Trends in doctoral education

Like other universities, Oxford reflects international and national trends in doctoral education. For instance, technology is influencing the ways in which students and academics engage in research and international collaboration, skills training is integral to doctoral experience, and expectation of completion is three years.

While student and staff mobility is an international trend, Oxford may be somewhat unusual in its makeup; in 2013, 35% of academic staff and 49% of research staff were from the European Union or elsewhere overseas. Just over one-third of students were non-UK nationals, including 62% of full-time graduate students. As a result, Oxford has one of the most extensive global alumni networks in the world, with 200 groups in over 80 countries.

As well, new forms of doctoral training are emerging based on funding council expectations, e.g. Social Sciences Doctoral Training Centre, Life Sciences Doctoral Training Centre. Another growing practice is the development of joint doctoral awards where the student spends substantial time at two universities during the doctorate. See University of Oxford's Policy and Guidance on Collaborative Provision of Education, including Placements and Exchanges (see, in particular, p5).

Given the expectation that students complete in three years, planning doctoral work in relation to University policies can help reduce student and supervisor stress.

As for skills training, many University resources are available. See the "Identifying and developing skills" page in our Stages section.

For students from abroad as well as their supervisors, the "International students" page, in the Students section, offers useful information.

There is no doubt that the contemporary doctorate is being substantially influenced by international and national developments. These developments mean that not only are institutions, and individuals within those institutions, being expected to work differently, but the students who are entering those institutions are coming with different backgrounds and expectations from what might have been the case 10 or 20 years ago.

National groupings and organisations

A substantial impact on the doctorate internationally has been the Bologna Process. This process aimed, by 2010, to have 46 European countries implementing:

  • Easily readable and comparable degrees and transcripts.
  • Uniform degree structures, i.e. a three year Bachelor award, two year Masters degree, and three year Doctoral programmes.
  • A means of offering credits across countries so that one credit point would be of the same value in all universities in the countries involved in the agreement.
  • Increased mobility of students and staff due to increased alignment.
  • Promotion of European co-operation.
  • Promotion of a European dimension in higher education.
  • A form of quality assurance which enables European awards to be internationally recognized.

With such a large number of institutions working in this co-operative manner, other countries (including the USA) are debating the risks associated with not joining this development.

Skills training and varied career options

In recent years, another trend has been the positioning of research training as providing innovative researchers and ‘knowledge workers’ to contribute to Western knowledge-based economies. From this perspective, the increasing emphasis on post-graduation career options outside academia is both desirable as well as an essential outcome of the growth in doctoral and postdoctoral scholars (without a matching growth in academic positions available).

As part of this trend, there has been an increasing focus on stakeholder, including industry employer, views of the desirable skills to be developed as part of a research degree. This has resulted in development of professional and personal skills as a structured part of research education, and an accompanying surge in research training programs and courses. Within the UK, the Government-initiated Roberts Report has been particularly influential. It recommended additional training for doctoral students (and postdoctoral researchers). This led to training provision which develops broad professional and personal skills for doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers being funded by the UK Research Councils. The Research Councils agreed on a Joint Skills Training Statement for the PhDs and postdoctoral researchers they fund, which required 10 days training per year in personal and professional skills for each student. While initially funding was provided for this training, universities are now expected to maintain the training using other means and to report on how they are achieving this expectation.

New forms of doctoral programmes

Since the 1990s, there has been some diversification of doctoral degrees, including the introduction of Professional Doctorates and, more recently, the Practice Doctorate, aimed at students undertaking doctorates in the fine and performing arts.

Another trend is joint doctoral awards, where a student enrols in both a UK and a partner university overseas (normally in France/Europe), under the terms approved by both universities. The candidate applies separately for admission as a 'co-tutelle' doctoral student to both universities in the normal way. Such enrolment leads to two doctoral testamurs, one from each university, assuming that the student successfully completes both universities' examination requirements.

Most recently, doctoral training centres are emerging as a new structure as a result of funding council directives. Such centres, directly focused on doctoral experience, are designed to enhance inter-disciplinary work as well as creative and entrepreneurial thinking.

Quality assurance

Another development related to doctoral education, which is particularly highlighted in the Bologna Process, concerns the expectations of quality assurance. One of the reasons behind Bologna was to provide some means of being able to benchmark and assure the quality of doctoral programmes throughout Europe. Quality Assurance has developed as a major factor in higher education, partly as a result of the increased risk associated with a knowledge economy. Managing the knowledge explosion and the increasingly complex nature of knowledge brings increased risks that need to be managed, and quality assurance is one means of doing this. The Quality Assurance movement has become a global phenomenon.

