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Higher degrees or higher ambitions? A new approach to PhDs

  • 12 December 2023
  • By Christopher Smith

The modern PhD in the UK is usually dated to the years immediately after the First World War.  It is a relative latecomer then, and the complex articulation of a three-cycle process (undergraduate, masters, doctorate) through the Bologna Process is even more recent, and dates to the end of the 20th century.

For a qualification which is so steeped in the appearance of prestige, the doctorate is remarkably under-examined.  It has changed relatively little in terms of output, form and process but the context is markedly different. 

In 2020/21, there were about 18,000 arts and humanities doctoral candidates.  The gap between supply and demand is inverse to the situation in parts of science, where jobs requiring a PhD exceed the supply. 

What we have long argued, especially when justifying efforts to recruit, is that the PhD is a route to many careers other than an academic job.   And it is undoubtedly true that successful PhD candidates do indeed go on to do a variety of things.  The question which is much trickier is the extent to which the PhD was a necessary step, or an elective one which has marginal added value.  I will need to have a relevant PhD to enter an R&D role in many private laboratories.  I may not need a PhD to enter the civil service, school teaching, publishing, business, a think tank and so forth.

This raises some interesting questions:

  • Can we be sure that the PhD is adding the skills necessary outside the academic route in arts and humanities, that it is fit for the wider purpose which we attribute to it?
  • How do we value the skills which are created through studying arts and humanities at a higher degree level if these cannot be arrived at via the classic government recourse to market failure? 
  • How much public money should be spent and on what kinds of arts and humanities PhDs? 

These are difficult questions and all the more so when the value of arts and humanities is deeply at question from time to time in public discourse.  None of us care to pull at a thread which might unravel more of the fabric.  But there is a risk that in looking past this, we miss an opportunity for the debate that we actually now need to have about the PhD in arts and humanities.

It seems to me that the three questions I outline give us a chance.

First, we cannot just assume that the arts and humanities PhD is fit for purpose. The variety of forms has grown through the increasing admission of practice-based research (one of the most welcome innovations in my view), but it is at the same time not appropriate that art practice should be constrained to a PhD format.  Moreover, some arts and humanities PhDs are much closer to professional doctoral qualifications but that is perhaps less explicit than in, say, business. Outside the level descriptors of the QAA Framework, it is difficult to pin down what we really expect a PhD to offer, and we need to tie that to the broader skill set which a reimagined PhD could offer.

The classic literature review plus case studies may give shape to many theses, but there are far more models out there, and models which proceed directly to an intervention in public space.  Collaborative PhDs with museums and galleries to produce exhibitions or re-evaluations of collections, or creative writing are two examples which have opened up the PhD as a product that is intrinsically valuable but also measurably so. 

The PhD as a route to social innovation and creative intervention does not replace the solid contribution to existing scholarship, but neither is it necessarily separate from it.  And a greater emphasis on a path to impact for the PhD, whilst it may put a high demand on candidates, is also a way of showing the kinds of skills the degree fosters and is an argument for the kind of funding which may be available. 

This then helps with the third question.  AHRC’s recent proposals shift our funding towards a greater emphasis on collaborative PhDs and hubs that are focused on specific skills which are in demand.  Our preference is for every PhD to have the opportunity to be studied collaboratively (only 15% of the current AHRC-funded DTP PhDs are studied in that mode). And I think it might be beneficial if we challenged every publicly funded PhD to be able to show a path to impact just as we assume impact is embedded in research and many other application routes.  A broader and more positive definition of the potential skill set of an arts and humanities PhD makes it clear that there should be multiple funding routes.

Two obvious responses are – what about the value of the PhD as scholarship?  And is it fair to ask so much of a first higher degree?

I would offer two perhaps provocative answers.  First, how many of the 18,000 arts and humanities PhDs would actually find it so difficult to fit their scholarship into more innovative models, if the encouragement were there?  And if they do find it so difficult, should we look at what skills they are acquiring?  What funding might be available if the conceptualization of what the PhD was for became the space and time to co-create rigorous and effective innovations in the public sphere? And what difference could it make to the profile, and employability of the arts and humanities PhD were it framed in those terms?

Second, if we were to arrive at a consensus that our PhD should be open to more innovative and trans-sectoral work, but if the current model does not fit, should we not look at the model?  ESRC have asked similar questions and made their funding more flexible.  What might a properly funded and genuinely integrated five or six-year programme, incorporating the Masters, look like?  

Going further, the supervision and examination of the PhD remain relatively unchanged.  Moves to dual supervision are welcome but managing this across different kinds of institution has always been difficult.  Should we incentivise it better?  Would a different form of examination provide a different route to success?  Should we own the ambition of proper PhD supervisory panels which are connected to the process of examination? The PhD is now, I would imagine, the only remaining academic qualification regularly awarded on the basis of an interview with two people in a closed room. 

I firmly believe that we should fund and support higher degrees in arts and humanities.  UKRI’s Collective Talent Fund in due course will, I firmly believe, offer a better all-round package of support individually and at the cohort level.  But I still don’t think we can rely on intrinsic value or the public purse to justify our expenditure or hide it under a broader tent.  We have to be able to show that the shape and model of an arts and humanities PhD can be as valid and constructive as one in engineering or life science. 

We can make the argument better, especially if we work harder at showing the breadth of the industries relevant to our world of thinking and imagining.  What are our pharma and life science equivalents?  Every town and village, every gallery and museum, every SME looking for content generation at the highest level, every business or policymaker looking for deep context needs time from the brightest we have to develop their work.  Can we do more to explore and explain portfolio PhDs, discontinuous experiences which can produce the equivalent of a PhD by publication but played out over projects; or creative PhDs where the independent value of the artwork does not require a strangling carapace of self analysis; or PhDs in policy and social innovation work, especially co-created with communities?  How do we embed the PhD properly in the developing nexus between place, regeneration and opportunity?  What are the models for team PhDs? What are the innovations in funding we should explore?  How do we move from paying a fee to creating value?  Is the arts and humanities PhD actually a helpful step on the path to genuinely civic universities?  How can we reimagine what the laboratories are in which the arts and humanities PhD can be undertaken – not just for the funded few, but for a much wider and more diverse population?

Our recent proposals on PhD funding offers a path forward.  We will continue to support collaborative PhDs, we are seeking actively to promote a wide distribution of discipline-agnostic funding for studentships across the UK, and we will offer targeted competitive funding for centres of excellence.  We will do all we can to allow the best students in their given fields and career positions to study in a maximally diverse landscape of institutions; there are arts and humanities doctoral candidates in almost every university and there are excellent student experiences wherever you look.  We should be doing everything we can to support cohorts of disciplinary and transdisciplinary excellence. 

What we hope to do is to encourage institutions to use our funding to make imaginative and creative decisions and offers, and to continue the work they have done to innovate and reimagine the PhD in arts and humanities.

Yet there is still more to be done.  There has to be a better way for us to benefit from the enthusiasm and commitment of thousands of brilliant minds.  Thousands of unread PhDs isn’t the answer.  A genuinely ambitious project of revitalizing the notion of postgraduate arts and humanities might be transformational.

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