Doctoral Qualifications in relation to Professional Careers
Doctoral degrees were, for many years, primarily subject specific, but this changedfollowing the introduction of the PhD as a research based qualification early in the20th century. For most of the last fifty years the doctorate degree has been virtuallysynonymous with the PhD (except for the specific case of the MD degree).
Since 1991 there has been a rapid growth in the UK of Professional Doctorates,which have returned to the model of subject specific titles, such as DEng, and EdD.
These doctorates differ in a number of respects from the traditional PhD, and this hasled to a number of tensions in UK universities.
The most significant differences are that a greater proportion of the professionaldoctorate is taught, and that the subject matter covered by the professional doctorateincludes a considerable emphasis on discipline related professional practice as well ason the content of the discipline. In some cases professional doctorates serve a dualpurpose, acting as a professional qualification as well as leading to a doctoral degree.
This paper examines the differences between PhDs and Professional Doctorates, andconsiders how these are likely to develop over the next few years, reflecting thechanging nature of the relationship between universities and employers.
Comparisons are also drawn with practice in other European countries, since there isconsiderable diversity of practice in the area of doctoral degrees.
Background and History
Universities have awarded doctorates as the highest level of academic recognition since the
very early days of the mediaeval foundations such as Oxford, Heidelberg and Bologna. The
term doctor – signifying one who is learned in a subject – was originally used in a subject
specific way. Titles such as Doctor of Theology, Doctor of Medicine were conferred,
probably with no very formal assessment of suitability, on those who had achieved high
academic status in their subjects. The basis of the doctoral qualification was essentially
scholarship at this stage in the development of the universities.
1 University of the West of England, Coldharbour Lane, Bristol BS16 1QY, UKstephen.email@example.com
In the nineteenth century a new form of doctorate appeared – the PhD, starting in Germany.
This qualification was much more closely tied to research than to scholarship or to practice,
and its introduction parallels the developing significance of research within universities. The
PhD spread to American Universities during the latter part of the nineteenth century and it is
notable that there were initially significant voices that opposed this novelty. It was argued
that research in universities was an inappropriate distraction from the core business of
Resistance to the PhD was even greater in the UK, and there are no instances of the degree
being awarded before 1921. However in the period since 1921 the PhD has become far
and away the most common doctoral qualification offered by universities in the UK. It is
now very unusual for anyone to be appointed to an academic position without holding a PhD
degree, and there are a number of industrial positions where the PhD is a normal
At the start of the 1990’s a new form of doctorate started to appear in UK universities –
known generically as Professional Doctorates. In this context the term professional
doctorate is used in contrast to academic doctorates. Since that time, there has been
spectacular growth in the number of such degree programmes, with the majority of UK
universities now offering at least one such doctorate and many offering several.
Definition of ‘Professional Doctorate’
A straightforward definition of the term ‘Professional Doctorate’ is not particularly easy.
• The field of study is closely related to an area of professional practice, such as
Engineering, Business Administration or Clinical Psychology;
• A significant part of the doctoral programme is taught, whereas the traditional
• The doctoral degree awarded includes a named subject area – such as Doctor
of Engineering or Doctor of Education.
Of these it is clear that the first is very much the most important, in that it defines the
programme as distinctly ‘professional’. This is capable being understood in a number of
different ways. A doctorate in a modern university must be a research degree; nothing else
would be acceptable within the framework of what is understood as a doctorate. One
definition of ‘professional’ is therefore that the degree is based on research into the practice
of a profession, rather than into the theoretical and conceptual structures which underpin the
practice. This is actually a difficult distinction to maintain, since practice and theory are
intimately connected and it is generally not useful to draw artificial boundaries between them.
There are Professional Doctorates which have very particular relationships to the
corresponding profession. The Doctorate in Clinical Psychology is, in general, accredited
by the British Psychological Society and confers on its holders a licence to practice as a
Clinical Psychologist. The Doctorate of Education is intended to be undertaken by mid-
career senior professionals in education on a part-time basis, and almost invariably includes
research based in the candidate’s place of work, often a school. The Doctorate of
Engineering is usually taken shortly after completion of an undergraduate degree and
although formally it is a full-time programme, much of the work is done within industry and is
supervised jointly by a university and a collaborating engineering company.
