The Nature of the PhD Qualification

 The meaning of a doctorate

We are going to start with some historical background and present in a schematic way the meaning of the degree structure of a British university.

  • A bachelor’s degree traditionally meant that the recipient had obtained a general education (specializing at this level is a relatively recent nineteenth-century development).
  • A master’s degree is a licence to practise. Originally this meant to practice theology, that is, to take a living in the Church, but now there are master’s degrees across a whole range of disciplines: business administration, electronic engineering, soil biology, computing, applied linguistics and so on. The degree marks the possession of advanced knowledge in a specialist field.
  • A doctor’s degree historically was a licence to teach – meaning to teach in a university as a member of a faculty. Nowadays this does not mean that becoming a lecturer is the only reason for taking a doctorate, since the degree has much wider career connotations outside academia and many of those with doctorates do not have academic teaching posts. The concept stems, though, from the need for a faculty member to be an authority, in full command of the subject right up to the boundaries of current knowledge, and able to extend them. As the highest degree that can be awarded, it proclaims that the recipient is worthy of being listened to as an equal by the appropriate university faculty.

Traditionally the doctorates of British universities have been named for the particular faculty, for example: DD (divinity), MD (medicine), LLD (law), DMus (music), DSc (science), DLitt (letters, i.e. arts). These so-called ‘higher doctorates’ are awarded as a recognition of a substantial contribution to the discipline by published work. In British universities the Doctor of Philosophy degree was an early twentieth-century import from the United States. Some universities abbreviate the title to DPhil (e.g. Oxford, Sussex, York) but most use the designation PhD.

Whatever the abbreviation, the degree is the same. It represents a more restricted achievement than the higher doctorates since it envisages a limited amount of academic work (three years or so), but it still embodies the concept that the holder of the PhD is in command of the field of study and can make a worthwhile contribution to it. For the professional doctorates, DBA, EdD, DEng, etc., the degree recognizes a worthwhile contribution to the development of the particular field of professional practice.

There are a number of exceptions to these descriptions of the meaningof the degree titles, since British universities pride themselves on their independence. Traditionally, once an institution had become a university there were no laws that specified which degrees could be awarded, by which institutions, to whom and on what basis, as was the case in Continental Europe. This has now changed, as the government has designated certain higher education colleges as ‘teaching universities’, without giving them the right to award research degrees.

Historically, this independence has allowed, for example, the arts faculties of traditional Scottish universities to use the MA title for their first degree, but the science faculties use BSc. Traditionally there was no extra examination for an MA degree at Oxford and Cambridge, only a requirement to continue attendance at a college for a further two years. Nowadays this has been reduced to paying a registration fee after two years and obtaining the degree without attendance. In medicine the practice is even stranger: general medical practitioners are given the honorary title of ‘doctor’ although they do not have a doctorate from their universities.

Indeed, on the basis of their university course they are credited with two bachelor’s degrees, although having a licence to practise they exemplify the concept of a master’s degree. There are, of course, good historical reasons for these anomalies.

 Becoming a fully professional researcher

The holder of a PhD is someone who is recognized as an authority by the appropriate faculty and by fellow academics and scientists outside the university. In practical terms it is useful to think of this as becoming a fully professional researcher in your field. Let us try to spell out what becoming a full professional means:

  1. At the most basic level it means that you have something to say that your peers want to listen to.
  2. In order to do this you must have a command of what is happening in your subject so that you can evaluate the worth of what others are doing.
  3. You must have the astuteness to discover where you can make a useful contribution.
  4. You must be aware of the ethics of your profession and work within them.
  5. You must have mastery of appropriate techniques that are currently being used, and also be aware of their limitations.
  6. You must be able to communicate your results effectively in the professional arena.
  7. All this must be carried out in an international context; your professional peer group is worldwide. (It always was, of course, but the rate of diffusion is infinitely faster than it used to be and with the worldwide web is still accelerating.) You must be aware of what is being discovered, argued about, written and published by your academic community across the world.

This list clearly represents quite a tall order, not least because, as you will have spotted, most of it concerns the learning of skills, not knowledge. The crucial distinction is between ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’, as the philosopher Gilbert Ryle put it. It is not enough for someone to tell you that this is a fruitful area for study, that this technique is available for use, that you should write a clear paper communicating your contribution. You have to be able to carve out a researchable topic, to master the techniques required and put them to appropriate use, and to cogently communicate your findings.

