Ly Pham (2014)


PhD education is currently policy focus in many countries, including Vietnam. This results from increasingly aware of the importance of research capacity in the knowledge economy and national development. The 322 Program and 911 Project of Vietnam are the evidences of the commitment of Vietnamese government towards PhD education in Vietnam.

 However, PhD education is costly. The 911 Project, aimed at training 20,000 doctoral degree holders by 2020, was projected to spend 14 trillions VND (approximately 700 m. USD). There will be 10,000 people sent abroad; the rest will be studying in domestic programs and/or in a sandwich model. Therefore, there are critical questions needed to be addressed for the most efficient spending state budget: who will be offered PhD education, what programs should they be sent to, how to improve existing programs in country and/or creating new programs more suitable to Vietnam needs, and finally, how to make use of these people when they return home? The answers for such questions depend largely upon our doctoral imaginaries.   

 Doctoral imaginaries and PhD education issues are the topics for discussions at the symposium “Doctoral Imaginaries: Explorations Through Policies, Pedagogy and Practical” conveyed by Dr. Robin and Professor Cuthbert, School of Graduate Research, RMIT University, Australia, held in Melbourne in 12-12 December, 2014. This article is the reflections on the symposium, written by Ly Pham, which are aimed at highlighting key issues that have been discussed at the symposium.

 Following this symposium is the Vietnam Australia Roundtable on PhD Education: The Future of Research Collaboration”, to be held in February 7, 2015 at RMIT University Vietnam, within the Conference on Vietnam’ Higher Education Responding to a Changing World” held by the Center for Higher Education Evaluation and Research, NTTU. For more information, please visit the conference website tại đây.

 We would like to express our sincere thanks to Professor Denise Cuthbert for invitation of participarting the symposium, and are grateful to RMIT University (Australia) for financial support so that Dr. Ly Pham attendance was made possible. We also thank Professor Martin Hayden and Professor Sharon Parry for cooperation in study on PhD education in Vietnam.

Reflections and Comments on the Symposium “Doctoral Imaginaries: Explorations Through Policies, Pedagogy and Practical”


By Ly Pham

There have been three striking phenomenons recent years in PhD education around the world: first, it is the active role of government in planning for PhD training, setting ambitious goals of producing massive amount of PhD holders; second, the phenomenon of increasing doctorates working outside academia; and finally, the inflation of doctoral degree holders; in other words, the losing value of doctorate in the perception of general public. In particular, in some developing countries like Vietnam, in spite of lacking high-end skills professionals, the doctorate is not well respected as it was. A striking question seems obvious to everyone: Do we have too many, or too few doctorates? Underlying this question is a more important question: How do we perceive the doctorate? What are the doctoral imaginaries? What are the set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols common to a doctorate group and the corresponding society through which people imagine their social whole? What are our expectations toward the doctorates and what are their evolution over years? To what extend do the existing doctoral programs meet the needs of the society? If we need to change, what options do we have? These are issues discussed in the symposium entitled “Doctoral Imaginaries: Explorations Through Policies, Pedagogy and Practical” held by the School of Postgraduate Research, RMIT University, Australia, in Melbourne, December 11-12, 2014, with participation of the international scholars from Australia, UK, New Zealand, Ethiopia, Malaysia and Vietnam. This article is the reflection and comments on the issues discussed at the symposium.

Doctoral Conceptualization and PhD education models

First, there was an overview on the divergence and convergence in PhD education around the world, presented by Professor Denise Cuthbert, as the Dean, the School of Graduate Research of the RMIT (Australia). The arisen knowledge economy has led to repositioning doctoral education as an important component of research and innovation system of the country. This has great implications to our understanding about doctoral education and managing this process. Knowledge economy also makes universities research capacity to become core of policy agendas in all levels: institutional, regional and global. In other words, doctoral education has becoming a political issue around the world.

Therefore, since 90s we have observed the unprecedented political concern with research capacities of HE and the PhD education in particular at global, regional and national levels, not only in EU but also especially in developing countries and emerging economies such as ASEAN, South Africa. Cuberth has identified over 200 policy texts related to the PhD in the period from 1996 to present, in Australia alone, at least 30 major policy statements by national, sectoral (HE, industry) and instructional actors in the period since 1998. European organisations such as LERU, EUA also have extensive policy activities for strengthening PhD education. Asian countries are even more extensive: Korea with Brain Korea aimed at 1300 PhD graduates annualy between 1998-2005; Malaysia targeted 60,000 PhD degree holders by 2020, Vietnam set a goal for 20,000 PhD degree holders by 2020, as the same as India, by 2023. Zimbabue requires its faculty members having doctorates by 2015. South Africa has proven considerable attention about PhD education and sees it as a driver of economic performance (Denise Cuthbert and Tebeje Molla, Australia).

