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A brief history of the doctorate

If you are working in doctoral education, as administrator, supervisors, higher education professional or in whatever position which places you in close contact with postgraduate education, chances are you are taking “doctorate” or “PhD” as something for granted and commonly understood. This will most likely be true if you are (relatively) new in this job. However, believe it or not, doctorate was not always what it is today. The form it has today, although it can vary a lot from country to country, was very different just twenty years ago. Transferable skills, multiple supervision, quality assurance, career development, different funding possibilities, internationalization, different models of doctorate – these are all relatively new characteristics of the doctorate. Here we will give a brief history of the doctorate, from its beginning in mediaeval ages to the various forms it has today.

Early beginnings
Let’s start with the word itself – the doctorate. The term comes from Latin docere, which means “to teach”. The term for this academic degree in medieval Latin was licentia docendi, meaning “license to teach” (usually Latin), which was the earliest form of academic degree and is connected to emergence of universities from gilds in Middle Ages [1]. “Doctor” originally meant no more than “teacher”. Here is an interesting thing – term “license to teach” is a direct translation from the original Arabic term, ijāzat at-tadrīs. But in Arabic it had a very specific meaning, license to issue legal opinions and was exclusive to religious law – there was no other doctorate (or license to teach) in any other field. According to Makdis (but disputed by others, for example [2]), the doctorate was “invented” in 9th century Islam, and it had not existed anywhere before [3]. Whatever the truth is, the doctorate, as it became known in Western civilizations in the Middle Ages, was very different from Islamic type in two fundamental ways. In Islam, student was studying with a master of his choice (who was a person of great authority), who then gave his approval on the student, while European universities established a non-personal examination system within and between universities (much like today). Secondly, in contrast to its beginnings in Islamic madrasas, in West it was not limited only to (religious) law, but extended to all the faculties: theology, medicine, literary arts, as well as law.
During the thirteenth century, a system of degrees come into being at the universities then in existence. The three grades common to all universities were Scholar, Bachelor, and Doctor (sometimes called Master or Professor, used as synonyms). During the fourteenth century, the title ‘Doctor’ began, particularly in southern Europe, to be used instead of ‘Master’ for the highest degree in faculties (not all faculties, for example theology and arts had a different degrees). The very first doctorate in Western civilization was awarded around 1150 in Paris. But the doctorates in Middle Ages were much different than what we now consider a doctorate. To begin, it was not the highest qualification, because it was the only qualification [4]. Secondly, what was missing from that early form of doctorate was the originality of the research. This is of course to be expected due to the origins of universities and their purpose in those times – which was mastery of already known knowledge. Research was done in free time, and scholars working at universities were mostly teaching children, usually those of rich parents, to support themselves.

Here comes the PhD
Things started to change in 19th century, when a new kind of doctoral degree was introduced – Philosophia Doctor, doctor of philosophy, or PhD. Word “philosophy” in its title had a much broader meaning when the term was introduced, but it was originally awarded only to students in philosophy which soon changed. Although this form of doctorate existed in Germany before 19th century (it developed in 17th century), it was Wilhelm von Humboldt who in the beginning of 19th century transformed PhD into what we know today. In 1810, he founded the first university which combined teaching with research, initially named University of Berlin and now called Humboldt University. Until then, universities in Europe, but also in North America, Canada and Australia, were focused on teaching, and not research. In Germany, which at that time had dominant influence on higher education systems of many European and world countries, Humboldt’s view of university was one of becoming a scholar, or personal development through education. PhD represented a completion of an apprenticeship, and took many years to complete [5].This first modern research university adapted the PhD model into the highest academic degree which required original research as its integral part. It introduced Humboldtian concept of unity of research and teaching, in which teaching and research should go hand in hand [6].
This model of doctorate quickly spread to other countries, most notably to the USA, where it was adopted and adapted by universities. American model of PhD was different from German model as it consisted of course work and the dissertation, while German model was dissertation by thesis alone. Yale University awarded the firs PhD in USA in 1861 and other American universities including Harvard, Michigan and Pennsylvania soon followed. Before 1861, Americans went to Europe, especially Germany, for advanced education and to receive the doctorate. In the beginning of 20th century PhD spread from USA to Canada and Australia, and then in 1917 to the UK by Oxford University.

Modern developments
Until the 1960s, two models of PhD – American and Humboldtian – coexisted. In the mid-1960s through 1970s, doctoral education was growing rapidly, both in Europe and in other parts of the world. This trend was motivated by an increasing demand for scientist and university staff and supported by research funding. But by the end of 1970s, overall growth of higher education came to an end, and major decline in the state funding of research occurred worldwide [7].This forced universities to look for other means of funding, and, eventually, led to what is now known as “marketization” of higher education – introducing market-inspired funding mechanism and private money into higher education [8]. New forms of PhD were introduced, for example, PhD by publication, but also “professional doctorate”, developed to reach professionals working, the “practice-based doctorate”, which aimed to reach artists, and the “new route Ph.D.” that targeted to increase the international market [9].
In the 1990s, doctoral education came under intensive focus of national higher education policies, questioning its quality, purpose and future. In USA, a national survey was conducted in 1999, with alarming findings – doctoral students reported inadequate research training, not being able to publish, not prepared for career outside of academia, poor conditions of work and low salaries [9]. Not long after USA other countries surveyed the state of doctoral education and experience of doctoral students. In UK, Roberts Report in 2002 recommended improving employability of doctoral candidates, which was the foundation for doctoral education reform in UK. in Australia, challenges facing doctoral students were found to be similar to those reported in the USA. In Europe, doctoral education came under review even before USA. In 1992, the Ministers of Education of five EU member states (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, France and the Netherlands) agreed on improving the transparency and adjusting the existing systems of doctoral studies, emphasizing its critical role in the development of knowledge based society. These ideas were then further developed during Bologna meetings in Berlin (2003) and Bergen (2005), changing and enhancing its structure, quality, content and overall experience for doctoral students. More initiatives followed which were most notably EUA-backed, resulting in the reform of doctoral education in Europe and making it into form we know today.

[1] C. H. Haskins, The Renaissance of the 12th century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1957.
[2] T. E. Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
[3] G. Makdisi, ‘Scholasticism and Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 109, no. 2, pp. 175–182, 1989.
[4] C. Park, ‘New Variant PhD: The changing nature of the doctorate in the UK’, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, vol. 27, no. July 2015, pp. 189–207, 2005.
[5] S. Blume and O. Amsterdamska, ‘Post-Graduate Education in the 1980s.’ OECD Publications and Information Centre, Washington, 1987.
[6] R. Pritchard, ‘Humboldtian values in a changing world: staff and students in German universities’, Oxford Review of Education, vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 509–528, Dec. 2004.
[7] S. Blume, ‘The Development and Current Dilemmas of Postgraduate Education’, European Journal of Education, vol. 21, no. 3, p. 217, 1986.
[8] D. Dolenec, ‘Marketization in higher education policy: An analysis of higher education funding policy reforms in Western Europe between 1980 and 2000’, Revija Za Socijalnu Politiku, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 15–35, 2006.
[9] C. P. Matas, ‘Doctoral Education and Skills Development : An International Perspective’, REDU. Revista de Docencia Universitaria, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 163–191, 2012.

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