So there are craft skills involved in becoming a full professional, which, like any skills, have to be learned by doing the task in practice situations under supervision. The skills required cannot easily be stated by other professionals, though many aspects can be learned from them – some consciously, others unconsciously. But there have to be the twin elements of exploration and practice, which are basic to all learning of skills. This is why the PhD takes time.

As though this were not enough, there is a further complication. When you are doing a PhD, you are playing in a game where the goalposts are continually being moved. Obviously, what is good professional practice today may tomorrow be inadequate. What is a reasonable contribution to a new topic now might be old hat by next year. So a final and crucial skill which professionals must acquire is the ability to evaluate and re-evaluate their own work and that of others in the light of current developments. They need to be able to grow with their discipline.

One important way in which you learn to grow academically is to regularly read the contents of academic journals to determine how your fellow professionals communicate their research findings to each other. We recommend two journals: the first, the leading academic journal in your field; the second, a journal more closely focused on your research topic. You should normally expect your university library to subscribe for both hard copy in the library itself, and permission for free downloading to your computer.

You should read all the articles in each issue, not just those immediately relevant to your topic. After all, most academic journals appear quarterly, so even allowing for additional special issues we are talking about devoting time to reading the contents of a journal about once a month. You need to read all the articles, not just those that seem immediately relevant, for two reasons. First, as we said above, you need to be able to know what is happening in order to grow with your discipline. Secondly, how do you know what is relevant? Some of the most innovative research in all disciplines has flowed from the application of concepts and techniques from surrounding areas of research.

As the PhD degree develops and changes, keeping time with society and the situation in which universities operate, not only the process but also the outcomes gradually evolve into a format different from the original. Until recently it was the thesis that was the most important product of so many years of study, but now considerable emphasis is placed on students’ professional development measured in terms of the transferable skills that they have to offer. This change is often referred to as the ‘Roberts Agenda’. Roberts (2002) first formally introduced the notion that PhD graduates must be prepared to develop and use transferable skills, which would allow them to take up posts outside academia. The website www.vitae.ac.uk contains a full discussion of these issues together with the code of practice which is recommended to all universities to encourage the development of these skills.

During your years of study and research you will discover that there are numerous tasks that will have to be undertaken in order to achieve the results you want. For example, in order to do a literature survey you need to read in a focused manner, evaluating the importance and relevance of certain sections of an article or book. You then have to summarize the main points and demonstrate how they link into the topic of your thesis. This ability is something that you can use in many other life and work situations. Being able to ‘zero-in’ on what matters and then confidently articulate the circumstances to others is not merely a skill to be used in research alone.

Academic appointments are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain and employment opportunities in the wider community are also scarce. Yet people with communication skills of this kind will be those most sought after by employing organizations in both the private and public sectors. Employers offering the best in terms of job security, advancement and opportunity are interested in talented applicants who can demonstrate such aptitudes, which might be used in such fields as consultancy and diplomacy.

Again, the need to present ideas orally and in public is vital to your success in your doctorate and to your future employment. This includes giving a seminar, presenting a paper at a conference and, of course, defending your thesis during the viva. Thus you have to develop the highly valued skills of presentation and public speaking, which can be invaluable in such careers as advertising, business and management, as well as academia – not to mention being the ‘best man’ at a wedding.

Similarly, collecting and analysing your data statistically leads to familiarity with information technology programs and packages that have many applications in, for example, industry, politics and the media. Professional standards in interviewing and questionnaire design can be used in many situations. Internet skills, in which you will have to acquire fluency during your research, are also a requirement for many jobs across the whole range of employment.

There are so many skills that you acquire, rather than learn, during the course of your study that add to your store of lifetime abilities. Some of these skills, such as time management and meeting deadlines, criticizing your own work and that of your peers and, of course, maintaining a questioning attitude while being objective about your research, we discuss in considerable detail throughout this book. Others, like team working, which includes negotiation and seeing both sides of an argument, may initially seem contradictory to the notion of the isolated researcher but you will soon discover the importance of being able to come to a decision after discussion with your supervisors, other researchers in your discipline, or conference colleagues.

