For generations Christian ministers have pursued academic degrees and undertaken research with a number of motivations. For some it is the quest for knowledge and understanding, for others it is to gain a qualification, and perhaps more recently it has included thinking about the practice of ministry. The terminal degree is normally the PhD. This, in my opinion, is one of the problems for the past and present generations of professional Christian ministers.
This paper will consider the importance of the professional doctorate due to it enabling research that is focused on professional practice resulting in practice based outcomes as well as outcomes contributing to scholarship.
A case study of the development of the Cliff College Professional Doctorate (PhD in Missiology) will illustrate this journey.
Established by the Methodist Church in 1904, although not always within the mainstream of the denomination, Cliff College developed in the early 1990s from a traditional Bible College to a college whose academic programmes were validated by the University of Sheffield and then to the University of Manchester from 2004 onwards. The move to Manchester resulted from the desire to develop a small research programme into something much larger, and Manchester was able to facilitate this.
Today Cliff College, one of the two centres of the Discipleship and Ministries Learning Network of the British Methodist Church, has approximately 250 university related students with approx. 50 on a full-time BA Theology course, approx. 80 on a part-time BA in Mission and Ministry, approx. 90 on a MA in Mission programme, and as of June 2014 there will be 19 on a MPhil/PhD programme and 8 on a PhD Miss (Professional Doctorate) programme. It is the journey towards the professional doctorate programme and the rationale for its development that I wish to comment on.
What’s Wrong with a PhD?
Not much is the answer. I am happy to have one, as will many here and for centuries the PhD has been considered the final academic award that recognises an individual as a member of a scholarly community. At times we have been fixated on the PhD’s ‘original contribution to knowledge’ and so success was to have made what might be considered the definitive contribution on a subject, albeit recognising the preciseness of that subject, and that someone might well come along in a year or two’s time and further develop knowledge. Increasingly the scholarly community recognises the outcome of a PhD as entry into the academy more than the latest definitive thinking and so the candidate demonstrates ‘a deep knowledge and understanding of the field of study, and originality of thought either in the creation of new knowledge or in the novel application of existing knowledge’. Rather than the definitive word, the candidate demonstrates ‘a systematic acquisition and understanding of a substantial body of knowledge that is at the forefront of an academic discipline or area of professional practice’. More modestly, candidates will have ‘moved their subject forward, used research methods in a competent manner and generated some new knowledge within their subject area’.
A particular issue, which may or may not be a problem, is that some practitioners, after gaining a PhD, are attracted into further academic work and teaching. Why this may be a problem is that some excellent practitioners become much less involved in practice. An outcome of PhD study may be a reduction in practice excellence rather than an increase.