Dr Hemant Ojha

If you have just completed Master’s and want to continue through a PhD, then spending 4-5 years on a new research project is justifiable so you can be awarded a PhD. But for a large number of active and mid-career professionals who have already spent several years doing research, this conventional route to PhD could actually be a waste of time. More than that, forcing experienced people to fresh research for a degree is also an act of disregard and humiliation, at least in cases where working people have gained research experience which has the potential to be counted as a PhD equivalent work. 

Of course, there is no single formula to balance fresh research and past experience for the purpose of a higher degree like PhD. Universities have adopted a variety of approaches to structuring the PhD degree, and there are plenty of university policy examples in which work-based learning and professional practices are counted towards a PhD. But these arrangements are still in the margin, and the conventional research based PhD still dominates the higher degree landscape. This imbalance is not a good news to hundreds of thousands of working professionals and researchers around the world, looking to PhD through the research and publication they have already done. 

In my own case, I did a conventional PhD, but it was significantly integrated with my ongoing research works. This integration was, of course, not ideal – but was the one that became possible in my circumstances. When I had my first meeting with my supervisor, he asked what I wanted to do in my PhD. I very clearly replied: “I came to the university not to design and undertake a fresh research on how communities grow trees or things like that, but to engage in a critical reflection upon my own previous research and work experience and then make a deeper sense of what I have been doing over the past 10 years”. 

My supervisor supported my goal but he challenged me to engage critically with some Western philosophical works to expand my reflexive power to look back into my past experience. He also alerted me that to be successful we also needed to have a component of fresh research, which I used as a test of experiential analysis. At the end, I had to make a compromise: it was too risky to fully rely on reflexive sociology (and not to do fresh observation based research), and hence I agreed to add a case study component in my PhD. Yet the fresh field work component was only a small part – with reflective analysis of the past work  – and capturing insights from the ongoing engagement in the context of the research  – together occupying the major part of my PhD. Using this approach, I completed my PhD in less than 3 years, which wouldn’t have been possible had I opted for the conventional approach. Looking back, I feel that there was at least an implicit recognition of my prior work and ongoing engagement, which was reflected un applying a reflexive sociological approach in my PhD project. This happened naturally through the practice and without being guided by an explicit policy.

However, formal and explicit recognition of past and ongoing research experience in the PhD is still rare. Over the past few years, I have stayed in the academia, with an opportunity to co-supervise 6 PhD candidates in Australian universities. I also examined and reviewed works of additional PhD candidates, and conduct workshops to several others. Through this experience, I came to know that many of the international PhD candidates have gained significant experience prior to joining the PhD. Yet, at the time of being enrolled as PhD candidates, they agree to undertake totally a fresh project for the PhD as required by the university, setting aside all the knowledge and experience gained before that point. Of course, there is not much choice for students to make  – this is the default way to go. 

I am not suggesting any experience could be a source of academically recognisable knowledge. In fact, I believe that a repetitive experience cannot be expected to generate new knowledge, and hence every prior experience cannot be counted as a work of knowledge. Yet, if offered a relevant training on reflexivity and reflexive analytical techniques and if given an opportunity to capture the experiential insights, many of the prospective PhD candidates, I believe, can capitalise on much of their prior experience as part of the academic work required of the PhD. While majority of the universities in the world do not have a space for students to capture this, there are indeed quite a few universities around the world which have provided a window of opportunity for work-based learning, or for the recognition of prior learning for academic credit at different levels including PhD. 

One of the approaches to recognise pre-PhD work is known as PhD by Prior Publication (PhDP) or PhD by Published Work. My team at IFSD is conducting a research into the policy and practice of this approach to PhD as it currently exists in over 30 universities, mostly in the UK and Australia. Preliminary findings from this review shows that there is a well-established framework in these universities to recognise prior published works for PhD degree. It should be noted that this route to PhD is different from PhD by Publication, which is just a conventional 3-5 years of PhD in which students are allowed to present thesis in the form a publication resulting from a typical PhD research project. Unlike conventional PhD by publication or thesis, PhDP allows candidates to package their past research as a coherent body of scientific contribution and then claim a PhD, which can be obtained in six months to two years. 

Besides the PhD by Prior Publication route, various universities have also enacted policies to allow the PhD through the demonstration of innovations in professional work contexts during the period of PhD enrolment. I also found some universities which recognise professional practice as a partial fulfilment of PhD. A larger framing of these practice-based PhD is known as professional doctorate, which can allow professionals work in their organisation while earning a PhD. There are even arrangements for minimum face to face work in the University campus, with local supervision arrangement in the student’s own country. In all of these routes, there is indeed a strong academic component that allows the practicing professional or the researcher to do some conceptual work through which to present the prior experience or innovation or professional practice in a way global scientific community can understand and recognise. 

In future, more universities and faculties are likely to open or expand opportunities for the recognition of prior learning in the PhD program. The escalating work-training gap has put enormous pressure on universities to consider practice and innovation as a critical component of the PhD degree. However, due to the existing incentive structure and educational regulations, there is still a preference among university managers to adopt the conventional PhD approach. The higher education landscape is still dominated by providers which disregard prior achievements of the experienced students who join universities for PhD at or close to their mid-career. Benefits to the provider override consideration of an inclusive epistemology and fairness to student life and work. But things are set to change in time to come, and the change will most likely in favour of those who are in the domain of work and professional practice. 

The argument in favour of experience, action and engagement as important aspects of epistemic generation is really strong, and cannot be dismissed. There is a long academic tradition of ‘intellectualise practice’ from the work of American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, which finds resonance in several non-Western epistemological culture. In my research and development work, I have made some attempts, or at least remained self-conscious of the role of action in the production of knowledge. Action science outlook of Chris Argyris is an example of the case supporting how human knowledge emerges in and through action and reflection rather than observation alone. If the current PhD structure continues to put observing but disengaged method as superior to experiential method, then we will continue to produce graduates who will lose sight of the action context. This misplaced pedagogy of PhD is at the heart of the problem of growing unemployment of the graduates who lack skillsets and mindset to relate themselves in the dynamic action context. 

The action-based and engaged epistemology is even more critical as we rapidly move into the globalised and digitally interconnected world. As we have unprecedented amount of data and information around us, what is needed is the capacity to make sense of these information for various personal and societal goals. Education now needs to be better integrated with the world of practice, by imparting skills to go beyond the flow of information. The workplace ecosystem and business contexts are also very dynamic, putting pressures on professionals to stay tuned with the change. We are under pressure to survive in a dynamic real world context, and cannot afford to lose our connectivity and the space to engage when universities ask us to spend 4-6 years for the PhD, detached from the operational context.