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Structure of professional doctorate programmes

Geraldine Davis

Is it any wonder that there is discussion about the structure of such programmes and what works best for those concerned?

What is a doctoral programme? An advanced study of a defined topic? A lonely journey? A three year challenge? Something necessary to work in academia? An emotional roller-coaster? All of these have been provided as one line summaries by doctoral candidates. They do not fully align with the QAA characteristics of a UK doctorate, which are currently being re-considered http://www.qaa.ac.uk/en/Publications/Documents/Doctoral-Degree-Characteristics.pdf but the statements do illustrate that the doctoral journey is an individual experience, even when candidates work with others on the programme. While the general characteristics for doctoral programmes are agreed, the structure of such programmes is diverse. For Education doctorates the choice of programme is now wide, a PhD, a DPhil, a DProf, an EdD, for example. Is it any wonder that there is discussion about the structure of such programmes and what works best for those concerned?

Traditionally the PhD was full time, and studied by younger students soon after their taught university programmes. The advent of part time PhD study catered for the more mature, working student but did not in other ways differ from the traditional PhD. The Professional Doctorate, on the other hand, was specifically designed to cater for experienced, professional people to research an aspect of policy or practice with a view to making changes to directly affect that practice. The nature of such doctorates in the UK are summarised on the UKCGE website and evidence of interest in the nature of doctoral programmes is provided by the Oxford Statement.

To structure: with modules or without?

Questions have been raised about how to structure a doctorate programme, particularly a part time one, to support progress through doctoral study to completion. A brief survey of Educational Professional Doctorates offered in the UK demonstrates a wide range of structures, including modular and non-modular approaches. There are a number of texts to support candidates to achieve their doctorate but less is written regarding the pros and cons of different doctoral programme structures. The modular approach is often associated with ‘teaching’, which for some does not fit with the notion of a research degree. But the non-modular approach can still be structured and can be advantageous for establishing a ‘cohortness’ for peer support within a community of practice. The challenge in choosing a modular programme: what academic levels are the modules; and if they are at level 8 are they compulsory for those who already have equivalent level 8 qualifications; how can ‘cohortness’ be supported? For non-modular programmes, what are the exit awards, and how is academic credit awarded? My knowledge of doctoral candidates, both PhD and EdD, indicates that they want to focus on their own research project from the start, accessing relevant training to support that journey. They do not want to repeat learning from previous taught programmes, rather they want to use such learning to develop their own project.

the structure is not there to function as a series of checkpoints, but as a framework for development of the candidate and their research

My experience of working with a structured non-modular EdD is described in a conference publication. In this paper, Ian Frame and I have identified the value of a conceptual framework of structured support and linked this to the better progress of doctoral candidates through their research studies. This conceptual framework is based on the ideas of community of practice, work based learning and adult learning, with structured opportunities for reflective practice.  It currently relies on candidates entering the programme with Masters level qualifications and some experience of or tuition in research. It also, of course, relies on well-motivated and self-directed candidates, because the structure is not there to function as a series of checkpoints, but as a framework for development of the candidate and their research.

I argue that the flexible, non-modular structure works because it enables candidates to progress in their individual ways, reflecting the individual journeys the candidates have. This structure supports research skill development, and the development of academic writing, but also supports the candidate’s ability to think creatively about their research focus and design, and progress with these, without the constraints of modules.

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