Thursday, February 6, 2014

What’s With the Name Doctoral ‘Student’?

English: STU Graduation Ceremony
STU Graduation Ceremony (Wikipedia)
by , Patter:

One of the things I’ve been trying really hard to get over is the notion of the doctoral ‘student’.

This is by far the most common way to refer to people doing a PhD, and it’s pretty hard not to use the ‘s’ word when it’s all around you.

I think of myself as a recovering ‘s’ word user. I lapse occasionally, but I’m trying hard not to.

I want to use the term doctoral researcher instead - or dr for short.

So, dr - not yet Dr but on the way. Just insert title (case) and the transition is complete.

Now, there are good reasons why the ‘s’ word persists. There is a fee for doctoral study, and yes, doctoral researchers are enrolled at a university. So this makes them students, just like any other students, right? Well yes. But on the other hand …

One reason I dislike the term doctoral ‘student’ is that it downplays the level and quality of thought, knowledge and work that is required to achieve the Dr. Apart from mandatory methods training, there is no set doctoral syllabus.

While there is lots of learning, and continuous formative assessment, a thesis is not an assignment - it is a substantive piece of independent research judged by senior peers.

While there has been guidance and coaching from supervisors, the doctoral researcher has been required to make up their own mind about any number of issues, including, quite often in the arts and social sciences, the choice of topic.

And, by and large, most doctoral research is not judged as ‘student’ work. Doctoral research is generally publishable. This publication frequently happens during the period of candidature, and sometimes actually IS the PhD, as in the case of PhD by publication.

So the output of doctoral research - papers and sometimes books - stands in the field equivalent in status to that of any other research and it is judged by the field using the same criteria as is applied to any other publication.

Furthermore, doctoral research is now generally considered to be part of the overall research effort of a university.

In many countries, including the UK, universities count - and financially benefit from - the number of doctoral researchers they have, the number that complete, and the publications done by doctoral researchers.

And doctoral researcher papers, those co-written with supervisors, lab teams or singled authored, add to institutional citation figures and thus to league tables.

So while doctoral researchers might be paying fees, they also help to generate income for the institution they are attending. Just like staff researchers. Maybe the idea of doctoral researchers, drs, is not quite as fanciful as it first appears.

However, I most dislike the term ‘student’ because it is about not being there yet. The notion of ‘student’ constructs a binary between supervisor and supervisee that magically disappears when the thesis is successful in examination.

This is not really the case - we supervisors all say that while the supervisor knows a lot at the start of the doctoral research process, it is the doctoral researcher who is the expert in the topic at the end. It’s been a long process of growing from dr to Dr.

It is actually pretty hard to successfully write the thesis with the required amount of authority if the writer does not already sound like a researcher.

It is not easy to get through a viva if the researcher does not act and talk like a researcher with considerable command of the literature, methodology, methods, results and contribution. The doctoral candidate is already a real researcher before they get to examination.

I would like to see this acknowledged more and thinking about a dr being a process of getting to Dr is one way to do this.

And I suspect that there is an important identity issue attached to being called either a student or a researcher, but I haven’t investigated this in any detail.

I just know from conversations I have with the generally already professionally experienced drs I work with that they find the notion of ‘student’ pretty problematic.

Going from teacher, lawyer, company director to doctoral student is somehow more difficult than going from teacher, lawyer, company director to doctoral researcher …

What do you think? Are you happy with doctoral ‘student’ or does doctoral researcher have a better ring, and if so why?
Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK.
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