Implications for Design-Focused Professional Doctorates of Australian Research into Professional Doctorates

Dr. Terence Love
Curtin University, Western Australia


Australia is a forerunner in professional doctoral education and in research aimed at improving professional doctorates. This is reflected in the last decade of Australian Biennial Professional doctoral conferences, and the significant research funding support by the Australian Research Council aimed at identifying best practices in professional doctoral education.

This paper draws out the implications for design-focused professional doctorates in design disciplines of the findings from two substantial government-funded research projects into the broad range of professional doctorates currently available in Australia, and the papers of the 2002 Australian Biennial Professional Doctorate conference. 


To date, discussion of professional doctorates in design-related disciplines has been marked by a lack of empirical grounding about what is successful, what is not, what works, what doesn’t and why (Durling, 2002, 2000). For example, the proceedings of the La Clusaz conference (Durling & Friedman, 2000) show an almost complete absence of such empirical work. Reasonably, Justice (2000) suggests it is not yet possible because the events are too new.

In Australia, there is now emerging a significant body of research about professional doctorates. This paper draws out the implications of recent substantial Australian research projects by McWilliams et al (2002), Neumann (2002) and Cavaye (2002)  and combines them with research findings reported at the 4th Biennial Professional Doctorates conference (McWilliam, 2002)  for improving design-focused professional doctorates

At this point, it is perhaps helpful to point out the Australian government regards the successful development of professional doctorates in Australia as an important aspect of postgraduate research education, especially in relation to fulfilling national social and economic development agendas. This is reflected in the standing and seniority of the keynote speakers from the Australia Federal Government who spoke to the recent professional doctorates conference (McWilliam et al., 2002, p. 189). The first keynote was by Dr Robin Batterham, Australian Chief Scientist, whose responsibilities include advising the Prime Minister on the strategic distribution of national research funding. The second keynote was by Dr Carol Nicoll, the Head of Australia’s Higher Education Review Committee.

The paper has five sections. The second, section outlines some of the weaknesses and contextual issues in current discussions about design-focused professional doctorates. In the third section, the paper provides a précis of the main findings and recommendations of the recent research by McWilliams et al (2002), Neumann (2002) with supplementation from papers presented at the 2002 biennial Professional Doctorates conference. Section four outlines the implications of these findings and recommendations for design-focused professional doctorates. The final section summarises the main points of the paper and sketches out future research.

Weaknesses in Current Discourse

Over the last four years, there has been extensive discussion about doctoral education in design disciplines (see, for example, Archives of, ; Archives of, ; Buchanan et al., 1999; Durling, 2002; Pizzocaro, Arruda, & De Moraes, 2000). The debate has mainly focused around two issues: whether designing is equivalent to researching; and whether the outcomes of designing, craft and art should be an acceptable submission for PhD assessment in lieu of a research thesis (Durling, 2002).

Other more practical issues relating to the development of better doctoral programs have been relatively neglected in part as a result of the strong feelings raised by discussion of practice issues. These neglected issues include:

Much of the debate about  ‘Design’ education has been typified by parochial perspectives. For example, contributors from the craft-based ‘Art and Design’ disciplines have assumed that professional doctorates in design are only concerned with Art and Design sub-fields such as graphic design, fashion and 3D design. Similarly, contributors from Engineering disciplines have often assumed the term ‘design’ refers only to engineering design activities. There are several hundred sub-disciplines in which designing occurs that have ‘design’ as part of their title (Love, 2001; 1998, appendices 1-4). In addition, there are emerging hundreds of fields in which design activity is becoming more clearly recognised as an important element of professional practice: for example, child-care program design (e.g. Sims, 2002).

Theories about designing in each of these hundreds of sub-fields becomes shaped to some extent by the discipline’s culture which is closely tied to the information used by designers in that disciple. So, for example, theories of design activity in (say) chemical process plant design appear very similar to representation of chemical process plant (see, for example, Himmelblau, 1974; Motard, 1974; Powers & Rudd, 1974).

The tendency in the literature to categorise design activity and theory on the basis of the field from which a designer draws information or in which their outputs are classified is intrinsically problematic and results in such epistemological complexity that it has been suggested that design theories from different design sub-disciplines are incommensurate (Sargent, 1994)

Instead it is helpful to focus on the activity of designing more generically. Simon (1981, p. 129) who has design as devising courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. Simon’s definition makes it obvious the human activity of designing is central to almost all professional activities and many non-professional activities. In fact, it is the reason for existence of professional activities.

