What is a PhD anyway?

It has been occurring to me that one of the myriad pieces of tacit knowledge graduate students are supposed to pick up while they wend their way through graduate school is exactly what it means to have a PhD. How is it different from a MEd or an EdD for example? and what do people expect you to be able to do at the end of it, apart from signing a different set of letters after your name?

My take on this, and the basis for the expectations I have about what constitutes an effective thesis is the following. Being granted a PhD means you are a professional, independent, academic researcher. You might not choose to work in academia, but your skills should allow you to generate well-designed original research relevant to solving problems and advancing the particular field you are in. You are expected to be an expert on the current and past state of research literature in that area; the various methodologies people use in that domain and why they use those: the current ‘hot’ topics of the area–for example in educational research in the US one is the implications of evidence-based approaches and whether that means ONLY traditional quantitative methods are ultimately counted as evidence of effectiveness.

How is all that different from say an EdD? Well, in CTL, there was sufficient concern about the nature of that difference that we chose to discontinue to the EdD until we come up with a clear rationale for the elements of a professional doctoral degree in Education (this discussion is ongoing at the moment). One could imagine it having elements such as a methods course that helped students become critical consumers and interpreters of research literature rather than focusing on being generators of it.

So what is the relationship between being an educator and getting or even having a PhD? I seen PhD work as being primarily about research, and research being about finding explanations for things–answering Why? questions. By contrast being an educator is usually focussed at a descriptive rather than an explanatory level and answering more procedural questions about How and What? Now, one can often happily integrate both of these elements–I do, for example in a lot of my own research, but it is important to recognize the difference.

That’s what theory is for–it organizes and systematizes our explanations of why things work the way they do. For example, collaboration is becming an increasingly important instructional strategy because it is a pepdagogical strategy that emerges from a constructivist rather than say, a behaviourist theory of learning, and constructivism as a theoretical framework is gaining in popularity within educational contexts.

Now no theory is complete, and they change as new findings emerge. They do however give us a principled way of thinking about a) why something works, and b) why it doesn’t c) some principled way of moving ahead. Perusing the following site: http://tip.psychology.org/ gives you an overview of a whole bunch of educational theories that are specifically related to learning and instruction and take a psychological (rather than say, sociological) approach. As such, they offer a particular set of perspectives–a focus on individuals and learning–rather than a focus on social structures that impact how schooling is organized for example.
In this breakdown of theories, by contrast http://www.funderstanding.com/theories.cfm
those theories of learning we just talked about occupy the first of the 5 categories they have there. Now, what actually constitutes a theory is a bigger question, and not to be tackled here!

But this entry is just a first take on the question of what a PhD really means.
I will follow up in later entries with: what role the dissertation plays in helping you along this path; perhaps more on what constitutes a theory as opposed to a set of instructional principles and so on; and something about research methods and their relation to asking specific kinds of research questions.

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