Professional doctorates – what are they good for?



People often ask me about the professional doctorate, what it’s about and whether it’s worth doing.  Here’s the beginning of an answer to that very big question…

I need to come clean about my own prejudice about professional doctorates first of all. I think they are A Good Thing. You may have thought that I was about to say that the prof doc is an inferior and substandard doctorate. But I don’t think that at all. The first academic job I had was to design a professional doctorate in education, and convince a number of my former professional colleagues they’d like to do it.

But some of the early differences between the professional doctorate and the PhD are disappearing. The professional doctorate offers a structured and supported approach to developing a research project – modules covering working with the literature, understanding research methodology and methods and designing a research project. That kind of support is however now increasingly the stuff of training courses and cohort based PhDs, where people do work together and benefit from peer support. The professional doctorate has also often supported different kinds of theses – portfolios, sets of papers, artefacts, multi-media texts, arts based work – but these too are increasingly able to be presented through the PhD.

So given these convergences, what is it about the professional doctorate that is particularly unique?

The answer to this important question lies in the way that the professional doctorate both draws on and contributes to professional knowledges and practices. Those doing a professional doctorate are encouraged to look at their own practice and context and to draw their research question from it. They are expected to articulate and critically interrogate their own professional knowledges.  This is not the sole source of knowledge they work with of course, as they also draw on relevant scholarly literatures.

The research that is done in a professional doctorate is intended to be relevant and of interest and use to other professionals and therefore to advance professional practice and its knowledge base. Through bringing professional problems, knowledge and insider informed research into conversation with scholarly knowledge, a contribution to scholarly knowledge is also made.  But, this can happen in the PhD too.

And there’s lot of slippery ideas in what I’ve just written, not least of which is how to define a profession. The major question around the professional doctorate of course is whether it is at all possible to separate out scholarly knowledge and professional knowledge as two – perhaps overlapping but different – spheres. This position is argued – see for instance the theorisation of Mode 1 and 2 knowledges. And you may agree with some degree of distinction, as I do. At a more everyday level, it is perhaps not so tricky to understand that if you work in a particular place, occupation and setting, then there are particular things that you know as a lived practice which may not be so obvious to people who work elsewhere. Some of these things are a kind of ‘craft ‘knowledge – tacit, taken for granted, and not pulled together into any kind of order of importance. In the prof doc these are explicitly on the table and part of ‘the work’.

But if there isn’t a clear cut difference between the two awards, why do a professional doctorate? Why not a PhD?

Perhaps most important distinction between the two doctorates is the fact that most prof docs are part time, and are organised around the schedules and needs of people who work. So peers that are in the prof doc are generally all working.  They share a strong sense of being a professional. They have in common the struggle to fit study together with research, the experience of returning to study after a long time away, the desire to do research that will have an effect in a work setting. A strong camaraderie and mutual support can develop in these situations. Even though part timers do PhDs too, the initial cohort of the prof doc may be a more supportive environment and experience. Given how difficult a doctorate can be, this is an important factor and may even be the most significant in a decision about which doctoral path to take.

But I do have to come clean. The problem that I see with and for the professional doctorate is that there is not really an agreed institutional response to them. Across universities, prof docs seem to have wildly different rules and expectations; these range from the length of the final thesis to the degree to which the candidate is expected to theorise their research results.

And some people DO see them as a second rate PhD. Many universities will not employ people with a prof doc, arguing that as it is meant to be a contribution to professional practice, that is where the person with the prof doc should be situated.  The prof doc’s job is to support the production of advanced knowledge in professional settings. And some universities are happy to employ prof docs in applied areas like teacher education, but then do not give their holders time to research, or promotion opportunities.

This institutional variability isn’t new. But it still needs consideration and perhaps further policy attention within and without universities – the professions too have a stake in the question of whether the prof doc as it stands is living up to its expectations and promises.

On balance I think the prof doc is a good option, but you do need to choose your institution carefully IMHO, selecting one where it is a pathway that is demonstrably valued.