Purpose of the doctorate

What are your thoughts on the purpose of the doctorate? Oxford supervisors have expressed a range of views on this question.

Is the purpose of the doctorate to prepare...

  • future academics?, as this supervisor describes: “The student concerned is… very hard working, absolutely engaged in the project, academically-minded, inclined to remain in academia, wants to develop... is conscious of the need to develop his own career consciously. He is very conscious of where he wants his career to go, but doesn’t seem to feel that you only do that stuff that leads directly to that”.
  • future researchers?, as here: “There is a point to holding a DPhil and the point is, in some sense, summed up in that you have some independence and being able to stand up and talk to other scientists and [...] that you’re capable of creating ideas and thoughts and research that other people want to listen to...
  • future knowledge workers in varied employment?, as in this statement: “No one’s really that concerned that you have the last word on whatever your topic happens to be; it’s a research exercise, proving that you can, you know, do research in an organised and structured sort of way, and you can then go on and do whatever”.

Student and supervisor views on the purpose of the doctorate will influence the nature of the learning and the kinds of support wanted and offered. In developing a view of the purpose of the doctorate, it can be helpful to know trends in career opportunities post-graduation. See the page on Thinking about academic and other careers for an analysis of post-PhD employment in the UK.

Discussions between student, supervisor (and co-supervisor) on the purpose of the doctorate can provide a basis for skills development and clarifying expectations.

The postgraduate research degree is changing.

It is no longer just about producing an original piece of excellent research; producing a trained researcher is an equally important output. (Mary Ritter, Pro-Rector for Postgraduate Affairs at Imperial College, London and Chair of the UK GRAD Steering Group, Research Councils UK).

With the growing national and international attention on research training, there has been a renewed focus on the purpose of the doctorate - particularly with increasing pressures for timely completions challenging the body of work that can be completed within a DPhil.

In recent times, the purpose of the doctorate has centred around two key questions:

  • Is the primary purpose to make an original contribution to knowledge? OR
  • Is the primary purpose to prepare independent researchers?

Sometimes this distinction can be drawn in terms of whether the focus of the doctorate is on the product (the thesis/ contribution to knowledge) or on the person (producing a highly skilled, independent researcher).

There are slight variations by discipline as to whether examiners consider that they are examining the thesis as a "polished and cohesive piece of writing that provides an original contribution to knowledge" or whether they are judging the extent to which the candidate has demonstrated that she/ he is "capable of undertaking independent research". Those in the Humanities tend toward the former and those in Sciences and Engineering tend to the latter.

National and international developments, have been leading towards greater focus on developing the person –"the supply of high-quality scientists and engineers" as well as researchers in other fields, to support continuous innovation in competitive global markets (HM Treasury, 2002, p1). 

While many academics still place a primacy on the doctorate as preparation for academia, especially in the humanities and social sciences, external stakeholders as well as many universities are increasingly emphasising the doctorate as preparation for non-academic careers, and even non-research careers. For instance, the League of European Research Universities reported: 

Doctoral programmes prepare researchers to the highest level to make important contributions to frontier research. In addition, doctoral graduates are well prepared to take up roles in driving complex changes in society …Doctoral graduates deliver the advanced research skills necessary in professional, sectors beyond frontier research and education: in applied research, in policy making, in management, and in many other leadership roles in society.” (LERU, 2010, 3)

Certainly, analyses of employment post-PhD in the UK, Australia and the USA indicate that only about 50% of doctoral graduates end up in academic appointment, though many more move to some other area of higher education employment or research employment.

These newer views of the doctorate form an interesting contrast to its origins in medieval Europe as a licence to teach in universities. This legacy can be seen today in the view of the doctorate as providing entry into academia, including university teaching. The shift to seeing the doctorate as providing research training accompanied the shift from seeing universities as places of teaching to places of research that started with the German Humboldtian university in the early 19th century.

Although readily adopted in the USA, there was substantial resistance to the introduction of research doctorates in the UK, conflicting as they did with the more traditional goals of a liberal education as preparation for future citizenship. So, it was not until the 20th century that the PhD was first offered in Britain, starting with the University of Oxford in 1917.

The above text was based on:

Aanerud, R., Homer, L., Nerad, M. and Cerny, J. (2006) "Paths and perceptions: assessing doctoral education using career path analysis", in P. Maki and N. Borkowski (Eds) The assessment of doctoral education: emerging criteria and new models for improving outcomes. Sterling Virginia: Stylus Publishing.

Bogle, D. (2010) Doctoral degrees beyond 2010: Training talented researchers for society. Leuven: League of European Research Universities.

Enders, J. (2005). Border crossings: Research training, knowledge dissemination and the transformation of academic work. Higher Education, 49(1-2), 119-133.

HM Treasury (2002) SET for Success. (The Roberts Report).

Mullins, G., & Kiley, M. (2002). 'It's a PhD, not a Nobel Prize': How experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 369-386.

Park, C. (2007) Redefining the Doctorate, Higher Education Academy Discussion Paper. 

Salmon, P. (1992). Achieving a PhD: Ten students' experiences. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham.

Simpson, R. (1983) How the PhD Came to Britain, Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education.

UK GRAD Programme, (2004)  What do PhDs do? 2004 analysis of first destinations for PhD graduates.

UK GRAD Programme, (2007) What do PhDs do? - Trends.
The two UK Grad Reports above are no longer available online. However, see Vitae, (2013) What do researchers do? Early career progression of doctoral graduates for more recent updates on the same topic.