Within the UK, the QAA has shown a particular interest in doctoral education, with their revised Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes in 2004, and the QAA audit for 2009, which focused on the extent to which institutions were meeting the revised Code of Practice.

Student mobility

The increased mobility that arrangements such as Bologna offer to students comes at a time when transport mechanisms and costs allow both students and academics to move almost effortlessly from one side of the globe to the other. International research consortia are tempted to be more mobile. With such expectations, come requirements for doctoral programmes to prepare students for operating within this global environment with collaborative, technical and cultural skills and sensitivities. Contemporary doctoral programmes need to prepare graduates with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that allow them to see the value of their work within a global context. It is also increasingly likely that successful doctoral candidates will need to obtain international experience in their postdoctoral work or their long-term academic careers.

The ubiquity of English

Linked with processes such as Bologna, the ubiquity of English is one of the major issues influencing the contemporary doctorate. Hastened by, but not necessarily a direct result of, the Bologna Process, the doctorate in Europe is increasingly being offered in English. One particularly obvious outcome is the need for English language preparatory and testing programmes and English language support programmes for students during the doctorate. Another is the concern, particularly of smaller countries, as to the preservation of their national language(s).

Technology and changes in the nature of knowledge and research

Given issues of mobility and travel opportunities, and the wide-spread use of English, it is not surprising that rapid developments in communication and other technologies have meant that in many areas of research it is not possible for any one research group, university or in some cases country, to undertake some forms of cutting-edge research on their own. We are operating in an increasingly globalised environment where some of the newly emerging areas of research require large, often multi-national, teams of researchers; others are dependent on multi-disciplinary teams, all requiring of the researchers highly developed teamwork and communication skills.

This increased push for much greater multi-disciplinary research has been occurring not only across the science and engineering fields but also the humanities and social sciences, which is leading to changes in the very nature of knowledge and the way that we undertake research. This focus on multi-disciplinary research degrees has led to concerns regarding adequate supervision, given there are few qualified multi-disciplinary supervisors, and to concerns with examination. While it might be possible to identify one examiner who is expert in one aspect of the research, and another who is expert in a different aspect, it is generally quite difficult to find expert multi-disciplinary examiners.

If one links these developments with the increased mobility of researchers, and enhanced information and communication technologies, it is apparent that the training and education of doctoral students must also change.

Changing patterns in global education

Over recent years patterns have changed in international students' choices of country in which to undertake their doctoral education, in some cases due to national security and terrorism issues, or economic forces. For example, there has been a substantial increase in the number of students from the Middle East travelling to Malaysia to undertake their doctorate when previously they might have gone to the USA.

National developments draw our attention to two quite different but equally interesting issues related to international research students. For about the past 20 years, many universities in some of the more developed countries have been earning substantial funding by enrolling international students. In many cases, there are examples of brain drain to the more developed country as a result of the overseas education experience, a serious issue for many developing countries. A newly emerging trend is where high-level doctoral candidates are being actively sought and attracted to the country in which they study with the aim of encouraging them to stay on after completion as part of the capacity building of the host country.

The above text was based on:

Auriol, L. (2007). Labour market characteristics and international mobility of doctorate holders: Results of seven countries. Paris: OECD.

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

Borkowski, N. (2006) "Changing our thinking about assessment at the doctoral level", in P. Maki and N. Borkowski (Eds) The assessment of doctoral education: Emerging criteria and new models for improving outcomes. Sterling Virginia: Stylus publishing.

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

McWilliam, E., Singh, P., & Taylor, P. (2002). Doctoral Education, Danger and Risk Management , Higher Education Research and Development, 21(2), 119-129.

Nerad, M. (2006). "Globalisation and its impact on research education: Trends and Emerging Best Practices for the Doctorate of the Future". In M. Kiley & G. Mullins (Eds.), Quality in Postgraduate Research: Knowledge creation in testing times (pp11-12). Canberra: CEDAM, The Australian National University.

Park, C. (2007) Redefining the Doctorate, HEA Discussion Paper.

QAA (2004) Code of Practice on Postgraduate Research Programmes.

Universities UK. (2007) Talent Wars: the international market for academic staff.

Vitae. (2010) Researcher Development Framework. CRAC Limited.