It’s time to decolonise the doctoral degree

For Parise Carmichael-Murphy, a decolonised PhD could be a genuine open dialogue with the world.

Parise Carmichael-Murphy is a PhD Education researcher at the University of Manchester, Manchester Institute of Education.

The Doctor in Philosophy (PhD) is the highest university degree, awarded to just 1.4 percent of UK people. The qualification is usually required to teach in higher education but the many barriers to progression encountered by racially minoritised students and staff are reflected in the lack of diversity at leadership and professorship level.

The PhD research degree traces back to the late nineteenth century, so it is no surprise universities are being called upon to #DecoloniseEducation and “remove the things that have led to racism, colonialism, and imperialism”.

The process of studying for a doctoral degree continues to impact negatively on mental health across cohorts, while funding councils consider revising the current PhD study model to combat this. Given that the UK government plans to invest 2.4 percent of GDP in research and development by 2027, it is time to decolonise doctoral degrees of the future, now.

Philosophy

Arguably, the Western tradition of philosophy laid the foundations of academia as we know it today. Founded by Plato, the original Academy was built upon teaching, studying, and debating what was already “known” to strengthen it. Does this suggest that the contemporary academy expects the PhD holder to be apolitical, ahistorical, and perhaps even amoral?

The PhD is a cultural artefact; one which communicates a naturalised lens of ethnocentrism and androcentrism. Prospective PhDs produce an “original” piece of research and demonstrate oracy at the final viva voce.

English is still the lingua franca of academia, yet very little reflection on limitations and liabilities of the language for research are explored. Higher education fails to acknowledge what cannot be communicated in the viva voce and any limitations this places on researchers.

The stance taken here is not to discard Western philosophy, but to reject fixed hierarchies of knowledge which “other” alternative ways of knowing. If the original contribution of the thesis is to add to the discipline, does this mean that a thesis should also cement what is already “known”? By failing to identify the boundaries of our thought and expression we stifle the emergence of new and alternative knowledges.

Pedagogy

A distinct lack of responsive learning, teaching, or research practice is reflected in the omission of discussion about the racialised implications of higher education pedagogy. The hidden curriculum upholds the archetype of the ideal learner or researcher, and discredits the cumulative experience of the individual which informs their research approach.

The solo nature of the PhD deters researchers from engagement with fellows; it places unnecessary reliance on the supervisor-student relationship, which reinforces imbalanced power relations and hierarchies. This demands a dynamic level of support from the supervisor, which is intensified by increased workloads and metricised pressures on academic time.

The PhD is a convoluted journey of self-discovery. During which researchers occupy a liminal space with an implicit distance to negotiate between political, philosophical, personal, practical, and professional domains. Something about the process challenges the perception of self, illuminating how you are identified by others, as you seek access to an elitist space.

To counteract normative hierarchies, a dialogic approach to supervision should work to dismantle power imbalances and assumed hierarchies within the Academy; with much more emphasis placed upon the wisdom brought to supervision by the supervisee. As a “wise social practitioner”, the PhD researcher should be encouraged and supported to engage with society at both the local and global level.

Praxis

Research is both a noun and a verb, an object and an action; still, Freire reminds us that any reflection without action is likely to be inauthentic.

Prospective PhDs should not simply work to produce knowledge, but should make a concerted effort to reflect upon the social and ethical implications of their research. They must think about how knowledge is shared and who knowledge is shared with.

Knowledge should be accessible to stakeholders, not guarded by shareholders. Universities continue to accrue knowledge in the form of physical theses, only ever read by people who are also constructing theses. A prime example of knowledge being “known” but not comprehended.

This is where public engagement becomes a vital source of agency for the prospective PhD; but public engagement should not be conflated with public good. Academic communication with the public thus far, has been didactic; accumulating shared knowledge which is simply formalised by the researcher and the university.

So, perhaps, the PhD should be reclaimed as an open dialogue with the world.

Post-colonial

Knowledge is generated with, amongst, and across diverse communities. So, if we aren’t working to build a better world, what exactly is it about this one that we want to keep?