These examples illustrate an important point – the nature of the relationships between
Professional Doctorates and their related professions is very varied. The key factor,
however, is that there is such a relationship and it is this that constitutes the defining
characteristic of the Professional Doctorate. The following definition is therefore proposed:
A Professional Doctorate is a qualification based on a programme of advanced
study and research which, while satisfying the University criteria for award of a
doctorate, is designed to meet specific needs of a professional group external
to the University, and which involves members of that group in the design,
development or delivery of the programme.
Members of the external professional group may also be involved in assessment of the
standard achieved within the doctoral study, but this is not a necessary characteristic. Some
universities would have concerns about that, rooted in a sense that the final decision about
the standard to be achieved in a doctoral degree of a university should rest with the
This definition is a long way from what is often seen as the standard definition – one which
defines the Professional Doctorate as a taught programme. It is an inevitable consequence
of the definition quoted above that the programme could not achieve the objective of
meeting specific professional needs without some teaching, at least in the sense of guidance
in the development of practice skills. For this and other reasons there is a significant amount
of taught content in Professional Doctorates; but this is not a defining characteristic.
Origins of the Professional Doctorate
It has already been pointed out that the development of the PhD was very much associated
with the increasing significance of research as a key university activity. The twentieth century
saw a total transition of the university system from being teaching based to being research
based. Within this change, the PhD has become of great significance as the essential
qualification for entry into the academic profession. The route which has become traditional
– first degree, PhD, post-doctoral research, academic appointment – highlights the
importance of research at every stage after the first degree.
As universities have become more focussed on research, the research that goes on has
become increasingly specialised. The PhD has been characterised as research which
achieves a high level of specialisation in a very narrow field. This has led to many seeing the
PhD as being detached from real concerns, and of significance only within the academic
In practice this is something of an oversimplification in a number of different respects.
Firstly, for all that those outside universities have frequently been critical of the narrowness
of the PhD, they have also been keen to employ holders of PhD in a wide range of roles.
Secondly, there are some subject areas where the academic PhD has been seen as entirely
appropriate as a preparation for employment; for example the chemical industry has a long
tradition of employing PhD chemists in industrial research and management roles.
Forty years ago the proportion of school leavers who proceeded to study to degree level
was around 5%. Possession of a degree guaranteed admission to an elite group. However
one of the major changes over the intervening years has been the increase of this proportion
to over 30%, and it is planned to rise further. Possession of a degree is now therefore much
more common, and certainly does not confer the elite status that it did a generation ago.
This has generated pressure for a greater number of people to seek postgraduate
Although much of the postgraduate expansion has been in the form of Master’s level
courses, it has also generated a change in the way the PhD is seen. Rather than being used
solely as the admission route into academic life, it has become of interest to a wider range of
employers. This generated some concern about the extent to which the PhD prepared
students for employment in industry and commerce as opposed to in universities. At the
same time there was a change in the nature of the relationship between universities and
industry and commerce. Employers started to demand that the courses offered by
universities met their needs rather than being willing to accept whatever the universities
provided; and employers became more directly involved in what universities were doing.
The final important change is in the challenges facing the organisations that employ
graduates. Both public and private sector organisations are under considerable pressure to
improve the quality of the services and products they provide, and to reduce costs. At the
same time there is an increasingly complex environment in terms of regulations, health and
safety requirements, and the demand for more openness, particularly in the public sector.
The skills of research and enquiry which characterise doctoral level qualifications are
therefore becoming increasingly important in a wide range of employment contexts.
The Professional Doctorate is a logical consequence of these developments. With doctoral
qualifications being used for an increasing range of careers, it was appropriate that questions
about the suitability of the PhD for this role should be raised.
