Doctoral snobbery: Justified, or just elitism?
The PhD is regarded as the “gold standard” for doctoral education. Alternative pathways to a doctoral qualification are perceived, by comparison, to be a lesser qualification. Is this perception justified? Perhaps. Or should the question be, is it accurate?
Literature on the topic of PhD vs. professional doctorates in nursing generally avoids the debate, and either promotes the value of the latter (e.g. Walker, Campbell, Duff, & Cummings 2016), or proffers advice about deciding which path to choose (e.g. Cleary, Hunt, & Jackson 2011). Negative connotations of the professional doctorate may be acknowledged, but the anecdotal “snobbery” that favours the PhD is rarely discussed.
There is a perception that the PhD is the pathway for an academic career while the professional doctorate is the ultimate qualification for practice. Where the PhD has traditionally been regarded as a research apprenticeship essential for a career in academia, the intent of establishing the professional doctorate was to enable a mechanism for learning from, and contributing to, practice.
So, it appears to be “horses for courses.” When the course is academia, the horse is a PhD and the jockey is the need for universities to retain their role as the authority in research. When the course is practice, the horse is a professional doctorate and the jockey is the need for nurses to secure an evidence base for their work. A laudable endeavour, so why does the perception of the professional doctorate being the poor relation of the PhD arise?
The UK Economic and Social Research Council (2005, p. 93, quoted in Burgess & Wellington, 2010) once described professional doctorates as aiming to “develop an individual's professional practice and to support them in producing a contribution to (professional) knowledge.” This notion of support often suggests that the professional (or “taught”) doctorate is designed to hold the hand of students as they progress through what Kirkman, Thompson, Watson, and Stewart (2007) describe as “the path of least resistance” (p. 62).
A recent discussion with a colleague about this debate led to her asking the question “But what are we talking about? Doctorates of Nursing Science? Doctorates of Health Science? Doctorates of Nursing? Doctorates of Nursing Practice? EdDs?” We are comparing apples with pears she suggested. She may have a point. The PhD has considerable diversity in how it is conducted. The British model for example is followed in Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore. The North American model is very different in size and scope and the Scandinavian and Netherlands models differ again and are, uniquely, focused on publications. Nevertheless there appears to be a common understanding of the meaning of a PhD, the level of study involved and acceptance of the standard expected (Watson, Thompson, & Amella 2011). Conversely, there is variation in the types and structure of professional doctorates even within a single jurisdiction. As a result, there is great variety in how they are controlled and assessed.