In Deuteronomy 31:28, Moses says, “Gather unto me all the ancients of your tribes, and your doctors, that I may speak these words in their hearing, and will call heaven and earth to witness against them.” What did Moses (or his translators) mean in choosing the word “doctor”? Certainly not a medical practitioner, nor one who had completed a three-year programme of research at a university under an academic supervisor, nor yet an honoured celebrity or financial donor to the campus. Rather, this quotation suggests an older, and indeed a more profound, meaning of the word that is of relevance as we seek to establish how the concept of the doctoral award may be defined and indeed redefined in today’s world.
To be a doctor of anything is to take one’s place as a leader in that field. Routes to the doctorate have in common (at least in theory) that they demand the demonstration of mastery of the subject at hand in such a way that it may confidently be asserted that the chosen individual has the capacity to contribute at the highest level to knowledge and understanding in their field. However, I would contend that such a societal definition of doctoral standing has come adrift in a curious manner from the interpretation of the doctorate within mainstream academia. In seeking the reasons behind such a departure, we are forced to confront the reality that the doctorate has become more and more the entrance pass to the academic club; that as a qualification it has retreated further into the ivory tower rather than continuing to remain accountable to the wider populace as a whole. Perhaps in hindsight this has been an inevitable process, given that doctoral candidates are by definition an elite selected only after the trials by fire that consist of the bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but it is not necessarily either desirable nor irreversible.
The oldest model of the doctorate is that which is now referred to as the higher doctorate. Until the twentieth-century, this was the only type of doctoral award available at British universities. Higher doctorates at most universities include the degrees of Doctor of Letters, Doctor of Science, Doctor of Laws (Canon and Civil) and Doctor of Medicine. The degree of Doctor of Music has historically not been regarded as a higher doctorate but in practice this is largely a semantic distinction rather than one of substance. Other degree titles may be used depending on the institution in question. The higher doctorate can commonly only be supplicated for by an existing graduate of that university above the age of thirty, and does not usually depend on any set curriculum or of study under residence. Rather, it consists of an assessment of the corpus of work presented by the candidate as evidence of their standing in their field, which is read and reported on by a group of senior academics from within and without the university. In most cases this work will be published; books and articles from learned journals are the most common materials forming a portfolio. In some cases, work of another sort may be submitted, such as an Exercise prepared for the occasion to demonstrate appropriate merit. Thus Haydn submitted a symphony for his Doctor of Music degree at Oxford.
The value of the degree of Master of Arts at the ancient universities remains that it confers a “license to teach” within the university in question, and then by the process of amalgamation ad eundem can be transferred to the other universities in that established group (Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin), and by logical extension this concept is seen elsewhere in theory if not always in practice (for example, Durham and other universities conferred an “automatic” M.A. upon their B.A.s in the nineteenth-century). Until the latter part of the twentieth-century, a doctorate was not seen as a necessity to take up an university teaching post, and indeed such an award would frequently be granted after a substantial period of tenure. Supplication for higher doctorates was much more common in the nineteenth-century than it is today; however, that award was seen as the crowning point of a career rather than a rite of passage at the beginning of it.
Furthermore, the manner of the conferral of doctorates and other degrees was profoundly different in the nineteenth-century from modern practice, although the more one examines it the more it is possible to see the practice of the twentieth-century as constituting a decline and an extensive misunderstanding of the entire area. Dr Charles Franklyn (1896-1982) (late Bedell of Convocation in the University of London), writing in chapter XIII of Academical Dress from the Middle Ages to the Present Day including Lambeth Degrees, (1970, Lewes (Sussex): W.E. Baxter Limited) puts the issue succinctly and with admirable clarity, and since his work has been out of print and extremely hard to obtain for many years, an extended quotation is perhaps merited to show his treatment of the issue,
“There are, in fact, seven ways or methods by which a degree can be conferred:–1. By Royal Letters Patent (per litteras Regis) from the Sovereign, directing(a) a University to confer the degree(b) the Crown Office to confirm the Archbishop’s Instrument, under The Great Seal of the Realm.
