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Doctoral students in education, enrolled on PhD or EdD programmes of study, are often expected or required to perform substantial teaching duties including lecturing, organising and conducting tutorials, supervision and marking. Limited attention, however, has been given to their development as university teachers, especially when compared with the emphasis on their development as researchers. In this post, we argue that it is essential to understand what doctoral students believe about university teaching and how this relates to their academic field, so that they are supported in their academic development as university teachers. This is important since only approximately half of education doctoral students in the UK receive guidance and support on how to teach (Slight, 2017). At the same time, between 2009/10 and 2020/21 there has been a 16 per cent decline in the number of academic staff employed by higher education institutions to teach education, mainly due to the reduction of government funding for teacher training (HESA, 2021). Lack of support and guidance, coupled with reduced funding for education, has therefore led to reduced opportunities for employment with a higher education institution.

‘Between 2009/10 and 2020/21 there has been a 16 per cent decline in the number of academic staff employed by higher education institutions to teach education, mainly due to the reduction of government funding for teacher training.’

Within this context, we explored how doctoral students experience and understand university teaching (Mimirinis & Ahlberg, 2021). We interviewed doctoral students in two departments of education in Sweden and England, with the aim of exploring the qualitatively different ways in which doctoral students in education make sense of their teaching. Phenomenographic analysis (Marton & Booth, 1997; Mimirinis, 2019) identified that education doctoral students understood university teaching as a means of: transmitting knowledge; presenting contrasting concepts of education; communicating and engaging with students; enabling students to apply knowledge and skills; enabling students to interpret and compare concepts of education; and promoting personal, professional, and societal development and change.

The findings are important as they offer a unique insight into how the subject of education is understood by doctoral students who teach. Our study provided evidence of a continuum of approaches from the teacher-focused to the student-focused approach to teaching, and the findings enrich our understanding in the following areas.

  • It supports the salience of an intermediate conception of teaching as an exchange and interaction between teacher and student.
  • It delineates the subject matter of the field of education and identifies two key constituents: education as a set of skills, and education as a set of (often interrelated) concepts.
  • It provides a detailed, subject-specific account of conceptions of teaching in the field of education.

What are the implications of these findings? The existence of advanced conceptions of university teaching of education necessitates a reframing of the ways we think about the academic development of PhD and EdD students in education. Such reframing needs to consider two dimensions.

First, it is important to introduce common frameworks of academic development for education academics and doctoral students. This contrasts with existing approaches where the level and quality of support offered to doctoral students is limited compared to the provision for academic teachers, such as in the UK access to Postgraduate Certificates in Learning and Teaching. Examples of current provision are often reactive to sectoral and university-level initiatives, and result in tokentistic, compartmentalised approaches to their academic development, as exemplified in sector-wide recognised ‘fellowships’ such as those awarded by the UK Higher Education Academy.

Second, it is important to prioritise ways of representing and engaging with the structure of the subject matter, rather than the acquisition of teaching skills only. It is essential that teaching skills are supplemented by promoting an awareness of the taught content of education. Therefore, academic development of education doctoral students should enable an active, critical exploration of how the elements of the taught content relate to each other, and why/how these elements were chosen. Representation of the subject matter is particularly relevant in the context of revisiting university curricula in response to wider developments, such as climate change, decolonising the curriculum, technological advancements, and so on.

We argue that meaningful teaching experiences for education doctoral students involve engagement with the content, awareness of the various pedagogies that can facilitate engagement with the subject matter, and an understanding of teaching as an interactive craft that can transform knowledge in the field. Such a transformation might also extend to doctoral students themselves, as active agents within common frameworks of academic development with their teachers.

This blog post is based on the article ‘Variation in education doctoral students’ conceptions of university teaching’ by Mike Mimirinis and Kristina Ahlberg, published in the British Educational Research Journal.


Higher Education Statistics Agency [HESA]. (2021). Higher education staff statistics UK: 2020 to 2021.

Marton, F., & Booth, S. A. (1997). Learning and awareness. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Mimirinis, M. (2019). Qualitative differences in academics’ conceptions of e-assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44(2), 233–248.

Mimirinis, M., & Ahlberg, K. (2021). Variation in education doctoral students’ conceptions of university teaching. British Journal of Educational Research, 47(3), 557–578.

Slight, C. (2017). Postgraduate research experience survey. Higher Education Academy.