The rise of nontraditional doctoral programs

Dr. James P. Pappas
Vice President of Continuing Education
University of Oklahoma,
College of Continuing Education

The traditional doctorate, the PhD, is a product of the Middle Ages. It is a program of rigorous graduate study, culminating in the production of an academic equipped to function as a faculty member on a university campus. The nontraditional doctorate is something quite different and produces a different result: a practitioner. Aside from the Doctor of Medicine (MD) and the Juris Doctorate (JD), the first nontraditional doctorates, or practice doctorates, appeared in the United States in the 1900s: EdD (education), DBA (business), DEng (engineering), DHA (health administration), DPA (public administration), et al. These non-PhDs were conceived as advanced degrees for professionals and scholars who wished to pursue more practical roles in their chosen professions.

By “nontraditional doctorate” I mean an advanced degree that is unique because of its students (working professionals who do not reside on campus), program delivery (provided in compressed, online, hybrid, or other formats), needs served (those of practitioners, employees, association or union members, military personnel, or others), and/or end result (aiding practicing professionals).

As the world has grown more complex, so have the learning needs of adults who wish to be professionally and personally equipped for a continually changing global environment. Adults in a variety of professional fields have achieved bachelors and masters degrees for professional development and advancement in their careers. In fact, offering bachelors and masters degrees for adult students has long been the accepted practice among providers of adult and continuing education. Increasingly, so called “nontraditional students” have sought additional educational opportunities and advanced credentials for intellectual growth, career advancement, or both.

Nontraditional doctoral programs—packaged in a variety of formats (evening programs, accelerated courses, online and hybrid models, etc.)—have evolved in response to the needs of adult students. These programs combine academic rigor and applied knowledge, scholarship, convenience, and flexibility. The colleges and universities that respond to this increasing market have discovered a surprising number of committed students and new revenue streams. And these new nontraditional doctoral degree programs come.

In examining this issue, a colleague and I recently edited a monograph, Meeting Adult Learner Needs Through the Nontraditional Doctoral Degree, a volume in Jossey-Bass’s New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education series. Our authors examine the history of the nontraditional doctorate, what nontraditional doctorate students “look like,” faculty concerns with such degrees, and innovative practices and offer case studies of four institutions that have enjoyed differing success with these types of degrees. In my view the nontraditional doctorate will become, like the nontraditional student, the emerging norm and will well serve the specialized and advanced educational needs of larger numbers of future practice professionals. The twenty-first century will provide a fascinating laboratory for these and other higher education developments. 

Editor’s note: Meeting Adult Learner Needs Through the Nontraditional Doctoral Degree, edited by James P. Pappas and Jerry Jerman, is available from Jossey-Bass: josseybass.com

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