Becoming a doctor

Perhaps this title for the post will mislead some readers, as I am not about to discuss medical education; though that could be for another time. Rather, I want to muse briefly on the the way in which people proceed to a PhD (or other doctorate) by research.

My own PhD began in 1978, when I was applied to the University of Cambridge to do research in law. For the following two years I lived and worked in Cambridge, enjoying the really very fine city, but maybe not appreciating quite as much the cold and windy winters. But it also gave me the first opportunity to experience interdisciplinary discussions, as there was a very lively community of scholars from all areas in my college (Christ’s College). However, I would have to say that beyond conversations with my supervisor I never had any training whatsoever in research methodology. I just gave my supervisor a work plan, and then disappeared into one of the libraries in Cambridge that were relevant to my topic.

In the 1980s, when I was Lecturer in Industrial Relations in Trinity College Dublin, I recruited and supervised a number of PhD students myself – five or six in all, if I recall. Again, none of these had any structured training, and while all my students made it to the end successfully, I also had to assist with two students supervised by other colleagues, who did not take to the work and who found it difficult to pursue their research without methodological training.

All this changed in the 1990s, during which decade I was in the University of Hull in England. The initial change came as research councils began to require universities to have formal training modules in research methods for all funded students, and from this a framework emerged for research degrees. At the same time, some universities began to develop so-called ‘taught’ PhDs or other doctorates, in which there was a programme of instruction in the subject-matter of the degree which, with accompanying exams, would account for a substantial percentage of the overall credit, with a shorter thesis at the end.

There is, I think, room for doctorates that are based on the old PhD model (with methodology training) and for others that are more structured and are based on specific topics and disciplines. But as we increase the admission of doctoral students, we may need to pause to ascertain what the career prospects of all these doctors will be, and in what areas they will fill a national need. The phase during which we simply keep adding to the numbers may need to come to an end, replaced by a more strategic development of such programmes. It may be the case that structured taught doctorates may now meet a greater demand in certain areas than PhDs of the traditional variety; but again we need to look more closely at this agenda.

It is an appropriate time to develop a coherent strategy on doctoral studies.

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11 Comments on “Becoming a doctor”

  1. Vincent Says:

    You have one function, just one, to incude.

  2. Donal_C Says:

    I don’t think that doctoral dissertations resulting from programs with substantial course work are shorter than those resulting from the traditional Irish/UK program. In fact, a PhD with a taught component usually lasts five years or more.

    One important development is the spread of the multi-paper dissertation. That is, instead of delivering a single body of work, the candidate will write between two and four papers – albeit usually connected around a single topic. This approach helps with publishing – an important consideration given the tenure clock. This has been customary in economics for a long time, and is increasingly common in other disciplines.

  3. Wendymr Says:

    The lack of any training in methodology for PhD students in the 1980s – or, indeed, of any explicit requirement to include discussions of methodologies in a dissertation – is something I’ve reflected on a time or two, to the point of wondering if my own PhD would actually have passed under the standards that have applied from the mid-1990s onwards. Not that I think this is a bad thing at all; there was, I believe, too much of a tendency to assume either that students knew by some miraculous process of osmosis how to go about researching and writing a PhD, or else that they would have the understanding to realise that they needed to read up on how to do it. The kind of research training that I saw developed from the mid-1990s onwards is useful, not only in itself, but also because it encourages the kind of cross-disciplinary discussions you mentioned at Christ’s, where classes are run by broad faculty grouping (eg all social sciences) rather than subject-specific grouping.

    But, yes, indeed: what is going to happen to all these doctors? Years, if not decades, on fixed-term post-doc contracts, chasing permanent positions which – judging by events at Leeds and elsewhere – are becoming all too rare?

  4. Vincent Says:

    Conrad Hal Waddington was a developmental
    biologist and geneticist. Born in 1905, he
    went to Sidney Sussex College Cambridge to
    read Natural Sciences, and was awarded a First in
    Geology in 1926 (having been introduced to the
    subject by Gregory, son of geneticist William
    Bateson). Waddington remained in Cambridge,
    engaging in philosophy, modern art and morris
    dancing, but then began reading the work of
    Hans Spemann, the German developmental
    biologist who discovered the embryonic ‘organiser’.

    This from Christ’s Collage www. Not much chance of him surviving with todays shit or get off the pot mentality.
    Oh, is Cambridge the natural destination for the bookish UD person

    • Vincent Says:

      By the way, if rents in Galway are static, then you lot are really doing something very very very Very wrong. £520pcm for a married flat at the fussiest Cambridge College. Against what is still a ruddy ranson.


    • Well I don’t know, Vincent. My own long-suffering wife (as someone has called her here) started as an academic expert in Renaissance French, and is now in an English department working on contemporary women’s writing – she also recently published a book on the Irish short story.

      • Vincent Says:

        Indeed, but I mentioned today, and with the best will in this world I cannot see – ‘engagement in philosophy, modern art and morris
        dancing’, after reading Rocks. Ending up a Gene specialist.- happening today.
        Mrs Von, bless her cotton socks, might find her Voice tied to RenFrench. And anyway Morris dancing is surely Telegraph speak for an allergy to water.

  5. Gordon Says:

    The ‘,I think,’ is a bit worrying in: ‘There is, I think, room for doctorates that are based on the old PhD model’. Surely this will always be regarded as the real PhD, and the ‘taught’ or ‘professional’ versions just ersatz? If it is necessary to define a special type of PhD, it is special pleading – the idea is, I guess, a back formation from the medics who have traditionally been called ‘doctor’ but who have never had proper doctorates. Now they, and others in their wake, have to have new qualifications invented for them without putting them though the difficult process of doing independent research.

    • Donal_C Says:

      I think it depends on one’s understanding of PhDs with a taught component. Most of these are not professional doctorates. When I think of a PhD with a taught component, I’m thinking of the US model (i.e. two years of full-time study of the literature and methods followed by three years (or more) of full-time research). The taught component does not negate independent research. Rather, the argument is that candidates have to be sufficiently familiar with the literature and methods in order to develop and answer a research question that can make a meaningful contribution.
      The lack of substantial doctoral course work in most Irish and UK universities is one reason why many graduates find it difficult to be considered for faculty positions in leading international universities, especially in the US.

  6. kevin denny Says:

    Donal_C is correct. In economics you really need two years of good post-graduate training before you can start doing research. That model is spreading outside of America for the simple reason that it works.
    This presents a serious problem regarding the financing of PhDs because in some subjects, like many humanities, this training period is not necessary or at least not the done thing. In other words the historians might say a 3 year scholarship is enough for one of their PhDs whereas the economists need the first 2 years of training funded followed by 2 years for research. Research councils are not inclined to go along with this understandably.


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