Education: Don't give up the day job

A new-style PhD enables students to work while they study. By Stephen Pritchard
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The Independent Online
The image of a PhD student working in the depths of a library or the corner of some dusty lab is under pressure from a new type of degree for which much of the content is taught by senior lecturers and many of the students study part time, so they can keep up a day job.

Instead of solitary research taking at least three years, the new doctoral students work in teams for much of their degrees. Much of the preparation they carry out is taught, and while the new students still write a thesis, it can be shorter than the traditional one. Often, it is directly related to the student's job.

Many of the courses for these "taught" or "practitioner" doctorates are designed so that students can keep their day jobs but still complete their research in as few as four years.

As yet, the number of taught doctoral students is small but they are increasing. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency for doctorates "not mainly for research" show 318 full-time and part-time students registered at UK universities in the 1994-5 academic year and 64,303 PhD students.

That picture will change as new courses come on stream. Academics involved in taught doctoral programmes report rising demand, as more people look to universities for new skills and qualifications. Courses are already running or planned in surveying, architecture, fine art and even journalism.

This growth is not universally welcomed. Academics fear that the new degrees will confuse employers and that, with the emphasis on workplace- based research, standards could slip. The Harris report into postgraduate education, published in May, recommended that taught doctorates be clearly separated from the research-only PhD. The Confederation of British Industry says PhD students are recruited for their research skills and is wary of any moves that dilute those skills.

Ewan Gillon, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, fears taught courses could devalue doctorates. Taught doctorates should only develop if they are "within the quality offered by the conventional PhD", he says. "We must avoid lowering standards."

So who are these new-style PhD students? Some are busy professionals who are put off PhDs by the time and expense involved. Newcastle University, for instance, offers a taught doctorate in business administration which can help its graduates advance their careers.

PhD students often complain about isolation and the unstructured nature of research. Part-timers especially feel cut off from departmental life and tend to "drift" far more than full-time students. Taught doctorates offer a solution to the isolation and the unstructured nature of research that is typical of traditional PhDs. Seminars bring students together, helping them to form support networks.

Lancaster University offers a part-time doctorate in educational research. The students spend two years on coursework and two years on research. Professor Oliver Fulton, course director, says this is quicker than a conventional part-time PhD. Full-time PhDs are "a well-tested system", he believes.

Another advantage is the way taught doctorates bond research with day- to-day work. Tony Broady, head of Walker School, a Newcastle comprehensive, is taking Newcastle University's doctorate in education. He wants his doctoral research to improve teaching at Walker.

Taught doctorates with collaborative links with industry, such as engineering, are finding support among new graduates. Surrey and Brunel universities run a joint taught doctorate in environmental engineering. Students undertake a research project with their sponsor, which pays them close to a graduate salary for the four-year course.

Companies such as Thames Water, which sponsors several students, benefit, too, from the links with academia. In return, students receive training that is far broader than that of ordinary PhDs. Sarah McMath, 26, says: "I have got more out of it than a PhD, looking at what I knew at the end of the first year, compared with a first-year PhD student."