The PhD was first introduced at Humboldt University of Berlin in the early 19th century and remains the iconic degree of the modern research university.
But both in and outside the ivory towers, there is an increasing sense that the PhD is no longer fit for purpose, both in terms of the requirements of employers and the mental health of students.
The PhD used to be viewed as a passport to a university professorship. Successful completion supposedly guaranteed a sound knowledge in the theory applicable to the candidate’s field. But the requirement to produce a thesis of up to 100,000 words, to the standard of published, peer-reviewed articles, imposes enormous stress on students, who often experience feelings of isolation, exploitation and financial hardship.
Their plight is particularly abject in the many cases when they do not receive the amount and quality of supervision necessary to meet such exacting standards. There are far too many cases of obstreperous and belligerent supervisors who bring misery to the lives of those who they are paid to assist. Supervisors themselves can be inundated with other commitments, but it is unacceptable to simply expect the student to continue to make progress without adequate guidance, or to be thick-skinned about overly critical feedback.
Some academics dismiss the growing number of complaints about PhDs, attributing them to modern students’ lack of robustness and tendency to overreact to setbacks. But the case against the PhD is undeniable.
According to a New York Times article from 2010, the span of time between receiving a bachelor’s degree and a PhD in the US is about 12 years. Yet industry figures still complain that many doctoral graduates lack the skills that they need and call for their training to be extended still further.
The viva alone is enough for reformers to look for alternatives to the PhD. In the UK, no national standards dictate how an exam often described as vague should be conducted, and universities do not conform to a strict code of practice that could give students a firmer sense of what reasonably to expect in this crucial culmination of years of very hard work.
There are concerns, too, that such narrow specialisation is a very imperfect preparation for teaching a wider curriculum to undergraduates, while many academics are also sceptical that having a PhD remains a guarantee that the holder has the skills and knowledge necessary to conduct research to professional standards, and to bear the inevitable psychological strains along the way.
Many observers also argue that, for the individual, doing a PhD provides no premium in terms of lifetime earnings beyond what a master’s degree already confers.
But is there a viable replacement for the PhD? In my view, the professional doctorates introduced in recent years are a big improvement. These strive for the same level of rigour as the PhD, but are aimed at students who want to advance to senior roles in professional fields such as business, engineering, education and medicine. Accordingly, they aim at insights into the workplace instead of furthering the boundaries of academic knowledge.
Doctorates in Business Administration (DBA) and in Education (EdD) are sometimes criticised for not preparing candidates to teach, or to write academic papers. This is a myth, however. A substantial, albeit far shorter, dissertation forms part of their assessment method and a 2016 review commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England underlined the professional doctorate’s academic parity with the PhD.
Professional doctorate students are encouraged to sharpen their academic prowess within the context of real-world situations that are addressed in a taught component that includes seminars and presentations. This taught element also means that the students feel less isolated than they would doing a British PhD.
A professional doctorate does not overcome all the weaknesses of the traditional doctorate. But it offers a credible alternative to what many feel is a worn-out qualification that has little bearing on jobs, both in and outside academia. Perhaps its time has come.
Richard Willis is a historian and is currently based at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.