In 1991 a working group chaired by Parnaby (SERC 1991) examined this in relation to
engineering, and proposed a new model, in which the experience of research for a doctoral
degree was based in industry rather than academia. To reflect this shift, a different title was
suggested – the Doctorate of Engineering (EngD or DEng). Such programmes were funded
in a number of UK Universities by one of the government funded Research Councils, the
EPSRC2. These programmes were reviewed in 1997 by the EPSRC, and an expansion in
the number of programmes was recommended (EPSRC 1997).
The Doctorate in Education (which is now offered by a large number of UK universities) has
rather different origins. School level education in the UK has been the target of much critical
comment in recent years, and this has led to a perceived need to examine educational
practice in considerable detail, as well as to a loss of self-confidence within the education
profession. The Doctorate of Education attempts to address both of these issues: by
bringing a high level research perspective to bear on the problems of education, and by
conferring on some of the senior practitioners the title of Doctor.
The Doctorate of Clinical Psychology was developed in conjunction with a number of
universities by a professional body, the British Psychological Society, which is responsible
for conferring on individuals the authority to practice as Clinical Psychologists. The
DClinPsych serves this purpose, which implies considerable constraint on the structure of
the programme. There is also a question of status which arises here. Clinical Psychologists
frequently work alongside medical practitioners, and the title of Doctor helps to secure
2 At the time of the introduction of the Engineering Doctorate (1992) this was the Science andEngineering Research Council (SERC), subsequently renamed the Engineering and Physical ScienceResearch Council (EPRSC).
There is a clear pattern that Professional Doctorates have been developed particularly in
professions which there is perceived to be a need for improved status. There are other
professions, such as Law, where there is no tradition of PhD study, but there has been no
pressure for the development of Professional Doctorates. Law is a very high status
The consequence of all these pressures is that there has been a very fast expansion in the
number of Professional Doctorate programmes being offered by UK universities. Taking
the figures for England alone, in 2000 just over 70% of universities were offering at least one
Professional Doctorate; the aggregate number of programmes has been increasing by nearly
20% per year in recent years (see table 1).
Table 1: Total number of Professional Doctorate
programmes in English Universities.
From Bourner et al (2000).
Relationship of the Professional Doctorate and the PhD
Since there is such a wide variety of Professional Doctorates, and indeed some variation of
practice between universities over the structure of PhDs, it is difficult to make systematic
statements about the relationship between the two. The following table therefore lists typical
characteristics, rather than providing a rigorous taxonomy.
Includes taught elements in addition to a
dissertation which may constitute aresearch thesis
Usually part-time, but may be full-time in
Individual study & research, although may
admission is usually based on a Master’s
degreeOnly assessment criterion is a significant
Assessed against additional criteria related
original contribution to knowledge, of
(or an equivalent
Professional Doctorates have been given a mixed welcome in UK universities. There is a
widespread perception that the PhD represents an immutable standard for doctorates and
that any other forms of doctorate must be demonstrably equivalent. This has tended to
imply that the Professional Doctorate has in some universities been expected to meet both
the assessment requirements of the PhD and other additional criteria. It is an open question
whether that is satisfactory as a definition of doctoral standard in the context of professional
practice; it is certainly a sufficient condition for the award of a doctorate, but it may exceed
the requirements of a necessary condition.
There is another reason why Professional Doctorates may have been viewed rather
equivocally. They involve external professions in determining what is done in university
educational programmes at the highest level. While in some disciplines, notably those that
are linked to the professions, this is fairly normal practice, this is less true of more strictly
A survey has been carried out to learn something of the attitudes among employers of those
on Professional Doctorate programmes. The results present some interesting insights into the
relationship between employers and students and the Professional Doctorate programmes
on which the students are enrolled. The information was provided by the line managers of
individual students. As such it represents a middle management view; senior management
To place the results of the survey in context it is important to note that the whole
Professional Doctorate market is significantly skewed towards the public sector. The EdD
represents the largest part of the market, with various Psychology related professions
occupying a further large proportion. As a result a substantial proportion of the total number
of Professional Doctorate candidates are employed in either public sector education or in
Although the programmes have been developed to meet the needs of employing
organisations, in the vast majority of cases the idea of undertaking a Professional Doctorate
was reported to have originated with the student. It is, of course, probable that in many
cases information about the possibility may have been disseminated to employees by the
employing organisation; to that extent the idea may have originated with the employer. In
about 40% of cases the employer pays the fee entire fee. 35% of students pay their own
fees, and for just under 20% of students the fee is shared between employer and employee.
