Understanding the demand for and characteristics of Professional Doctorate programmes in English HEIs

  • Robinson, Carol (PI)
  • Masika, Rachel (CoI)

Project Details


CRAC (the Careers Research & Advisory Centre) and Vitae, supported by the University of Brighton, undertook research on behalf of HEFCE to develop and update understandings about the current landscape of Professional Doctorate (PD) provision by English Higher Education institutions (HEIs).

Professional doctorates and practice-based doctorates are advanced programmes of study that have been designed to meet the needs of specific professions. They have a significantly different structure from the ‘original’ PhD model and include taught elements, which are usually incorporated within the first years of doctoral study, credit-rated, and emphasise development of high-level professional and research methodological skills.

The thesis stage of PDs provides an opportunity for individuals to situate their professional experience and knowledge developed over time within a theoretical academic framework.

Typically PDs are undertaken part-time, with research being conducted in the individual’s workplace, and involving or affecting the professional practice of the employer. For the purpose of this research, the term Professional Doctorate (PD) will refer to both practice-based and professional doctorates.

The research was designed as a mixed-methods study with activities in three broad strands: desk research; a survey of institutions; and in-depth qualitative research with a sample of institutions and programmes supported by stakeholder inputs.

The project seeks perspectives from staff in HEIs, professional doctorate candidates and graduates, employers and professional bodies, in order to:

> explore the strategic basis for professional doctorate provision - why do HEIs offer them, and where do they fit into postgraduate and research strategies?
> examine existing and developing models across the range of PD provision, potentially developing a revised typology
> explore the potential and realised impacts of PD programmes, for graduates, employers/professions and provider institutions
> identify the profile of PD candidates (students)
> understand how employers and professional bodies are involved.

Key findings

On the basis of the evidence obtained during this project, the research team made the following recommendations:

Strategy and sustainability

UK professional sector bodies and institutions could benefit from developing a more strategic basis for PD provision, while not losing sight of the valuable autonomy granted to academic staff to consider and propose PD programmes in response to perceived demand.

Development of new programmes which coalesce around established PD 'brands' (such as the DBA and EdD) could help to raise the profile of PD programmes, both nationally and internationally, in the eyes of employers and prospective candidates.

Engagement with employers and servicing new markets are strong institutional motivations for PD provision. Institutions should recognise and more specifically articulate how their PD provision contributes to their strategic priorities such as research impact, employer engagement and societal benefit.

Given the increased role of self-funding of PD candidates, institutions should consider the extent to which their promotion of PD programmes reflects personal career-related and self-development motivations, in addition to historic employer needs for upskilling.

Quality and reputation

Institutions and the HE sector generally need to be more consistent in promoting the PD as equivalent to a PhD qualification but different in terms of its target audience and aspects of its delivery, highlighting the importance of the research context and the impact requirements of a PD on professional practice.

The coalescence of new PD programmes around established major PD 'brands' could be used to increase the general profile of the professional doctorate as a programme of study and qualification.

More consistent credit allocation to elements of PD programmes, particularly the taught elements, would enhance the sector’s understanding of the structure and value of learning within a PD.


Institutions should consider the extent to which PD training could be integrated with, or take advantage of, structured PhD training programmes, such as collaborative doctoral training, to achieve efficiencies.

Institutions are recommended to ensure that they provide appropriate resources and expertise to ensure good supervision as outlined in the QAA Quality Code (including appointment of more than one supervisor for a PD candidate).

Institutions might consider the extent to which they could collaborate in the delivery of common aspects of PD programmes within particular disciplines, such as providing more generic training in research methods and skills, in order to increase the sustainability of teaching where institutional cohorts are very small.

Standardisation and administrative data

Institutions, and the sector generally, should work to rationalise the complexity and heterogeneity of programme titles, awards and nomenclature, as this is contributing to the weak profile of the PD.The PD is distinct from the PhD; better understanding of the profile of these qualifications and their respective candidates would result from more defined, standardised and systematic collection and reporting of data through the HESA Student Record.

Further research

Perceptions of inequivalence persist in the academic environment, which can only be explored through a primary investigation of PD and PhD research outputs so as to provide robust measures of the quality of PD research in comparison with PhD research. This should not rely on individuals’ perceptions of quality.

Although the PD is grounded in professional practice, there is little robust evidence of impact on professional practice and changes in the workplace. More research could usefully be done to explore these impacts.
Effective start/end date1/05/1531/01/16


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