Are you a doctoral ‘student’?

That’s the great question Pat Thomson asked in a recent blog post. Are you a doctoral student? Or a doctoral researcher? I’ve tended towards the latter, partly because being called a student began to bug me as soon as I’d published my first paper. More importantly though, it seems to downgrade the status of those doing PhDs, defining them, as Pat puts it, in terms of a “binary between supervisor and supervisee that magically disappears when the thesis is successful in examination”:

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.



Categories: Higher Education

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3 replies »

  1. i am working as a senior lecturer in the research center of the NGO but it’s a contractual appointment and it will be over in the starting of next month therefore am searching for new job, do you have idea of any vacant post, please suggest me

  2. The moment I read Patter’s article I changed my signature!

  3. I try to use the term ‘doctoral candidate’ when possible.

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