Viewing design activity in this way offers many insights. For example, it suggests a model of ‘design-focused doctoral programs’ (Love, 2003) that removes the boundaries between doctoral education in ‘Design’ and other doctorates, extends design education in a way that allows the ready inclusion of new sub-fields that involve designing, and resolves most if not all of the incommensurability issues that have been problematic between design domains .

Australian Research into Professional Doctorates

The first Australian professional doctoral programs emerged in 1991 (McWilliam et al., 2002) . Australian research into best practice in professional doctorate in Australia commenced soon after with the 4th national biennial conference on professional doctorates in 2002 (McWilliam, 2002). As a research area, the study of professional doctorates has been unusually vigorous. In the relatively slow moving pace of research funding last year also saw completion of two substantial Australian government-funded research projects. The first explored what professional doctorates can offer to the PhD (McWilliam et al., 2002), and the second exploring the diversity and complexity of the doctoral education experience (Neumann, 2002). The rich data reported in McWilliams et al (2002) and Neumann (2002) is already being subjected to secondary analysis in other dimensions of research into professional doctorates (e.g. Taylor, 2002).

Many of the findings of the above empirical research by McWilliams et al and Neumann align with tertiary educators expectations. Some of their more important findings, however, are relatively unexpected and provide deep insights into understanding successes and failures of existing programs. They suggest heuristics for more successful approaches to doctoral education for doctorates that have close relationships with professional practices, and also for the traditional PhD.

Some of the unusual findings of these two projects make more sense when account is taken of contextual and demographic issues. The demographics and expectation profile for those participating in professional doctoral education is significantly different to those participating in traditional forms of PhD, particularly those following on directly from undergraduate study (Cavaye, 2002; Taylor, 2002). Typical professional doctoral students are:

An initially surprising finding of the research is that most (61%) of Australia professional doctorates fit within the standard criteria for PhD’s – in all respects they are a PhDs (McWilliam et al., 2002, p. ix ). (A key factor is the research project, on paper at least, comprises 2/3 of the total time of study.) In hindsight this is not surprising, because in Australia there are substantial financial pressures to count professional doctorates in the universities’ metrics to the government about PhD completions. This provides substantial increases in research funding further leveraged because PhD completion is a significant metric in defining universities’ yearly infrastructure grant.

The second surprising finding is the shallowness of the relationships between the university and the industry/professions/business organisations that are the structural reason for implementing professional doctorates (McWilliam et al., 2002, p. ix ). One of the significant challenges of professional doctoral education is to establish much deeper linkages. Table 1 below illustrate the differences identified by McWilliams et al between these two arrangements.

Shallow Linkage

Deep Linkage

A particular industry or group of industries is the source from which most clients come and to which they return.

Their establishment is driven by a particular industry or professional association (e.g., peak industry groups define the nature of the training to be undertaken and the skills/attributes that are to be developed.

There is some attempt made to involve non-academic individuals from industry and/or a professional group in course delivery, supervision or assessment (this is likely to be limited and ad-hoc)

Industry and/or professions are partners in the delivery and supervision of programs, and this is built into the funding and/or sponsorship arrangements that exist between universities, participants and external bodies

Research and research activities are workplace-based

Industry/professional bodies play a substantial role in the assessment and credentialing process

Marketing materials stress the value of the program to targeted professions.

Research training outcomes are of a nature and in a form that is recognizable as beneficial to the industry/professional partner


The community of learning built around the program includes both academic and industry and/or profession based participants

Table 1: Shallow and Deep Linking (after (McWilliam et al., 2002, pp. ix, x )).

McWilliam et al refer to the UK EngD or Doctor of Engineering as an exemplar of deep linked professional doctoral arrangements (McWilliam et al., 2002, pp. 91-94 ). The depth of this relationship they regard as due to the substantial role played by the Science and Engineering Council in defining the competencies expected of an EngD graduate, shaping the EngD curricula and formulating the overall assessment processes.

Cavaye (2002), analysing from a critical perspective, drew attention to the fact that, in most cases, professional doctorates are university creations,  initiated and managed from within universities, whose primary purposes are in improving outcomes that align with the institutional objectives of the universities in which they are located. From this point of view, the primary objectives of professional doctoral programs include: increasing profit by increasing the number of doctoral students especially those paying full fees from their own purse; improving the number of research outcomes that the university can report to government to increase the amount of government research and infrastructure funding; and increasing the scale of doctoral research activity as a part of improving image and branding to make the university more attractive to foreign full fee paying students. In these cases, the concerns of industry and the professions, and individuals professional practice are entirely secondary and instrumental. Cavaye’s perspective was supported by the presentation by Neumann at the 2002 Professional Doctorates conference and papers by Vallance (2002) and Gammack (2002),  together they contribute towards a causal explanation of why linkages with industry partners are mainly shallow.

