Professional Doctorates …

I’ve been looking at professional doctorates and asking
•    What are they?
•    What are the pros and cons?

Some thoughts then …

The professional doctorate is characterised by the requirement for the holder to demonstrate an original contribution to knowledge, this is the same for all doctorates (Huisman & Naidoo, 2006). It is distinctive by: an emphasis on practice (Dyson, 2009); the prevalence of taught components (Dyson, 2009); and, a diverse, mature and professional experienced student body. Professional doctorates embrace the mode of learning concomitant with the knowledge economy, focusing on knowledge generated from application, known as Mode 2 knowledge (Stew, 2009). Wellington and Sikes (2006) suggest the characteristic impact is on the affective and cognitive attributes of the student.

Prof docs appear to be more prevalent in the US and Australia, though they originated from 1920s America. When looking at which professions engage most with the Prof doc Education and Engineering stand out, and increasingly nursing.

The pattern is difficult to unpack with certainty as each industry or context will have its own motivations for providing or buying into prof docs. However in some way the growth of the prof doc does reflect the trend for recognition of knowledge created outside of the universities and therefore the changing role of HE.

Also, Servage (2009) suggests that expansion of the prof doc may be in part an extension of, the process of massification, and therefore a result of upward inflationary pressure on qualifications. Prof docs may also have beenin part expanded with help from the growth of international online programmes, targeting the work-based learner. Technology has played its part.

Some advantages of the professional doctorate come from its obvious relevance to practice and its breadth of focus as well as the often social dimensions to learning in a cohort; traditional PhDs have been accused of being overly focused, detached from the needs of industry and lonely. The professional doctorate may act as a stimulus for professional growth or ‘professional renewal’ (see, Wellington and Sikes, 2006).
Notably, Usher (2002, cited in Huisman and Naidoo, 2006) recognises that the professional route matches the requirements of today’s knowledge workers. Though in developing or considering prof docs it may be reasonable to question whether the prof doc takes some industries beyond where they want to be: does it ‘academicise’ and distract?, or are development of critical thinking skills and anlaytical approaches always for the good? At the lower levels of HE 4-7, these same tensions exist.

Huisman and Naidoo (2006) highlight that intended advantages may not always be realised. For example they cite research by Nueman (2005) wherein links with industry professionals were in reality rather limited.

Of course, some controversy exists around the parity of standards when the professional doctorate is compared to the ‘gold standard’ PhD (Dyson, 2009), but that is to be expected in reality.

Finally for the student, whilst personal gains are potentially high the intensity of the learning experience can have high costs – as the students, mid-life professionals often have competing demands upon their time through children, parents, financial issues and, of course, demanding professional jobs (see, Wellington ad Sikes, 2006). Of course this is the case for most forms of work based learning.

One thing that my reading has not cleared up is what constitutes a ‘professional’ for a professional doctorate: is this the attributes of the individual and how they interface with their practice (i.e. they are the professional) or is it a standard, or set of criteria for the role or context that an individual is working in (i.e. the role is a professional one), or perhaps more likely a combination.

Dyson, S. (2009). Professional doctorates – to do or not to do: That is the question. International Conference on Professional Doctorates, University of Middlesex, UK Council for Graduate Education. Retrieved May 11, 2011 from

Huisman, J., & Naidoo, R. (2006). The professional doctorate: From Anglo-Saxon to European challenges. Higher Education Management and Policy, 18(2), 51–63. Retrieved May 12, 2011 from

Servage, L (2009) Alternative and professional doctoral programmes: what is driving the demand? Studies in Higher Education 34 (7), 765-779.

Stephenson, J., Malloch, M., Cairns, L. and Costley, C. (2004) Towards a third generation of professional doctorates managed by the learners themselves? Retrieved 12 May, 2011 from

Stew, G. (2009). What is a doctorate for? International Conference on Professional Doctorates, University of Middlesex, UK Council for Graduate Education. Retrieved May 12, 2011 from

Wellington, J. and Sikes, P. (2006) A doctorate in a tight compartment’: why do students choose a professional doctorate and what impact does it have on their personal and professional lives? Studies in Higher Education 31(6), 723-734.

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