You will find that it is not only the very obvious skills of composition and writing that you acquire during your course of study that will be valued by future employers. You will have many more skills to offer to corporations, most, if not all, of which have to deal with such wide ranging issues as health and safety, product design and marketing. And what worthwhile company does not have a customer services department or need to manage conflict during the course of industrial relations with trade union representatives?

Regardless of whether you wish to apply for a career in academia or your ambition is to work in other fields of endeavour, you will be very marketable if you make a conscious decision to develop wide-ranging abilities during your time as a postgraduate research student.

It is these skills, both specific and generic, that you are trying to acquire when you embark on a PhD. The purpose of the exercise is to become a fully professional researcher and to be able to demonstrate that you are one. It is important to keep this professional concept in mind because it orientates everything that you have to do. For example, you are not doing research in order to do research; you are doing research in order to demonstrate that you have learned how to do research to fully professional standards .

You are not writing a review of your field of study because that would be an interesting thing to do, or because ‘everybody does one’ (although both of these may be true). You are writing a review because it gives you an opportunity to demonstrate that you have learned how to take command of the material with the maturity and grasp of the full professional.

Notice that the key concept is to demonstrate that your learning is to professional standards. How will you know whether it is? This is probably the most crucial thing that you have to learn – from your supervisor and from published work in your field. It is indeed a vital responsibility of your supervisor to ensure that you are given every opportunity to become familiar with appropriate professional standards. It is only through this familiarity that you will be able to recognize and achieve them. One useful tool is the website ethos.bl.uk which makes available more than a quarter of a million theses, free for immediate download.

One thing is clear: you cannot get a PhD unless you do know what the standards are. This is because of the aims of the whole doctoral process. These are not just to allow you in due course to have the title ‘Doctor’, pleasant though this is and proud though your family will be. When the examiners, on behalf of the university and the academic community, award the degree and recognize you as a fully professional researcher, what they are primarily concerned with is that you should ‘join the club’ and continue your contribution to  developing your discipline through research and scholarship throughout your career.

They hope that you will publish papers from your doctoral thesis and continue to research and publish in the field to establish your academic authority, so that, in due course, you will supervise and examine other people’s PhD theses.

This is in fact the aim of the whole exercise: to get you to the level where you can supervise and examine others’ PhDs with authority. Thus clearly you must have the professional skills and you must know the standards that are required. Two immediate corollaries of this fact are:

  • Quite early on in the process you must begin to read other PhD theses in your field so that you can discover what the standards are. How else will you know what standard you ought to aim for?
  • If you have to go along to your supervisor after you have done your work and ask if it is good enough, you are clearly not ready for a PhD, which is awarded as a recognition that you are able to evaluate research work (including your own) to fully professional standards.

What can I expect to be taught during my PhD studies?

The answer to this question depends upon the opportunities that are obtainable at your university, and you must make yourself familiar with what is on offer.

In general, most universities offer short non-examinable courses on skills that a professional researcher needs to acquire. These may be general courses on, for example, planning and managing your research project, writing in appropriate English for academic research and ethical guidelines for research. They may be more specific courses on health and safety in laboratories (for science and technology students), on using SPSS, the statistical computer package (for social science students), on computer based qualitative research methods (for humanities students), on effective teaching (for those undertaking tutorial roles) and so on. Generally there are discipline-specific courses on the relevant research methodologies for your field, and regular seminars with visiting researchers. The possible range is considerable, and you should make full use of what your university offers. There are also external courses that you could attend, often free for research students or financially supported by your university or research council. For example, for humanities students, the British Library holds postgraduate student training days. For science students, the GRAD schools organization offers career development training seminars.


 References & notes:

Phillips, E., & Pugh, D. (2010). How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors (5th ed., pp.22-29). McGraw-Hill Education (UK).

To download the 4th edition of this book click this link .

To buy the 5th edition of this book online from Amazon.com click this link .


 [note 1]

Individual British universities are responsible for their own academic standards, but in 1997 the government established the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). This monitors university standards and procedures, identifying good practice and making recommendations. Most universities will attempt to conform to the QAA guidelines. The QAA definition for a doctoral degree, as given on their website (www.qaa.ac.uk), expects the successful candidate ‘to have demonstrated the creation and interpretation of new knowledge, through original research or other advanced scholarship, of a quality to satisfy peer review, extend the forefront of the discipline, and merit publication’.

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