Reforming Doctoral Education: There is a Better Way, by Rachel Spronken-Smith


The traditional apprenticeship model for PhD education involves supervisors mentoring students through a substantive research project and ultimately into academia. Although about half of PhD graduates enter careers beyond academia, this apprenticeship model, with a narrow focus on thesis research has continued to dominate in many countries. While there are variations in terms of coursework requirements, the main assessment continues to be on the PhD thesis, and, in most countries, an oral defense of this thesis. The aims of this working paper are firstly to critique the dominant models of PhD education by using the lens of ‘success’, and secondly to consider an alternative model of PhD education. A PhD program may be deemed successful if it leads to high employment rates, high satisfaction with types of employment, and graduates who are well equipped for being in the world – in work and in society. Through examining these indicators of success, I argue that the North American and British PhD models may be failing, and suggest an alternative model based on ‘constructive alignment’, in which the graduate outcomes are well aligned with teaching and learning methods, and the assessment regime. This alternative model is still based on an apprenticeship approach but requires PhD programs to be tailored to the individual and their desired career pathway, so that alongside and through their research, they can develop a holistic set of graduate attributes – for ‘doctorateness’, for possible careers, and for global citizenship. This model has implications not only for the learning opportunities available to PhD students, but also for how we assess PhDs. Universities may need to develop programs to better support the career planning and professional development of PhD students. A portfolio or digital badge assessment approach, whether summative or formative, would allow PhD graduates to demonstrate the depth and breadth of knowledge and skills they have acquired through doctoral study, and better equip them for their chosen career pathway.

Rachel Spronken-Smith
Publication date: 
August 2, 2018
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)