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What is the real value of a doctoral degree?

Professor Ylva Rodny Gumede is with the Department of Journalism, Film and Television at the University of Johannesburg. She recently penned an opinion piece published in the Mail & Guardian on 27 June 2019.

Minister Naledi Pandor should be commended for undertaking and completing her doctoral studies (How to complete your doctorate while serving in the Cabinet). And not only for doing so while in full time employment, as a mature student and a female, but also for investing time and money in a venture that many would say is little else than a vanity project unless directly required for a specific job.

The question is what the value of a doctoral degree is, and whether the “four years of little sleep, no weekends and missed meals” will be worth it, as stated by Pandor, the former minister of higher education and now minister of international relations and co-operation.

A PhD is, in most contexts, a piece of in-depth research that not only adheres to stringent criteria for reliability and validity but that also conforms to the specific rules and structures of the academy.
Requirements vary between countries and contexts, as well as between theory-based studies vis-à-vis practice-based ones. Traditionally, the PhD has been a ticket for entry into the academy and today it is a requirement for a job in academia.

The department of higher education and training’s revised strategic plan for 2015-2016 to 2019-2020 clearly articulates the need to improve post-school education and training, and emphasises the importance of improved post-graduate outputs alongside practical skills development to meet very specific socioeconomic development needs.

But, worldwide, the academy is still shaped by its emphasis on theoretical knowledge, often pitting theoretically-based subject disciplines against those perceived as practice-based, with interdisciplinary subject fields and degree paths yet to be developed. No less so in cash-strapped environments where the teaching project is increasingly dependent on, and subsidised through self-sustained funding models, generated through accredited research as well as industry and non-governmental funding sources.

The development of new innovative degree paths and ways of structuring postgraduate research and the effect it can have on socioeconomic development is needed. This is particularly important in light of a rapidly changing economy that is geared up for the fourth — and even fifth — industrial revolution.

South Africa does not have the “problem” faced by many developed economies of an oversupply of PhD holders and higher education is eagerly looking for lecturers with the requisite qualifications. But positions are not readily available despite the National Development Plan’s target of having at least 75% of academics acquiring PhDs by 2030.

Aspiring students do need to weigh up the costs and benefits of pursuing a doctoral degree. The academy aside, industry might not always value doctorates and, in fact, research shows that, bar highly niched industrial research skills, candidates with a PhD might be shunned ahead of candidates with a master’s degree. A master’s degree is seen as more applied and specifically geared towards a profession or field. Thus, for students seeking to do a doctorate with the purpose of improving their employability outside the academy, we need to find ways of making the research and the research process adaptable to the future job market. It’s a job market where research often needs to be geared towards specific timelines and funding requirements, and where findings need to be reported in ways that differ from the ways in which a doctoral thesis is written up for an academic audience or examination panel.

In this regard the professional doctorate as well as a practice-based doctorate play a role. The professional doctorate differs from the traditional PhD in that it is taken predominantly by practising professionals. There is normally a taught component and the research undertaken usually relates to the professional practice of the student and can also be undertaken in the workplace. To get more students into the professional doctorate, we will have to look to streamlining and easing the recognition of prior learning processes that give institutions of higher education the right to recognise experience other than academic degrees for entry into postgraduate studies.

Today, such processes are geared to show that students have acquired the theoretical skills needed to pursue a degree in a specific field rather than actually looking at the practical or other knowledge needed to take the research project further.

In addition, we need to find ways of limiting the costs of pursuing a PhD. This is particularly important if we are to get more women to pursue doctoral studies. The postgraduate students that I have supervised and that have passed through my office over the years have all experienced their own trials and tribulations, and no more so than the female students.

Doctoral students tend to be slightly older than students enrolled in master’s programmes, but what they share is the cost and uncertainties that come with their studies. Whether in employment or not, students come to further their studies to increase their employability and to open doors to new opportunities. They often lack financial and other support that might help to ease the burden of juggling work, studies and family. And the postgraduate journey tends to come at a cost, financially as well as socially.

Hence, I am glad that Pandor had a PhD study group to rely on. This is not always the case and many students find postgraduate studies very lonely, particularly when pursuing research degrees without any taught components. And rarely do they have access to colleagues and professors to guide them and advise them before embarking on their studies.

My own PhD studies were fraught with difficulties. Conducted in London without funding, and topped up by costly study loans, and with three kids, two of whom were born during my studies. I cannot recall ever discussing my research with anyone apart from a yearly catch-up with my supervisor and, of course, with the many people I had the great fortune of interviewing for the thesis itself. But, overall, it was a lonely, expensive and taxing journey.

Pandor stresses the role that her supervisor played but also that of other people inside and outside of the academy, including fellow postgraduate students. Far from the rule, research cohorts need to be made a priority and built into the degree. There are many alternatives to the one-on-one supervision model. It can be divided and shared between different people and different groups and be discipline-specific but also interdisciplinary and consist of academics, fellow students and industry experts, and a student’s employer. Additionally, although the role of a supervisor has traditionally been one of guiding, not only the research but also to mentor students for a future career in the academy, there is a new role and function to be forged here — one that speaks to the supervisor as promotor and mentor in a much broader context to meet the specific needs of the student with regards to employability as well as broader societal needs.

If we do this, we can create new doctoral degrees and qualifications and a new generation of students with degrees that not only take them places but that take our society places.

The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessary reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

professor ylva rodney gumede
Prof Ylva Rodny-Gumede
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