Working in the borderlands: critical perspectives on doctoral education

Susan Carter, Karen Smith, Neil Harrison

Research output: Contribution to journalEditorial


The early history of the doctoral degree is largely lost in time, but the modern manifestation that recognises a significant and original contribution to knowledge creation is barely 200 years old (Simpson 2009). Despite the Latin inflections of the philosophiae doctor or ‘PhD’ (as it has been traditionally known in most contexts), it remains a young pedagogic form. For most of its infancy and across most countries, it has been predicated on the production of a lengthy personal monograph under the gaze of a senior academic, in a relationship redolent of a craft apprenticeship (Park 2005). The principal purpose of the doctorate has been to allow entry to an academic career and, while statistical data are scarce until relatively recently, doctoral students were undoubtedly overwhelmingly younger white men from affluent backgrounds, with incremental – and, arguably, glacial – change only arriving since the 1950s. The doctorate in much of the Global South is younger still, but no less marked by colonial and post-colonial inequalities (Yudkevich, Altbach, and de Wit 2020).

Standing in the early 21st century, we gain a slightly different perspective. The last 30 years or so have seen a rapid diversification in doctoral education. Student numbers have increased and demographics have started to shift, particularly with respect to gender and age, while many doctorates are now pursued part-time. Doctoral supervision has been professionalised in many contexts, with expectations of trained academic staff supporting students who have themselves had specialist research training (Fourie-Malherbe et al. 2016). There has been a blossoming of doctoral forms beyond the traditional monograph-led PhD, encompassing professional doctorates, practice-based doctorates and doctorates awarded for scholarly publication (e.g. Guerin 2016; Park 2005; Schwarzenbach and Hackett 2016). The connection with academic careers has weakened, with many students anticipating – or being forced to accept – work outside of higher education, in part due to fierce competition for limited jobs (e.g. Hancock, in press). Indeed, the doctorate has increasing currency in other labour markets, conferring status and positional advantage in business, technology, public administration and elsewhere. The complex and multidimensional ‘wicked problems’ of late modernity – climate change, public health crises, mass migration and so on – require knowledge and expertise to leak out of the academy. We felt, therefore, that it was an opportune moment to solicit critical perspectives on a contemporary doctoral world that is more diverse and fractured than ever before.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)238-292
JournalTeaching in Higher Education
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 21 Apr 2021


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