Can the doctorate survive a second century?

Ninety nine years ago the ACU played a small but significant role in establishing the first British doctorates. A century on, the statistics show that they are more popular than ever with students. In the UK, at least, completion rates have risen markedly in recent decades. About time, you might feel. Of my cohort of Research Council sponsored doctoral researchers in the 1980’s, only 11% completed within four years. I wasn’t one of them.

A recent ACU seminar demonstrated the extent of this achievement. Commonwealth Scholars from India and New Zealand described the benefits they were achieving from doctoral study, while vice-chancellors from the UK and Tanzania demonstrated how they, as institutions, provided support. The benefits extended way beyond the acquisition of knowledge, to personal skills, creativity, and developing new ways of thinking, organisational and management skills. A successful PhD student will be more than just clever.

John Kirkland VCs and scholars - NTU seminar

I was left wondering about the relationship between the regulatory and support structures that have transformed completion rates, and the skills that we expect from doctorates. The benefits of the ‘new’ approach are clear to see in quantitative terms – but has there been any downside? For example, has our desire to support PhD students reduced the need for self-reliance, independence and creative thought?

We need to preserve a fine balance. My (seven year) doctorate was more an exercise in perseverance than intellectual capacity. My son’s (three year) version was more thorough intellectually, planned, executed and delivered to a timetable agreed with his supervisor in the first term, and rigorously monitored throughout. Serendipity played a large part in my research; he was taught how to deal with it from the start.

Logic tells me that the modern approach must be the right one – all the more so if we expect government to keep funding doctorates. But something inside me is worried that doctorates could become just too much of a production line, in which formal completion becomes more important than the quality of original thought. Protecting against this, whilst remaining accountable to funding bodies and individuals who invest in the expectation of successful outcomes, will represent a major challenge for the UK doctorate in its second century.

Defining the skills that we can expect from doctorates is greater than ever. Universities throughout the Commonwealth still regard them as core to academic careers; many developing counties have targets to increase the proportion of academic that hold them. Yet they are not the only employers involved – in the UK barely a quarter of new doctorates now enter academic life. If the qualification is to preserve its integrity into a second century, then we need to be explicit about what skills and knowledge it provides, and how.

This blog follows an ACU seminar held at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore on 16 June 2017, which focused on developing creative, analytical, and critical thinking skills throughout all stages of education. Dr John Kirkland chaired the second session on postgraduate and postdoctoral education, bringing together contributions from two Commonwealth Doctoral Scholars and two ACU Council members – Professor Paul Boyle (University of Leicester) and Professor Idris Rai (State University of Zanzibar). Read more here.

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Last modified on 23/11/2017
Tags: Africa, early careers, PhD, sustainable development, Asia