Although the numbers are not large, there is discernible pattern between subject areas. In
the case of Business or technical subjects (DBA, EngD etc.) the employer pays. For the
Education Doctorate a significant minority of students either pays or contributes. In the
various Psychology disciplines the student is usually self-funding.
Most employers were satisfied with the amount of information that they received about the
course. However a minority of employers felt that they had been able to influence the
choice of modules taken by their students. However, nearly all employers felt that their
organisations were involved in the research aspect of the doctorate; usually this consisted of
the research being actually carried out in the organisation.
The benefits perceived by employers included:
• the development of individual skills, particularly in the area of research;• the development of organisational skills, by dissemination from the individual student
together with involvement in the programme;
• retention and motivation of staff;• improved skills in management and leadership;• improved quality of output/product of the organisation.
Most of the employers would repeat the experience of sponsoring students – the reasons for
so doing corresponded quite closely to the perceived benefits set out above. In an
interesting contrast, one response specifically indicated a preference for the Professional
Doctorate over the PhD because of its inclusion of project management and co-ordination
of the work of others; and one response said that in future the organisation would stick to
‘proper PhDs’. This pair of responses encapsulates some of the contrasting attitudes to
One consistent negative aspect that was raised in the responses was the problem of the
amount of staff time and energy that the course absorbed. However it appeared that the
positive aspects outweighed this for most employers. A number of employers also
commented adversely on the cost of the programmes in terms of fees; the public sector bias
makes this a rather unsurprising observation, given the constraints on funding.
The Location of Professional Doctorate Programmes
The UK university system is broadly made up of two types of universities. There are
traditional academic institutions which were established at various times between about
1100 and 1964. More recently a set of new universities were created from the
polytechnics in 1992, and these, reflecting their polytechnic heritage, are seen as being more
distinctively vocational in character. There are already signs that the two groups are
converging. However, given the vocational emphasis of the new universities it is surprising
that the development of professional doctorates was concentrated initially in the traditional
universities. This may be explained by the involvement of external professional groups.
There is little doubt that the polytechnics had less prestige than the universities, and in the
early 1990s many people retained some concerns that the new universities were of lower
status than the traditional universities. External groups therefore tended to show a
preference for collaboration with the traditional universities.
UK National Qualifications Framework
In 1999 the UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA)3 embarked on the
establishment of a national framework into which all qualifications could be fitted. This
project was motivated by a desire to make clearer the significance of qualifications for the
benefit of the users of Higher Education, and followed publication of a report which was
critical of the level of confusion between different UK qualifications (Harris 1996). The
underlying principle of the proposals is that qualifications bearing the same titles should be
reasonably comparable in academic standard, and that both potential students and
employers have access to information which makes this standard clear.
The National Qualifications Framework makes no significant distinction between
Professional Doctorates and PhDs. A single qualification descriptor
characteristics to be expected from those who hold a doctoral qualification (see box). The
obvious observation about this descriptor is that it contains a number of references to
employment related skills. It is precisely these characteristics which were seen by a number
of professions as lacking in the traditional PhD and which led to the development of the
Professional Doctorate as an alternative model. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that
adoption of this descriptor will create further changes in the PhD, bringing it closer to the
Descriptor for qualifications at Doctoral (D) level: Doctoral degree
Doctorates are awarded to students who have demonstrated:
the creation and interpretation of new knowledge, through original research, or otheradvanced scholarship, of a quality to satisfy peer review, extend the forefront of thediscipline, and merit publication;
a systematic acquisition and understanding of a substantial body of knowledge whichis at the forefront of an academic discipline or area of professional practice;
the general ability to conceptualise, design and implement a project for the generationof new knowledge, applications or understanding at the forefront of the discipline, andto adjust the project design in the light of unforeseen problems;
a detailed understanding of applicable techniques for research and advanced academicenquiry.
