Professional doctorates: Equal but different?
Research degrees, such as the professional doctorate, and new and indeed many traditional PhDs provide opportunities for experienced practitioners in education, social work, health and related fields to work at doctoral level on problems that are of direct relevance to their own professional interests and institutional concerns. The professional doctorate is the most recent exemplification of accredited research development for practitioners. The name, professional doctorate, is an informal one, essentially arising from the expectation that the doctoral researcher is not undertaking research simply for its own sake, but with some specific and practice-oriented application in mind. Quite often the degree is part-time, in recognition that participants are also working professionally, and sometimes there is an expectation, even a requirement on the part of the providing university that the doctoral researcher is employed as well. Most frequently the professional doctoral programme includes some taught components, for the duration of which doctoral researchers work together in a cohort that may meet face to face, or may be connected to the university and possibly each other via some distance learning medium facilitated by the Internet. In the UK this distinguishes professional doctorates from other forms of doctoral study, although this distinction is not evident in Canada, the US or Australasia, where most, if not all, doctoral study includes some taught components. The professional doctorate degree is equivalent in level to the traditional PhD, as doctoral researchers are required to successfully meet the same criteria, specified in the UK by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA, 2008), namely that the degree is awarded for original research. Despite there being in the same specification advice that any taught components of the degree should not outweigh the research components, the professional doctorate is commonly understood in the UK to be the ‘taught doctorate’ with, sometimes, associated connotations of inferiority of level. Furthermore, as ‘professional research’ becomes conflated in meaning with ‘practitioner research’, so does the research aspect become
the victim of an unfortunate and, as Saunders (2007) argues, indefensible value system that equates ‘practitioner’ with ‘amateurish’ in research terms, polarised from ‘genuine’ academic inquiry. The crux of the objection is that because the researcher is an insider in the organisation or community of practice that is the context for the research, it is difficult if not impossible to achieve an appropriate degree of critical distance. This is not a view promoted in this book. We suggest that insider research at doctoral level may be particularly complex because of the relations that must be squared between the researcher as practitioner and the researcher as acolyte into the doctoral degree-awarding practices of higher education. The argument of the book is that this reconciliation pervades all aspects of undertaking research. Recognising the play between insider researcher and professional practitioner leads to and shows itself in the thesis as critical reflexivity inherent in every aspect of the research and writing process. Because these relations are critically important in the generation of new knowledge, consideration of them forms a strand of the thesis. In this chapter we discuss the differences commonly used to differentiate between professional and traditional doctorates, and show that these are secondary to the need for the professional doctorate thesis to exemplify a sustained degree of reflexivity if it is to overcome objections of being uncritical. To develop the case, we discuss doing practitioner research at doctoral level from the perspectives of what doctoral programmes look like and what they are for; who undertakes practitioner research at doctoral level and why; what sort of new knowledge is created and how this might derive from the status and power relations in operation in the workplace and the position of the researcher in relation to these.