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    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education

The World View - Doctoral Education: Too Much?
September 7, 2011 - 3:46am

A recent OECD report on doctoral education points to an oversupply in some countries—mainly in North America and Europe. The report notes that many PhD holders cannot find academic jobs and that perhaps there is an overproduction of doctorates. It is useful to have global attention paid to doctoral education, which has expanded significantly in recent years, but largely without planning or coordination in most countries. The expansion no doubt reflects two realities—the desire of many universities to offer doctoral degrees as a way of increasing their prestige as a research university, and the need in many countries to boost the number of doctorates to provide teachers for rapidly expanding higher education systems. It is quite likely that surpluses for some are matched by shortages for others.

While there are no accurate statistics, it is likely that close to half of the people who are teaching in post-secondary institutions worldwide hold only a bachelor’s degree—and worldwide only minority have earned a doctorate. The large majority of countries produce only a small number of doctorates—and a number have identified the expansion of doctoral education as a key higher education priority.

Where has doctoral education expanded? In the United States at least, much of the growth has been in universities in the middle of the prestige hierarchy, institutions seeking to raise their profile by joining the ranks of research universities—and offering doctorates in a range of disciplines is very much part of this effort. The traditional producers of doctorates, members for the most part of the Association of American Universities, have increased doctoral enrolments over the past half-century, but not by very large numbers. The greatest expansion has taken place at second tier universities, and graduates from those universities have greater difficulties finding full-time academic positions.

In developing countries, even the best universities were largely focused on undergraduate education—and to this day this remains the main responsibility. But where doctoral education has expanded, it has been at the top universities. However, a challenge has been to develop a model of doctoral training that provides high quality education that is appropriate to national needs. Most of the professors have received their graduate training in the West, and their experiences may not have be the most efficient for the countries.

There seem to be two main models of doctoral education—the American style doctorate that includes considerable coursework focusing both on methodology and the substance of a particular discipline, and the European pattern commonly referred to as a “research doctorate.” A student typically studies with a particular professor and takes a few methodology courses but otherwise spends full time researching a dissertation under the supervision of a professoriate “guide.” There seems to be a global trend toward the American-style “taught doctorate,” which of course includes a dissertation, and away from the European “research doctorate.”

Doctoral education is at a crossroads. In some countries, there is an oversupply of doctorates, while in others there are significant shortages. In countries now developing doctoral education, there is some confusion about the best ways to structure doctoral education. There is much debate and criticism about current patterns of doctoral preparation in both North American and Europe, but little consensus about the best way forward. And for developing countries, this is a topic of great importance, since there is a great need for doctoral graduates to teach in the rapidly expanding universities.

 

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