3 The QAA is an autonomous non-governmental agency representing the interests of Universities, theHigher Education Funding Councils and the Department for Education & Employment, the governmentministry responsible for education.
Typically, holders of the qualification will be able to:
make informed judgements on complex issues in specialist fields, often in the absenceof complete data, and be able to communicate their ideas and conclusions clearly andeffectively to specialist and non-specialist audiences;
continue to undertake pure and/or applied research and development at an advancedlevel, contributing substantially to the development of new techniques, ideas, orapproaches;
the qualities and transferable skills necessary for employment requiring the exercise ofpersonal responsibility and largely autonomous initiative in complex and unpredictablesituations, in professional or equivalent environments.
This descriptor also illustrates that it is unlikely to be realistic to equate Professional
Doctorates with taught doctorates, as is quite commonly done. The skills that are required
within the doctoral description will demand some teaching – and in any case it is becoming
increasingly common for teaching in areas such as research skills to form an inseparable part
Doctorates have always been managed differently in different countries, and this remains
very much true. A comprehensive analysis of practice in different countries in relation to the
Professional Doctorate model would be very difficult to do, because of the differences of
terminology and definition. This section is therefore confined to a few comments about
The Professional Doctorate model as described here is found in its best developed form in
Australia, where it has been a very successful and widely adopted model. As in the UK, a
key function has been to support the professionalisation of roles which feel themselves to be
undervalued. There are therefore many programmes in Education and in Nursing.
The American PhD has always had a substantial taught component, and tends to come
closer in some respects to the UK Professional Doctorate model than to the UK PhD
model. While there are some US doctoral programmes that have a clear professional
emphasis and would therefore be classified as Professional Doctorates in terms of the
definition used in this paper, they usually lead to the award of a PhD.
In Germany the PhD in the traditional form remains the mainstay of doctoral level education.
Universities in Germany are traditionally more independent of government and other external
pressures than has been the case in the UK, and have therefore been less susceptible to
pressure to realign doctoral programmes to meet external employment needs.
In the light of the Bologna Declaration, it is important to recognise that there is now
considerable pressure for the harmonisation of academic qualifications across the EU states.
The distinction between the PhD and the Professional Doctorate may therefore come to
have much wider significance than it does at present. The routes to qualification in particular
professions differ widely across different EU states. The concept of a doctoral qualification
which is specifically related to the needs of particular professional groups is therefore rather
complex. Any form of harmonisation of academic qualifications is necessarily closely related
to the harmonisation of professional qualifications; this may, however, be particularly true for
some of the areas currently covered in the UK by Professional Doctorates.
Professional Doctorates represent an important new development in Higher Education, if the
definition proposed in this paper is appropriate. They are a form of qualification where the
structure and content are significantly determined by groups and bodies who represent the
professions that depend on HE. That is a development which is not easily accepted by
everyone working in the university system. However the current indications are that in most
of the subject areas where Professional Doctorates have been developed they are
welcomed by the candidates and actively supported by relevant employing organisations.
As such it is likely that this particular sector of Higher Education will continue the pattern of
rapid expansion that has been characteristic of the first nine years of operation.
The author is indebted to Professor Stuart Laing and his group at the University of Brighton
for much of the statistical information about Professional Doctorates presented in this paper.
Many of the ideas presented here derive from discussions with members of a working group
on Professional Doctorates which was established by the UK Council for Graduate
Education, and of which the author is a member.
The Adoption of Professional Doctorates in English
Universities:Why Here? Why Now? Professional Doctorates 3rdInternational Conference, University of New England,Armidale, NSW, Australia, September 2000.
Report of the HEFCE,CVCP,SCOP Review of PostgraduateEducation. Higher Education Funding Council for England,Bristol, 1996.
Review of the EPSRC Engineering Doctorate Pilot Scheme,EPSRC, Swindon UK October 1997.
The framework for higher education qualifications in England,Wales and Northern Ireland – January 2001. Quality AssuranceAgency for Higher Education, Gloucester.
The Engineering Doctorate: An SERC Working Party Report,SERC Publications, SERC Swindon UK, 1991.
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