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The emerging promise of doctoral education

By Dr. Eric Riedel

Doctoral education is rapidly evolving across the world. Before 1990, the typical doctoral student was a young man who studied full time with the goal of obtaining a permanent faculty appointment after graduation. While these students are still a core part of doctoral programmes, doctoral education as a whole has broadened in recent decades.

For starters, not only has doctoral enrollment itself grown, but so has the accessibility of these programmes—particularly to an older and more diverse population of students whose motivations include fulfilling their passions, contributing to society and enhancing their careers through applied research and problem-solving. Moreover, doctoral programmes are helping prepare doctorally trained graduates in professional fields outside of academia, which is an ongoing need.

Many of those studying for a doctorate already have established careers—some with decades of professional experience—in management, psychology, education, public administration and human services. And since these students come from a wider array of backgrounds, they often have other responsibilities—familial, social and professional—which means that more students are exploring flexible study options to pursue their doctorates.

Research conducted by doctoral students has also evolved over the years. In the context of newly emerging economies on the world stage and the globalisation of workforces, doctoral students must look further afield in terms of research—not just at issues relevant to their own country. They must become citizens of the world and understand the global market in order to lead research that benefits society.

For example, in Nigeria—an economic powerhouse in the context of a rapidly growing continent— there is a significant shortage of individuals with management skills. In this case, students must be equipped with the skills to understand global issues in order to apply their knowledge to research that could potentially contribute to the economic development of Africa.

So how can universities respond to these burgeoning expectations? Walden University, for example, has adopted a scholar-practitioner model to encourage students to become not just consumers of knowledge, but also agents of change who contribute to the advancement of individuals, communities, organisations and society. This model means that students learn to blend scholarly research with practical application to solve complex problems in their professions. It also means that students are attentive to the contemporary challenges and concerns of their communities, which enables them to conduct extraordinarily useful research. Having recently spent time with one of our Nigerian doctoral students, it was clear that the desire to undertake research and advance practice in ways relevant to Nigerian society are foremost in her mind as she attends Walden and plans for the future.

Another effort from universities to address the shifting world of education is the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID)—a group of academic departments from across the United States brought together to improve the quality of their doctoral programmes by designing and implementing new initiatives. Through this research, three key themes were identified: scholarly integration, intellectual community and stewardship. But what do these themes mean and how can they be applied to doctoral education to make a difference for students?
Scholarly integration is the intention to apply research and scholarship to teaching and broader practice. Doctoral education needs to be connected, not just across all elements of the programme, but also to the wider public sphere. Walden University has long required students to demonstrate the social change application of their dissertation or doctoral study research as part of the university’s mission.

This integrated approach facilitates the application of research and problem-solving to the world beyond doctoral education, allowing students to make a real impact in their countries because of the skills they are developing.

Secondly, intellectual community is the development of a culture in which students are fully engaged and able to look for and seize opportunities around them. This may mean developing new actions or reshaping existing elements of the programme, but it brings significant benefits by allowing students to get the most from their doctoral studies. The aim is to collaborate within the discipline and even across multiple disciplines to promote shared knowledge and understanding about new research and its applications.

Finally, the CID project concluded that the development of students as “stewards of the discipline” should be considered one of the primary purposes of doctoral education. A steward is someone who can imaginatively generate new knowledge, critically conserve valuable ideas and transform those understandings through writing, teaching and application. But this should come with ethics; these stewards should be developed to create research that is of good quality, is conducted with integrity and may be used to make a positive impact.

An increasingly globalised economy will continue to impact doctoral-level studies and change the type of education that students need. This requires universities to ensure their doctoral programme offerings stay competitive and equip students with the in-demand knowledge and skills needed to apply their research to make a difference in their communities.

Dr. Eric Riedel, is the chief academic officer at Walden University, Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States of America.


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