At the same time, it is increasing the question on how well the doctorates serve the need of knowledge economy, the posibilities of making use their expertise, and doctorate employability. Traditional imaginaries see the doctorates as professional researchers; their mission is to pursuing knowledge and expanding scholarship border, “research for its own sake”, in extreme case, those scientists directed their work towards helping people in contempt, to be seen “intellectual prostitutes” (Dugatkin, 1999), that is, selling science for the mundane, everyday wants.

The extreme perception of the “ivory tower” people today almost no longer exists. However, it reflects a reality that during many decades, universities and research institutes are almost the only workplace for doctorates. Today, knowledge economy requires highly skilled workforce in research and innovation, knowledge application and transfer. It seems that the business sector beyond university border increasingly need people those highly trained in research capacity such as the PhD degree holders. The traditional mode of PhD education delivery has not paid attention to training the doctorates for the flexible and diverse skills to meet the needs of the world of work beyond the university territories. They are not trained even in basic skills such as mentoring research students or lecturing. Therefore, there has been a gap between the existing PhD education delivery mode and what the doctorates can contribute to the world of work.

In Europe, PhD education is no longer just an academic matter but a goal in university management and national policy. The number of PhD degree holders is being seen as an indicator of the university performance as well as national research capacity. Barbara Kehm (University of Glasgow, UK) argued that, in the context of Bologna Process, people are increasingly critical of the traditional PhD education: too narrow, to much focus on the thesis rather paying more attention to the training process. Kehm pointed out that in European, PhD education has become multiplicative of purposes and models. Altogether nine different models have been identified:  The (traditional) research doctorate; the taught doctorate; the PhD by published work (cumulative dissertation); the (increasingly popular) professional doctorate; the practice-based doctorate (in Arts and Design); the “new route“ doctorate (“fast track“); the joint doctorate/European doctorate; the cooperative doctorate; the industrial doctorate.

This dirverse signal is a functional of stratification and shows that PhD education is no longer just reproduction workforce for academic profession as before. However, other types of research doctorates have been critised as lacking in rigour. This leads to a question: what is a PhD?

Another trend in a developing country such as Vietnam, that is doctorate degree is to be seen a “luxury jewelries” (Ly Pham, VNU-HCM, Vietnam and Sharon Parry, Southern Cross University, Australia). Moreover, the evolution in social attitude towards the PhD degree holders, one third of PhD students studying abroad with state scholarship did not return to their home country; or to return home with no appropriate job placement; only one third of doctorates working in academia; are the facts that urge re-thinking about doctorate concepts.

“Doctorate” embraces the research activities. But, what does “research” mean? Ross Gibson (University of Canberra, Australia) quoted the two definitions of research, one by NZ Tertiary Education Performance-Based Research Working Group (2002): “Research is original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. It typically involves enquiry of an experimental or critical nature driven by hypotheses or intellectual position capable of rigourous assessment. It is an independent, creative, cumulative, and often long-term activity conducted by people with specialist knowledge about the theories, methods and information concerning their field of enquiry. Its findings must be open to scrutiny and formal evaluation, and this may be achieved through publication or public presentation. In some fields, the results of the investigations may be embodied in the form of an artistic work, design or performance. Research includes contributions to the intellectual infrastructure of subjects and disciplines (eg. dictionaries and scholarly editions). It also includes the experimental development of design or construction solutions, as well as investigation that leads to new or substantially improved materials, device, products or processes”.

The second one provided by Australian Federal Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (2011): “Research is defined as the creation of new knowledge in a new and creative way so as to generate new concepts, methodologies and understandings. This could include synthesis and analysis of previous research to the extent that it leads to new and creative outcomes”.

Based on the two definitions, we might reshape perception of PhD as well as the training procedures, modes of delivery, assessment criteria, depending on various purposes.

