PhD or professional doctorate – which is better?

From the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to special needs education in the UK, more mid-career professionals are taking professional doctorates

February 16, 2016
Witness Dzobo at work in Ebola treatment centre, Sierra Leone
Here to help: Witness Dzobo spent six weeks volunteering at an Ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone

Over the past 20 years, Witness Dzobo’s scientific expertise has taken him to many places.

The 42-year-old Zimbabwean arrived at Southampton General Hospital in 2003, where he works as a biomedical scientist in its pathology department, and last year he spent six weeks volunteering for Save the Children at an Ebola treatment clinic in Sierra Leone.

“I knew I had the skills to help those in need,” explains Mr Dzobo, who helped to train African medics to analyse blood and tissue samples swiftly for the deadly disease – a process vital to containing its spread, thereby saving lives.

But Mr Dzobo is also improving his own skills and knowledge by studying for a doctoral qualification in his professional field.

However, like many mid-career professionals keen to upskill or get ahead professionally, Mr Dzobo did not head down the traditional PhD route. He is instead taking a professional doctorate in biomedical science at the University of Portsmouth and hopes to submit his findings soon.

Such workplace-focused doctorates account for about 9 per cent of the estimated 82,000 doctoral students in England, and often, like Mr Dzobo’s, seek to solve a specific problem.

“We have a test for infection, which has some advantages and disadvantages, so my immunology study is looking for a molecule that may identify infection better,” he says.

His study may help to stop patients from being admitted to hospital, saving the NHS time and money, he believes.

“My doctoral studies have definitely improved me professionally and were very useful when I was out in Sierra Leone,” says Mr Dzobo.

“But it’s been challenging – I’m a family man and have a full-time job, so it’s taken about five years so far."

Little signs of recognition

However, despite the toil and rigour associated with work-based doctorates, they are often underappreciated both by academia and industry, according to a report by the Career Development Organisation (CRAC), published last month.

The PhD is still seen by many as the “gold standard” doctoral qualification, even if the professional doctorate meets all the requirements laid down for doctoral study, says the report, titled Provision of professional doctorates in English HE institutions.

Indeed, some argue that they are a tougher test than the PhD as research takes place in an environment with less support and findings must have an impact on a professional setting as well as making a contribution to knowledge.

The current perception is possibly due to the different names attached to the qualifications introduced in the early 1990s, with the EdD (education), DBA (business), DPsych (clinical psychology) and DProf (health) not carrying the same gravitas as the PhD, despite all conferring the title of “Dr”, the report says.

Nonetheless, professional doctorates are an important part of many universities’ research degree provision, with 320 programmes offered by 78 universities.

About two-thirds of institutions quizzed by CRAC expect to increase their provision in the next few years, some by more than 50 per cent.

The next step to improve the recognition of professional doctorates is to show the positive outcomes they have for both individuals and industry, believes John Fulton, principal lecturer in health at the University of Sunderland, who has looked closely at the use of the qualification.

He explains how a recent professional doctorate in education taken by someone at Sunderland had focused on the carers of those with learning and hearing difficulties, leading to significant improvements in practice.

“There are still certain groups of people who are a little suspicious about professional doctorates, but it is becoming less common,” says Dr Fulton, one of the speakers at next month’s fifth International Conference on Professional Doctorates in Belfast, which is jointly hosted by Middlesex University and the UK Council for Graduate Education.

That is possibly because the findings from professional doctorates may often appear in professional or trade journals, rather than more highly rated peer-reviewed academic journals, Dr Fulton adds.

“They are generally established professionals who see the value of study and it would be good to focus on the fantastic outcomes of their studies."

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