Back in the early 1990s when I was doing my PhD there was one main way in which to achieve a doctorate in the UK. That was to carry out original research as a “PhD student” for three or four years, write it up as a thesis, and then have an oral examination (viva). Even then the idea of being a “PhD student” was problematical because I was funded as a Postgraduate Teaching Assistant and to a large extent treated as a member of staff, with office space, a contributory pension scheme, etc. Was I a “student” or a member of staff or something in between?
Nowadays the ways in which one can obtain a Level 8 qualification have increased greatly. At the University of Northampton one can register for a traditional PhD, carry out a Practice-based PhD in the Arts (involving a body of creative work and a smaller thesis), or submit an existing set of publications for a PhD by Means of Published Works (“PhD by Publication”). There are also a couple of Professional Doctorates (“Prof Docs”): Doctor of Professional Practice in Health and Social Care (D Prof Prac) and Doctor of Business Administration (DBA). Other subject areas are looking at developing these types of degrees, for example in Education.
Some of the “PhD students” who are registered on these degrees fit the mould of the relatively young academic, fresh from a first degree or a Master’s programme. But many are older, especially on the Prof Docs (which attracts senior staff from business or the public sector), or might be members of staff at the university who teach and do research in areas where PhDs were not traditionally awarded. And then there are those who are studying for an MPhil, also a Level 8 research degree.
The University of Northampton is not alone in this regard and over the past 20 years the range of doctorates and other research degrees has broadened enormously. Those studying for a research degree even within the same Faculty may hardly be aware of one another, and some may be long-standing members of staff rather than “students” per se. It’s important, therefore, to note that there is no single postgraduate community within an institution. Rather we must recognise that there are communities of postgraduate researchers.
Not only that, but even those on a “traditional” PhD, who are not members of staff, interact with the university in ways such as involvement in teaching, staff-style email addresses and security cards, etc., that reflects a status that is beyond “student”. Members of academic staff who are registered for PhDs might certainly resent the idea of being called a “student”.
So for all of these reasons I’m going to try and stop referring to “PhD students” and instead use the term “Postgraduate Researchers” (PGRs). Because that’s what they are.
As always, I’m happy to receive your comments and views on this.