Professional doctorates - the shape of things to come

Proliferation of a niche programme

Over the last five years, the number of institutions providing professional doctorate (PD) programmes and the number of PD programmes on offer has grown. And institutions expect to see further growth, including through some institutions that are yet to enter this market.

Most of the PD programmes on offer are in four broad subject areas: education, business, psychology, and health. We are also seeing the introduction of new, more specialised programmes in these areas as well as proliferation of the PD model into a wider range of applied disciplines.

However, it is not clear that the total UK market size is growing – many PD cohorts are small, with some programmes unable to sustain annual intakes.

Demand for professional doctorate qualifications

Although the PD has traditionally been perceived as an employer-driven qualification, our study shows that most candidates, on most types of programmes, are self-funded. This indicates that demand for PD qualifications is being driven by the candidates themselves, rather than by their employers.

And it’s not just funding but also in-kind support from employers, such as entitlement to study leave or local supervision, that seems to be declining. Some candidates have told us that they are participating in a PD programme without their employer’s knowledge.

Yet, institutions still anticipate growth in the PD market, which begs questions of their strategies for provision and delivery of PD programmes.

Increasing competition between institutions for what may be modest UK demand often leads to a need for international participation to ensure the sustainability of a programme. While this is healthy in principle, reliance on international demand may have implications for the content of programmes that may originally have been designed in response to the needs of local employers or professional organisations, and also how it is delivered.

Size matters

If cohorts for PD programmes become very small, institutions may find that the face-to-face delivery of taught modules may not be cost-effective or even viable. Greater alignment of the taught elements of PD and cohort-based PhD programmes could help address this. But PD and PhD programmes are traditionally seen as distinct from each other and there is currently little integration of the two.

With more involvement of international candidates, PD programmes are increasingly reliant on distance and/or online delivery. Indeed, some PD programmes only offer this mode of study.

International partnerships between institutions may offer another route in blended forms of delivery. It could be that the more established PD ‘brands’ (such as the DBA and EdD), which are the most well-known outside the UK, could be leveraged in some way to raise the profile of other UK PD programmes.

Maintaining a cohort

Many candidates report that the cohort-based nature of PD study is crucial to their learning experience – not only by enhancing their learning but also in sustaining commitment to their programme. Institutions recognise this but will need to ensure that an increasingly ‘distant’ delivery model retains the value of the cohort.

One interesting new model has emerged of what we might call a ‘meta-cohort’ comprising candidates on similar PD programmes in multiple institutions.

Predicting the future

Many people think that changes in higher education will result in more people undertaking doctoral research part-time or flexibly in future. By their very nature, PDs are mostly undertaken part-time by candidates who have to fit their study and doctoral research within their demanding professional lives.

Our knowledge about how people choose to pursue postgraduate study means we can predict that candidates’ decisions about participating in PD programmes will focus on practicality. Could I really fit my PD studies flexibly into my busy professional life? If I have to self-fund my PD, how could I do that and would it be worth it? What will be the potential impact of the PD on my career?

Proliferation of the PD model, and expectations of growth by institutions, could be seen as evidence of this shift towards more flexible provision, but there are clearly challenges along the way for institutions in sustaining and delivering this valuable qualification.

Earlier this year, we published a report on the provision of professional doctorates. Dr Robin Mellors-Bourne (Research Director & Acting CE of CRAC Ltd / Vitae), who led the research, is presenting the key findings at the UKCGE 5th international conference on professional doctorates.