at the forefront within our universities. And so to conclude, I think there is much to be unmasked if we are to get on with the enormous task ahead of us.

This is an edited version of the inaugural address by Professor Sioux McKenna delivered at Rhodes University, South Africa on 15 March 2017. McKenna is the director of Postgraduate Studies and CHERTL Higher Education Studies PhD Coordinator at Rhodes University, South Africa.