Degrees of difference

January 8, 2009

Jan Smit has it almost right and the university registrar he met completely wrong - an indication of some administrators' detachment from academe? (Letters, 1 January).

The earliest doctorates were the LLD or DCL (doctor of laws), DMus (doctor of music), MD (doctor of medicine), DD (doctor of divinity) and DSc (doctor of science).

Later came the DLitt (doctor of letters) on a par with these, and the PhD or, as some universities call it, the DPhil (which is not, as Smit thought, a higher doctorate).

The PhD/DPhil is intended to be research training, and the thesis by which it is primarily examined is expected to make a (modest) original contribution to the field. The others are higher doctorates, awarded on the basis of a significant contribution in published work.

Some confusion is, however, natural, as in many countries (for example the US and the Nordic countries) these degrees are all equivalent to a PhD and simply awarded according to the subject area, and there is an increasing trend in the UK to award the degree of MD in place of the PhD for medicine.

The DBA (also, pace Smit, not a higher doctorate), DEng, ClinPsychD and DEd are part-taught doctorates roughly equivalent in standing to the PhD but less research-intensive and aimed at practitioners rather than intending academics.

It seems to me that one current problem is that the PhD tends to be seen as the apogee of formal academic recognition, which leads many academics to have unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved, whether in terms of the sophistication of analysis, the completeness of coverage or the degree of originality by a trainee researcher undertaking his or her first book-scale independent research project.

Academics often seem to feel that the thesis should be a sort of last-word effort on the topic, since the PhD is the final stage in recognition.

I think this may be partly due to the fact that hardly any academic today applies for a higher doctorate. One sees a fair few DScs around, although not nearly so many as might be expected, but hardly any of the others, which are now mostly granted honoris causa.

If more academics got higher doctorates, they might be better able to see the PhD as a stepping stone in the development of a researcher. Perhaps no one should be appointed to a readership or chair without having first submitted their body of work to the test and gained the appropriate higher doctorate.

Richard Austen-Baker, Lancaster University Law School.

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