The Death of a Profession? The Doctoral Programme Amidst the Crisis of Higher Education

By Lakshmi Bose & Rebecca Gordon

One of the greatest gifts of the doctoral programme is the time and space to think deeply about what one wants to do in the world and how to go about doing so. Yet, staying committed to a doctoral programme  within the shadow of institutional racism, structural inequalities, and the overarching ‘crisis in HE’ which has led to necessary and prolonged strikes, leads to a particular type of reflection in which one asks: How are we, as political beings recast by academic professionalisation? How do the interactions and lessons enacted within the institution and our respective disciplines shape how we see the world? 

As part of our work with the Politics of Representation Collective, we interviewed PhD students across three UK universities who spoke of the enculturating process of the PhD, the vast disjuncture between expectations and experience, and how ‘regimes of representation’ are perpetuated and challenged within the PhD programme. Our book chapter on these findings, titled ‘Reflecting on Representation: Exploring Critical Tensions Within Doctoral Training Programmes in the UKmay be of interest for those who work with doctoral students, or are in or thinking of entering a doctoral programme. 

The chapter abstract summarises our focus: 

A recent resurgence of decolonisation movements and tensions between the university and wider civic spheres, alongside growing marketisation and internationalisation indicate critical tensions in higher education in the UK. Drawing on the concept of representation, defined as the process through which meaning is produced and exchanged (Hall, Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices. Sage, 1997), we focus on the central role of the university in knowledge production. We explore the experiences of doctoral students in the social sciences and humanities in the UK, who we position as new ‘knowledge-makers’. Using narrative inquiry and fictionalised vignettes, we found that doctoral training continues to perpetuate existing Eurocentric and masculinised forms of logic, or ‘regimes of representation’. Participants expressed concern over hegemonic knowledge cultures that often marginalised their epistemic vantage points. However, reflection on representation can be driven and fostered by collective action to create powerful subcultures of critical reflexivity. We argue that these must be incorporated within the design of doctoral training programmes.

We wanted to use our research to broaden the conversation, focus on the practicalities of the findings and discuss further ways to enhance the agonistic political potential of the doctoral programme. The key findings are:

  • Participants experienced higher education as a contested site of knowledge production that often upheld racialised and masculinised worldviews despite the ubiquity of postcolonial, decolonial, critical race and feminist critique.
  • The quality of the doctoral programme is deeply impacted by the participation and support of ‘critical’ faculty members in activities typically seen outside of the strict requirements of the ‘job.’
  • Providing funding AND additional forms of institutional support for pockets and groups of collective action plays a significant role in the ability for doctoral students to challenge these worldviews and build traction for political action through their research. 
    • Collective and community oriented pedagogical spaces were often seen as the most intellectually transformative and supportive part of the experience. 
  • There is insufficient attention paid to the wider sociopolitical implications of producing ‘knowledge makers’ – that is, doctoral programmes do not focus on the role of doctoral students in contributing to knowledge production and the impact this has on the world around them. This is particularly concerning given that those who undertake doctorates may go on to key policy-making positions, or if they remain in HE, in designing and distributing curriculums. 

Much of this reinforces findings from other studies. In relation to regimes of representation, decolonial activism and movements are leading the way and have long been calling for change; similarly, research has already focussed on the challenges and barriers to change. In recent months, important campaigning has highlighted the scale of these issues, through the #blackintheivory movement, and with students in many universities writing open letters to call out racism in their institutions. Higher education scholars have emphasised the current crisis due to the impact of marketisation, the increasing responsibilities delegated to academic staff, and the plight and increase of casualised staff. UCU are already focussed on these serious challenges that academia is facing. In addition to the many recommendations put forth in our research, participants stressed the importance of  funding and support for student collaborations that challenge regimes of representation and entrenched ways of thinking, more spaces for sustained peer-learning, which included the need for un-learning and re-learning for all faculty members, and increased attention on the role of doctoral students as ‘knowledge-makers’. But, what is the potential for realising such aims when the entire structure is in need of reform? 

Many argue that dismantling the whole system is the only solution, in light of its complicity in racial capitalism and neoliberalism and underlying logics of inequality and exclusion in the system. While we understand the thrust of such claims, we focus on the untapped political and transformative potential of the doctoral programme in moving towards a different type of university, as well as in questioning approaches and the aims of such a transformation. This angle envisions the doctoral programme as a unique point of political intervention, underpinned by the Arendtian concept of natality. If we consider the dilemmas of HE with a view to implement longer-term strategy, we must first recognise that knowledge creation and the creation of ‘knowledge makers’ is inherently political. Doctoral programmes need to acknowledge that this process reorganises our status as political actors and bestows a new embodied social responsibility through the awarding of a degree and new sociopolitical title connoting expertise. Yet, critical race and feminist studies will quickly tell us that all doctors are not awarded the same degree of authority of knowledge. Despite the qualification and the new name, the individual is still forced to operate within political realities that transpose notions of difference upon body markers. Thus it is a deceptive fallacy that one may maintain a private a-political life post-PhD as the whirlwinds of power-laden social inequalities leave none untouched. While the comforting illusion of a private life has its enticements, there is arguably much more to be gained by questioning the political nature of this process of professionalisation and how it shapes ‘knowledge makers’’ political capacities beyond the doctorate itself. 

In order to explore this further, we turn to the expertise of our fellow colleagues. Importantly we see this supposition in relation to wider disruptions needed in HE and its imaginary as opposed to an attachment to any particular institutions. To open the conversation, we invited responses to the following question from colleagues whose work or activism address the themes of this blog:

How does the doctoral programme need to change in order to effectively address both the crisis of HE and wider political issues of representation?

Below, we have linked some initial responses and wider reflections on this question. These responses are all hosted on the Politics of Representation blog.

“Acknowledging doctoral programmes as sites of knowledge transformation”
Sharon Walker, University of Cambridge



“Carving space for multiple knowledges in HE”
Consuelo Béjares, Ph.D. Student, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
Member of the Latin American Research in Education Collective – LAREC

“A joint ‘grammar’ to manage power, representation and expectations in UK doctoral education”
Aliandra Barlete, University of Edinburgh

“Giant Leap with Small Steps”
Seema Nath, Doctoral Student

Acknowledgement: We would like to thank all of our participants and ‘critical’ friends for their thoughts, expertise, and comments.