2. In the ordinary earned way, by a University.
3. By Diploma (from a University).
4. By Decree of the House (of a University).
5. Jure Dignitatis, by a University.The above five methods confer what is in fact a full earned degree, carrying all the rights, privileges, styles and titles common to a full earned degree: they are not honorary.6. Honoris Causâ, by a University.7. By a University Commission (usually of three) after a Decree or Grace has been passed by Congregation, Convocation, or the Senate (as the case may be); usually conferred out of the University city or town, sometimes abroad, or on someone unable to travel.Method (1) (a) was common during the late Elizabethan and Stewart periods, on the occasion of the visit of the Sovereign to Oxford or Cambridge.Method (2) requires no comment, and was usually by (a) Thesis and the keeping of so may Acts for the degree, or (b) by accumulation or compounding, by an M.A. of sixteen years standing.Method (3) used to be quite the usual method of conferring the D.D. upon Bishops and Archbishops, or the D.C.L. upon the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, of, or Members of Parliament for, the University of Oxford (by which is meant a mere handful of officials who initiate such proposals and constitute the de facto caucus or autocratic group actually managing the university) has acquired the notion that the conferment of a degree by Diploma is the highest and most honourable method by which a Degree can be conferred. This is, surely, fallacious? A degree is a degree, and every D.D., or D.C.L. degree that ranks as a full degree, is of exactly equal value whatever the method. In the Victorian age it was extremely common to confer a D.D. upon a Bishop or a Headmaster of a Public School upon appointment. The Diploma conferring the degree was simply sent to him, and in some cases at least, doubtless saved the recipient a tedious journey, perhaps in winter, across country, and much loss of valuable time. A Diploma method might, therefore, be simply instead of a ceremony. In every case a Diploma (or certificate) can be had for the asking, as proof of the degree having been conferred.In the summer of 1941 the University of Oxford acted unusually by conferring the degree of D.C.L. upon the President of the United States (Franklin De Lano Roosevelt) by Diploma, but actually by ceremony too, at a special Convocation of the University held in America! He was thus created a Doctor in Civil Law by Diploma and by Convocation, but, I think, was not actually present at the ceremony!Method (4) is most commonly adopted when an M.A. degree is conferred upon a graduate of another university who is taking up a Fellowship or Professorship at Oxford or Cambridge. This is done to give him membership and status. A D.D. degree, too, may be conferred upon a Select Preacher, or upon a Master of Arts nominated by the Crown to a Bishopric.Method (5) is most commonly adopted by the University of Trinity College, Dublin, when one of her graduates is consecrated a Bishop, or when a Bachelor in Surgery is appointed to a Chair in Surgery, and is created an M.Ch. jure dignitatis. It is of all methods the most correct. Every Bishop should be created a D.D. jure dignitatis, every judge a D.C.L., or LL.D. upon elevation to the bench, and every M.B. an M.D. upon appointment to a chair in Physic.Method (6) is a most abused method of conferment. It would be correct to create a bicycle manufacturer an honorary D.C.L., but it would be wrong to create a learned judge an honorary D.C.L., since of all people he is expected to know a great deal about Law; similarly a learned physician an M.D., or D.M.
Method (7) is self-explanatory. A recent example that we can all think of took place in Portugal, when a commission of the University of Oxford travelled to Portugal in 1941 to confer the D.C.L. hon. causâ upon the Prime Minister of that country.”
Today the doctorate jure dignitatis survives in the conferral of Lambeth degrees by the Archbishop of Canterbury. By virtue of his former office as Legate to the Pope, the Archbishop may confer any degree he chooses, with the awards being confirmed by the House of Lords and jointly issued by Parliament and Lambeth Palace. The Lambeth degrees, which may be at any level and in any discipline, are conferred on individuals of proven merit who are considered by the Archbishop to be of standing to receive the degree in question; they are conferred without examination or study. Franklyn (op. cit.) has this to say on the subject,
“A Lambeth degree is not an honorary degree, but on the contrary ranks as a full earned degree: such a degree is never conferred upon any one unless by training, vocation, or profession, or by original work, he is already fitted to receive the degree. Honorary Lambeth degrees are not conferred. A Lambeth degree is a full degree conferred by legal procedure by document, registered in the House of Lords, and probably superior to any Diploma or Certificate from a University or degree granting College.”
Around half a dozen Lambeth degrees, sometimes more or fewer than this, have been conferred each year in the recent past. It was also possible during the late nineteenth-century, and then from 1993 until it was phased out in 2007, to read for the Lambeth degree of Master of Arts by examination; this award was examined at a level equivalent to the M.Phil. degree of other universities. Now the Lambeth degrees of M.Phil. and Ph.D. are offered by examination.
The higher doctorate in mainstream academia remains on the various statute books, but in practice is a rara avisindeed today. It has been largely supplanted by two other types of doctoral award; the Ph.D. (or professional doctorate), and the honorary doctorate.