PhDs are much more likely to take the field forward, even by error, if they embrace a range of thoughts and experiences. How can we imagine new worlds if they must fit into a naturalised and historic worldview?

To unpick and decentre the normalisation of harmful research trajectories, higher education must consider, reflect, and act upon the following questions:

  • Who are PhDs expected to be?
  • What are PhDs expected to produce?
  • Why do these expectations exist?

Because after all, if the master’s tools won’t dismantle the master’s house, then surely, the PhD is expected to renovate the ivory tower.

8 responses to “It’s time to decolonise the doctoral degree

  1. This is a really interesting article and something that I believe academia needs to address. One point I question is the starting statement. A PhD is not a requirement to teach in the majority of Universities. Just because someone has a PhD does not mean they are good teachers. There is a need for academics to acquire a recognised teaching qualification and this is something UK universities are working towards.

    1. In a practice a PhD is usually required to obtain a permanent lectureship in most universities in most disciplines. It will be essential in many disciplines. This is the text from the first philosophy lectureship I googled: “Education, qualifications & training. Essential • An excellent honours degree in philosophy or related subject, as well as a completed PhD in Philosophy.” Most universities I’m familiar with already have compulsory teaching training for new lecturers.

  2. Someone could also question the giant leap from a generalised one-sentence summary of Platonic idealism to a sweeping implication about the expectations of the modern academy (answer: no, universities do not expect PhD students or holders to be apolitical, ahistorical or amoral). There’s also nothing here on the actual history of the PhD as a university qualification (it emerged, in its current form, in C19 Europe – surely that’s relevant to this argument about decolonising foundations of modern pedagogy and epistemology?). And any PhD thesis that began by ‘cementing what is already known’ would fail before the end of its lit review.

    This piece acknowledges some serious issues to do with BAME participation in PGR and beyond. It’s not clear what else it actually contributes beyond that.

  3. The origins of a doctorate are much older than the C19th. There is a close affinity with apprenticeships and the production of a “masterpiece”: a work judged to be of a very high standard produced to obtain membership of a guild.

    For sure you can dismantle entry barriers into professions. Indeed, you can abolish all qualifications if you like. Any kind of barrier benefits incumbents because it restricts competition from others, so there is always a need to make the case for maintaining them.

    But getting rid of professional qualifications comes at a price. It makes it far harder to appraise someone’s skills and to raise standards in an organisation by developing talent. And it also removes safeguards against the “increased workloads and metricised pressures on academic time” that the author complains about.

    Of course, there are other options that might be pursued as an alternative to abolition: regulating the qualification so it remains fit for purpose, monitoring the failure rate, and ensuring that there isn’t an over-supply of doctorates and that graduates studying them are not exploited as sources of cheap teaching and research assistants. While regulation exists it could be done better.

    Anyway, back to History. Far from being a legacy of the colonial era, it is in fact only very recently that a higher degree was expected of academics. It was the post-1945 expansion of higher education, when former colonial territories gained independence, that led to the rise of the modern doctorate as we know it. Not only that, in the UK and the USA there has also been a very large increase in the proportion of PhD students who are foreign-born.

  4. Interesting to note that the author seems happy to dismiss the points raised above on their Twitter feed, but not to actually engage with them here.

    There they refer to my earlier comment on the ‘serious issues raised re. BAME’ participation as an example of ‘deficit discourse’. In fact, it was an attempt to be polite. I’m not sure this piece makes any other serious points at all.

    They also point out that this piece is unable to undertake a detailed history of Plato’s legacy. Fine. It doesn’t need to. But nor can it get away with the absurd leaps made in that fourth paragraph (let alone several of the others).

    There’s little here on what it is about the PhD that’s colonial (even though, as others have charitably expressed, there’s a lot that could be said about that) and more or less nothing on what alternatives to western epistemology might look like and / or why they’re specifically relevant to the doctoral degree (as opposed to research / scholarship in general).

    It’s genuinely surprising to see such a lightweight piece on a serious website like this.

  5. What does the author think about the hierarchical structure of the academia and its academic promotion tradition?

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