Posted tagged ‘doctoral students’

Becoming a doctor

November 18, 2009

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.