In Britain, the Doctor of Philosophy degree began life as a higher doctorate at the ancient Scottish universities, which maintained the Continental heritage in their academic practices, and was supplicated for in the same manner as other awards of its ilk. Towards the end of the First World War, British universities imported the concept of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy that had evolved in Germany and which was being taken up with alacrity by American institutions. The Ph.D. was a three-year course of supervised research leading to production of a thesis representing an original contribution to knowledge in its field. Unlike the higher doctorates, there was no restriction on a young graduate in their twenties with a bachelor’s degree (usually) proceeding directly to read for the degree, perhaps, but not always, by way of an intermediate master’s degree (it should be remembered that historically the master’s and doctor’s degrees are both different forms of terminal awards, and thus represent ends in themselves rather than a continuous progression from magistrand (or quasi-magistrand, as is the case still at Oxford and Cambridge, where a preliminary research candidate is formally examined at the end of their first year to determine their standing) to doctoral candidate).
It had been noted that graduates from the British universities were being attracted abroad by the new Ph.D., and so it was determined that this award also be introduced in the UK. Resistance initially was very substantial; few took it seriously and no university would place its Ph.D.s on a par with its higher doctorates. Often the Ph.D. was accorded a watered-down version of the scarlet-based academical dress proper to doctors; at Cambridge, for example, Ph.D.s still wear a black gown with mere scarlet facings (attached by safety pins!) while most other doctorates are accorded scarlet robes. At Edinburgh, which at one point had both the higher doctorate D.Phil. and the new-fangled Ph.D. on its statutes simultaneously, the Ph.D. was initially accorded a lining-colour that has been impolitely described by some as sludge green in contrast to the magnificent Vesuvius red of the D.Phil.
During the remainder of the twentieth-century, the Ph.D. gradually became the modern equivalent of a medieval apprenticeship for teaching in academia, implying wrongly that only through research could worthiness to teach in a university be proven, and similarly, through the inadmissibility of anything other than a thesis proper for examination, that the executant accomplishments of, for example, the musician or artist were somehow beneath the purview of academia at this level. In respect of musicians, this injustice was further compounded by the eventual strictures in various places, whether formal or informal (and equally binding notwithstanding), that in order to proceed to candidature for the degree of Doctor of Music (formerly accessible to anyone with a bachelor’s degree in that discipline) the Ph.D. was a necessary intermediate step. Thus the higher doctorate was marginalised when it should have continued to have remained central to our system.
Routes to the Ph.D. by published work rather than supervised research, themselves a move towards a hybrid of the higher doctorate and the Ph.D., were pioneered at Cambridge, where Wittgenstein presented his Tractatus for the award, and have since been largely standardised between many other institutions. Beside the Ph.D. proper there is also now a plethora of mostly coursework-plus-thesis “professional doctorates” in existence now that are more-or-less equivalent to the American doctorate.
The honorary degree has largely replaced the doctorate jure dignitatis as a means of societal outreach by the universities; be the recipients financial donors, distinguished alumni or simply celebrities who confer some element of glamour on the graduation ceremony. Conferring no academic standing, but nevertheless highly desirable as a professional accolade, it remains, in Franklyn’s phrase, “much-abused”. No institution now follows Franklyn’s strictures on the subject of awards, and it is notable that for many institutions conferment honoris causa is the only way in which higher doctorates are now used within the institution. It is interesting that in the USA there are now even websites that, for an appropriately substantial donation, will arrange for an accredited university to confer an honorary doctorate on a deserving recipient. Stories of similar situations at UK universities have appeared in the British press in recent years. Where universities need to raise funds, it is unsurprising that such a route is regarded as acceptable, since it does not confer academic status and thus does not compromise academic standards.
Today, the introduction of APEL and VAE methods to doctoral awards is serving to democratise them and move them back towards having a genuine social value rather than purely being the preserve of those pursuing an academic career. Institutions in France, the USA and elsewhere are introducing competency-based doctorates, regarding these as truly professional qualifications in that professional experience and accomplished work forms the foundation of the academic submission, just as in the doctorate jure dignitatis. Indeed, it may be seen that outcome-driven methodologies are even more readily applicable at the doctoral level than they are for first degrees (where they have been relatively long-established) not merely because of their historical precedent, but also because the leadership status the doctorate confers can be easily, tangibly and fairly assessed through published work, portfolio and other means already in operation elsewhere.
All this is seen in the context of remodelling the doctorate so that academic outcomes are privileged over processes – in other words, so that assessable learning and achievement is recognised as being worthy of academic credit no matter when or where it took place, even if that was outside the academic establishment. If one combines this development with the removal of universities from state control, there is no reason why the process could not become truly democratic without in any way lowering the measurable standard of achievement that it assesses.
A history of the modern doctorate may be found at
William James’s The Ph.D. Octopus may be found at: