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.
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.
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.
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.
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.