At a plenary session during the 2002 Professional Doctorates conference, the data from McWilliams et al was presented and discussed. During this session it was suggested from the floor that characteristics of linkage and interaction appear dependent on the levels of professional closure of professional bodies in the different industry groupings.  The three main classes are:

  1. Gatekeeper professional bodies that totally control employment in a field. Examples are medical doctors, clinical psychologists, lawyers, and real estate sales.
  2. Professional bodies that do not have full legal authority to control employment but have strong advisory powers in defining roles, remuneration, working conditions, and restriction of access to the profession by means of qualifications, e.g. nursing, teaching, most professional engineering, financial advisers.
  3. Professional associations that help shape ‘custom and practice’ of professionals in their area and act as a pressure group, e.g. associations of semi-professional groups such as legal administrators, youth workers, and local council administrators.

The importance of this insight is that professional closure issues can make professional doctorates irrelevant, essential, useful at institutional level, or shift the utility of the professional doctorate away from the profession and make it solely the concern of the individual.

Implications for Design-focused Professional Doctorates

Australian research into professional doctorates has implications for improving design-focused professional doctorates. The recommendations of McWilliam et al (2002) include:

Many professional doctorate students’ have experience in professional and executive contexts and a low tolerance of problematic university administrative arrangements. (Cavaye, 2002; Neumann, 2002). Some successful professional doctoral programs have found useful a ‘one stop shop’ for doctoral students in which skilled university staff efficiently navigate universities administration on students’ behalf (Cavaye, 2002).

Pre-existing commitments to work and family mean many professional doctoral students require flexible course arrangements to be incorporated into the doctoral program design (Cavaye, 2002; Vallance, 2002). 

Cavaye’s (2002)  radical critique  of the role of professional doctoral programs raises  other implications for designing successful design-focused professional doctorates. This perspective exposes a reality that professional doctorates are created and managed for universities’ benefits. The primary driving forces result from: the relationship between universities and government; government criteria for funding universities, especially how it is tied to specific university research outcomes. The government criteria for professional doctorates impact the universities, the government funding for professional doctorates goes to the universities, and the main education metric targets a different form of doctoral education, the PhD. Industry and professional partnerships are essentially secondary and instrumental to universities’ profitability.  It seems unlikely industry and professional bodies will be enthusiastically and vigorously engaged in professional doctorates if the benefits accrue to the universities. The implication is deeper linkages with industry and professional bodies will come about only if forces acting on the situation are changed. Addressing this requires changes to research and funding metrics to shift the motivational pressures away from the university and towards industry and the professional bodies. This suggests that in improving design-focused professional doctorates, studying and managing the political and power relationships relating to professional and organisational circumstances are important.

Finally, remains empirical research relating to designing as a core element of all professional practice (Love, 2003). That is, of understanding the difference between a design-focused professional doctorate in sub-discipline X and an ordinary professional doctorate in the same sub discipline, e.g., the difference between a design- focused professional doctorate in engineering and an ordinary professional doctorate in engineering, or the difference between a design-focused professional doctorate in graphic art and an ordinary professional doctorate in graphic art.

Conclusions and Future Research

To summarise, initial and sustained success for design-focused professional doctorates is likely to come about through recognising them for what they are and working within that frame: a university innovation by which universities are able to gain additional funding by attracting a different cohort of students to that targeted by more traditional doctoral education (PhD). The institution of professional doctorates allows universities to offer alternative intake criteria and provide more support for candidates without the challenge of redefining the PhD. This latter issue is especially important in Australia, and perhaps the UK, where PhD students undertake a single relatively unsupported research project assessed via a long thesis. Through professional doctorates universities are able increase the numbers of doctoral students over and above their government-funded quota and gain financial benefits from having students self-funding or being funded by their employers. The sums involved are not insignificant  - in Western Australia, the total cost to each self-funded doctoral student is similar to a new four-bedroom house.

The unique nature of design-focused professional doctorates is they pertain to design activity independent of the discipline in which that design activity is located. This lies at a tangent to the Australian professional doctorate research into discipline-specific professional doctorates. This implies the need for further research to clarify differences, if any, between design-focused professional doctorates and discipline-specific professional doctorates.


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