Professional Doctorates: Is there a risk to going vocational?

The new professional doctorates for people who want a job outside Academe are hugely popular. But a report to be published next year casts doubt on their quality. Tristan Farrow reports
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The Independent Online

The days when a PhD was a passport to a career in academia are drawing to a close. Increasingly, doctoral programmes throughout the UK reflect the need to prepare students for jobs outside the ivory towers, but none does more to take research directly into the workplace than the Professional Doctorate (PD).

When the Professional Doctorate was introduced in the form of an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) in 1992 to meet the training needs of industry, nobody could have predicted how quickly and widely the new qualification would spread.

Today, it is the UK's fastest-growing type of doctoral qualification, with more than 200 programmes across the country in subjects ranging from social science to business, and engineering to clinical medicine. The structure of the programme has diversified away from the original full-time EngD, but the basic idea of a work-related project has stayed.

But has it spread too fast and too wide? A report on Professional Doctorates to be published early next year by the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) has identified a trend that threatens to devalue the doctoral qualification.

Professor Tony Fell, the report's lead author, expresses deep concern at the tendency in some institutions to regard the research component of the doctoral programme as a patchwork of smaller projects without a common thread.

The traditional PhD is an in-depth study on one project, Fell says. If the Professional Doctorate is to maintain the standard of a doctoral-level programme, there is a need for an overarching framework across academia to ensure that quality is maintained.

The doctorate combines taught courses with a work-based research project over four to five years. Students must produce, like their peers on a traditional PhD, a final thesis that demonstrates original research in their field, which is examined by thesis and viva.

In a professional doctorate, that research takes place on the job, in a professional or industrial setting. And instead of pondering the finer points of some arcane theory, students have to apply their minds to real-life problems in the workplace.

Jim Ewing of the National Postgraduate Committee says he welcomes the PD because it recognises achievement that doesn't fit the standard mould. "It is awarded for research at a level equivalent to a PhD, if it introduces an innovative professional practice, a new production method or an original measurement technique."

With the exception of the EngD, a key feature of PDs is that they are part-time. Dr Jonathan Scourfield, who runs professional doctorates in education and social sciences at Cardiff University, says the part-time nature of programmes reflects the fact that the PD is designed for people who are in employment and under way in their careers.

"Most of our students are senior managers in hospitals or the civil service. Some are also frontline workers in the health and social services sectors. For them, the PD is attractive because they want to do applied research that is relevant to an aspect of their professional practice."

Only the full-time Engineering Doctorate is aimed explicitly at career advancement and is designed specifically for fresh graduates. "Because of the wider portfolio of skills that comes from the EngD, the candidate will have a CV that is easier to sell compared to a PhD," says John Findley, a director at Balfour Beatty, an engineering firm involved in the doctoral programme at Loughborough University. But most people who enrol on doctorates in nursing, social work, business administration and education, will already be at the top of their field, explains Professor Ingrid Lunt of Oxford University's Educational Studies Department. They will be more motivated to gain research skills and to reflect on their professional practice. Sometimes they may even get bitten by the research bug and move into teaching, she says.

One benefit of the PD is its structure, which is an advantage for those with a busy professional life. One of Scourfield's students is Peter Gorin, a manager at Hereford County Hospital. Now in the second year of his Doctorate in Health Studies (DHS), he has completed almost all the taught modules and is at a stage where he needs to decide on a specific area for his research project. "I will co-ordinate my research topic with my current work in the delivery of health services.

"I am interested in investigating suicide, especially where the person had no previous contact with support services. That research area might need narrowing down to, say, rural areas. But the aim will be to come up with research that would be useful for the planning of government health policy and delivering services more effectively."

As with many of his peers, his employer is footing the bill for Gorin's studies. They also give him the flexibility to take time off to study or to meet his supervisor and fellow students.

It is very important that employers understand that the students need to take at least three days off each term, says Lunt. "The Professional Doctorate is a very significant commitment of four or five years part-time, demanding at least 20 hours of work a week. It is equally important that people realise it is not something they can tuck into on a Saturday night."

The PD has come of age only in the past five years. One of the findings of the UKCGE report will show evidence that academic institutions have strongly embraced the vocational doctorate and are showing much greater confidence in how they organise their programmes. Looking ahead to the next five years, we are likely to see a further expansion of the PD into new fields and, more unhelpfully, a further proliferation of doctoral titles.

Lunt admits that the large variety of titles is a huge disadvantage on the international market because they cause confusion. Last year, a major study by the European University Association compared doctoral programmes across Europe. It voiced scepticism about the UK's Professional Doctorate, partly because the association failed to understand that the PD was a full research degree, not just a glorified taught course. Why not give it the single title of DProf, in line with the PhD?

'This gives me the support I need to combine studying with running a company'

Nigel Harrison, 52, is a managing director of a manufacturing company specialising in bathing products for the elderly and disabled. He is studying part-time for a Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) at Sheffield Hallam University and has just started his research project on the growth of small- and medium-sized enterprises in South Yorkshire.

"One of my main motivations for doing the doctorate is to transform what I learn into expanding my business. Eventually, I would also like to teach part-time in academia and to encourage some budding entrepreneurs to start businesses.

The doctorate gives me the support necessary to combine studying with the full-time task of running a company. I have regular meetings with supervisors at university, who give me clear appraisal and guidance for future work. On average, I spend one day a week reading and writing, but the amount of reading set assumes you are doing a full-time degree. Sometimes the assignments just can't be done in time.

Now that my project is getting under way, the exciting bit is discovering a new publication that hits the spot exactly in the area you are researching. This doesn't happen often but it is satisfying."

Sara Tedmori, 26, is studying full-time for an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) in civil engineering at Loughborough University.

"I did my undergraduate degree in computer science at the American University of Beirut. That was followed by a Masters degree in multimedia and internet computing at Loughborough.

My research project is to develop and implement an automated e-mail system to discover who knows what in an organisation based on the content of the e-mails they send. The taught part of my doctorate included compulsory modules on management and professional development, but there was also training in transferable skills such as presentation, and in writing.

What attracted me most to the PD was the industrial sponsorship - about £3,000 a year - and the opportunity to work in industry. Because of this, I am optimistic that I will find a job in academia that involves partnerships with industry and vice versa.

I meet my academic and industrial supervisors regularly. My supervision has the right balance. It is not too interfering and I always receive feedback and advice."

Tedmori advises students to stay organised, to maintain a good relationship with supervisors, and to know how to say "no". TF

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