Professional doctorates - bridging research and professional practice

HEFCE commissioned the Careers Research & Advisory Centre (CRAC) Ltd to carry out research into the provision of professional doctorate training in England. Their report provides an overview of the current landscape, and shows how professional and practice-based doctorates fulfil a niche in higher education, bridging research and professional practice.

What is a professional doctorate?

The Professional Doctorate (PD) is a research degree, distinct from the ‘traditional’ PhD in that the focus is on research and professional practice.

The UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) defines the PD as:

‘A programme of advanced study and research which, whilst satisfying university criteria for the award of a doctorate, is designed to meet the specific needs of a professional group external to the university, and which develops the capability of individuals to work within a professional context.’

What makes the professional doctorate different from a ‘traditional’ doctorate?

The research within a PD directly relates to, and is rooted in, the professional practice of the candidate. PD programmes are targeted at professionals and practitioners working in a professional context.

PDs are structured programmes, comprising taught components, supervised research and cohort-based experiences. They usually follow a two-stage approach, with a taught first stage followed by formal transition to a research stage.

Candidates highlight the cohort-based nature of the PD as being valuable in enhancing learning and sustaining commitment to their study. Many candidates undertake their PD study part-time, alongside their professional work.

What is the demand for professional doctorate programmes?

Over the past five years, the number of institutions providing PD programmes has grown, as has the total number of PD programmes on offer. Provision is dominantly in four main subject areas: education, business, psychology and health, and social care.

Although traditionally perceived as an employer-driven qualification, the demand for PD-qualified staff seems relatively weak in many areas. This results in high proportions of PD candidates being self-funded, rather than receiving employer sponsorship. The research has found that overt employer support for a candidate’s participation in a PD programme is increasingly rare and entitlements to study leave are decreasing.

The main exception to this is in clinical psychology, where the National Health Service funds DClinPsy programmes as an entry route and licence to practice.

Demand for many PD programmes is largely driven by candidates themselves, some of whom are motivated by the prospect of career change. They may participate without the knowledge or support of their current employer.

How can I find out more about professional doctorates?

The CRAC report on the provision of professional doctorates in English HEIs gives more information.

The Quality Assurance Agency’s guidance on doctoral degree characteristics includes a section on professional and practice-based doctorates.

The UKCGE runs an annual international conference on professional doctorates. The fifth conference in the series will be held in Belfast in 2016.