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Apprenticeships and the evolving doctorate: back to the future?

Doctorate apprenticeships? If we embrace alternative modes of study, do the expectations around Level 8 awards suffice? Neil Willey and Liz Cleaver take a look.
This article is more than 4 years old

Neil Willey is Director of the Graduate School at UWE. 

Liz Cleaver is an Independent HE Consultant. She is currently working with universities on the design and implementation of Higher Technical Qualifications.

For the last few decades the doctorate has had growing pains.

This is not surprising – increases in the number of doctoral candidates in most higher education systems and in the range of skills demanded of them has propelled an exploration of different ways of doing, and of delivering, doctorates. Professional Doctorates, Industrial Doctorates, Doctorates by Portfolio, and Doctoral Training Partnerships are just some of the significant efforts to evolve the doctorate to suit contemporary demands. Growing pains presage maturity, so it’s a good time to explore how these doctoral variants might develop into a mature doctoral provision.

Looking back

Medieval European Universities awarded doctorates for career-long contributions to the academy – these persist as the ‘higher doctorates’ that many universities still award. In early 19th century Prussia a different type of doctorate developed – the PhD – which was to provide the backdrop for recent efforts to evolve the doctorate. The PhD (known as the DPhil in some institutions) was conceived as, and is still widely regarded as, an apprenticeship in research. The philosophy to which the award refers does not relate directly to the field or academic discipline of philosophy, but to its original Greek meaning: love of wisdom.

The ghosts of the medieval guild system in the PhD system are sufficiently strong that ‘the apprenticeship model’ of PhD delivery is widely discussed in the educational literature and greatly influences not only how most PhDs are actually delivered, but also new developments in doctoral education. The PhD thesis is still often regarded as a ‘masterwork’ – an equivalent to the apprentice piece of trades apprentices – through which the doctoral student demonstrates key skills; if it passes scrutiny by experienced scholarly practitioners the ‘apprentice’ is regarded as having developed the skills to be a member of the guild, i.e. the Academy.


So, against this background, how do we make sense of the evolving doctorate? Biological taxonomists trying to make sense of evolving organisms focus on ‘lumping’ and ‘splitting’. In brief, ‘lumping’ generally refers to the identification of broad categories that include different items that are connected through shared important characteristics, while ‘splitting’ generally refers to the division of groups of organisms into categories which emphasise the differences between, for example, sub-groups rather than common features of the broader group or lump.

Using this lens to consider doctorates can be illuminating. Doctorates belong to a ‘lump’ in the HE landscape; the defining characteristic is candidates’ significant and original contributions to the creation of knowledge, facilitated by working closely with experienced scholarly practitioners. Looking in detail at this lump, it can be split according to what we mean by knowledge in the contemporary world, and how the experience of scholarly practitioners contributes to its successful completion.

The ‘knowledge’ that doctorates focus on has long been of a particular type – as exemplified by notion of a ‘thesis’ (a word whose etymology stems from its original Greek meaning: placing, a proposition) and the ‘practitioners’ have traditionally been scholars and researchers. But theses are not as central to epistemology as they once were, and a wide variety of practitioners are now recognised to be actively involved in generating new knowledge.

To the lump

So, if we cast our minds back to when the lump began, it might serve as a guide to its evolving future, towards a mature contemporary doctoral provision. Notwithstanding the great efforts that have been made to develop doctoral provision in recent years, the time is ripe for new splits in the lump: new forms of doctoral ‘apprenticeships’ that can meet the needs of the contemporary UK economy and, more particularly, the UK Government’s commitment to put technical education on an equal footing to academic education.

Scrutiny of the current guidelines and expectations of Level 8 awards (in England; Level 12 in Scotland), the characteristics of doctoral graduates (published by QAA) and the types of award on offer, indicates that the current footings of technical and academic education at this ‘level’ of study are far from equal. What ‘splits’ there are in the lump often refer to a focus on the ‘setting’ of the study rather than the mode per se: e.g. academic research in an industrial/practice-based setting.

And while there is some identification of the need to go beyond acknowledging different settings to embracing alternative modes of doctoral study, e.g. using practice as a legitimate research method, this is often obscured or contradicted by parallel statements such as the need to use ‘advanced academic enquiry’ and the need for the work to ‘merit publication’.

If we are to embrace alternative modes of study, do the expectations that comprise the current characteristics of Level 8 awards suffice? Could we create a different set of expectations that speak confidently to the needs of industry, business and society and identify Level 8 equivalence within non-academic settings?


Key to these developments will be a confirmation that we can continue to identify, define and ensure the standards of the characteristics that keep the doctoral lump coherent, across its growing split into different modes of study. And although this may need some fundamental shifts in our understanding of what constitutes doctoral level knowledge creation, supervision and examination, for Level 8 Apprenticeships we might, at least in part, be going back to the future.

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