Denise Curbert provided a new PhD imagination in the knowledge economy as something contrary to the traditional PhD. The differences that she pointed out are as follow:

Traditional PhD PhD in Knowledge Economy
Mode 1 knowledge production Mode 2 knowledge production
Scholarly/academic value Economic value/capacity to drive innovation
Deep disciplinary/scholarly knowledge Impact, innovation, knowledge transfer, industry engagement
Governance within universities and assessment by peer review External accountabilities and intervention – government and industry
Reproduction of academy Research and innovation labour force
Originality, contribution to knowledge, rigour, quality Relevance, impact, commercialisation potential

The idea of having various types of PhD, and career paths for research students is common between many presenters of the symposium. Barbara Kehm (University of Glasgow, UK), Morshidi Sirat (National Higher Education Research Institute, Malaysia), Ly Pham (Vietnam National University HCMC, Vietnam) and Tebeje Molla (Deakin University, Australia) raised the needs of diversification of PhD education to serve the knowledge economy. In the context of Vietnam, it is actually wasteful if learners taking PhD training for the degree only, in which what they learn has very little meaning toward what they really need for the job they actually pursuing. There should have other paths, other approaches, and other pedagogies that lead to more relevant outcomes for research students and for the society at large. In the context of Malaysia and Sub-African countries, the diversification might have focus on the relationship between universities and industry, while in Vietnam, it should focus on the relationship between university and social and community, given the fact that many doctorates do not work in academia, neither businesses, but in public administration sector.

Doctoral imaginaries from the perspectives of pedagogical and reality

 The symposium also discussed the values, norms, expectations and practices that academics and society create for the PhD degree holders, as well as the PhD training program and processes.

Firstly is the matter of motivation. Robyn Barnacle and Denise Cuthbert (RMIT University, Australia) conducted a study among 403 research fellows in their middle career. This study aimed at exploring affective or emotional dimensions of research and, specifically, the issue of what drives and motivates researchers to do what they do. The findings of the study suggest that although researchers are motivated by a range of factors – from personal satisfaction to altruistic necessity – the emphasis is on the former. This raises the question of what motivations might be desirable in researchers and specifically, what role research education programs might play in fostering these.

From the perspectives of the research students, what are their beliefs and hopes? What are implications by their experiences in pursuing doctoral degree? Cat Mitchell (University of Auckland, New Zealand) addressed their aspirations, especially for those who are the first in their family to participate university education. For many of them, pursuing doctoral degree is a dream. These dreams and hopeful engagement with universities seemed to strongly underpin their drive and commitment to study despite the challenges they encountered. They choose to pursue the doctoral degree as it is seen as a bridge to a decent job that is rewarding. These imaginaries are built upon university context (shaped by university policies, admissions, charters, and so on) as well as a larger context (novels, films, media, etc…) that identified what is a PhD in general public perception. (Frances Kelly, University of Auckland, New Zealand).

In PhD supervision, Catherin Manathunga (Victoria University, Australia) explored the possibilities of an intercultural doctoral education as a key site for the development of Southern knowledge imaginaries. Global economy has led to increasing international research students. More and more PhD supervisers work with research students who come from totally different cultural backgrounds.  Therefore the supervisors should realize the interdependence of knowledge, time, and location. She encouraged the Western scholars to challenge the beliefs on “universal” knowledge that is seen true in any ages and anywhere. Another reality is that, doctoral is being colonised steadily by an impoverished utilitarian imaginary (Barbara Grant, University of Auckland, New Zealand). America, UK, Australia are using their international research students to conduct various research for innovation, sometimes see them as cheap highly skilled labor. The relationship between supervisors and their research students might be different in a wide range between the two extremes. As PhD candidates are expected to do independent studies, there are some supervisors who might contribute a great deal but has not mentioned sufficiently. In contrast, there are supervisors almost give no instruction. Therefore, the quality of PhD supervision is of concerns of many universities. Since 1985, University of Auckland in New Zealand has the Senate Guidelines on thesis supervision. This document has been revised several times between 1992-2014, increased from 1 page to 5 pages! Through 5 times of revision, the list of “should do” jumped from 8 to 22 items (Barbara Grant, University of Auckland).

The reality mentioned above shows that the picture of PhD education has been changed significantly over recent decades but not everyone realizes that. In last 20 years the national policy of many countries has converged on focusing the importance of PhD education, seeing that as an critical driver for economic development of the country. Knowledge economy is a prominent factor promoting PhD education and putting on them the enourmous requirements in research, application and transferring knowledge, as well as leading innovation and improving productivity. This situation stimulates reconsideration of imaginaries, expectations and values that we expect from doctorates as an apex of the scholarship. It is surprising that little research has been done on this issue. The symposium is a small forum of a handful of scholars who has multidisciplinary backgrounds and strong commitment to research. This is an endeavor to seek an answer for unanswered questions that might lead to more responsive and adapted policy in PhD education to meet the needs, expectations and changes in the society.