Professional doctorate: combining professional practice with scholarly inquiry.
Abstract: Professional doctorates in occupational therapy and physiotherapy in the United Kingdom offer a practice-based qualification equivalent in status to a PhD. Their aim is to develop professional practice and contribute to professional knowledge. Two doctorate journeys illustrate how applied research added both to each profession's knowledge base and to practice. Their learning was enhanced by interprofessional peer support. It is argued that the professional doctorate is an attractive option for a senior practitioner in clinical practice, management or higher education who wants to influence practice.

Key words:

Professional doctorate, professional practice, research.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Doctoral degrees (Evaluation)
Occupational therapists (Education)
Occupational therapists (Licensing, certification and accreditation)
Occupational therapists (Vocational guidance)
Medical colleges (Services)
Professional development (Methods)
Authors: Morley, Mary
Petty, Nicola J.
Pub Date: 04/01/2010
Publication: Name: British Journal of Occupational Therapy Publisher: College of Occupational Therapists Ltd. Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 College of Occupational Therapists Ltd. ISSN: 0308-0226
Issue: Date: April, 2010 Source Volume: 73 Source Issue: 4
Topic: Event Code: 930 Government regulation; 360 Services information
Product: Product Code: 8221220 Doctoral Degrees NAICS Code: 61131 Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United Kingdom Geographic Code: 4EUUK United Kingdom
Accession Number: 224520530
Full Text: Introduction

An occupational therapy manager and a physiotherapy educator entered a new programme of study at the University of Brighton, which offered a professional doctorate in occupational therapy (DOccT) and in physiotherapy (DPT). They were the first professionally named doctorates for these professions in the United Kingdom (UK). The authors argue that engagement in the course offered a valuable alternative to the traditional PhD route. They expanded their research capabilities, enabling them to contribute to the profession's knowledge base as well as to professional practice. In addition, learning was enriched by interprofessional peer support.

The professional doctorate qualification

The professional doctorate aims to develop an individual's professional practice and to support him or her in producing a contribution to (professional) knowledge (Quality Assurance Agency 2001). A range of professional doctorate titles is offered by higher education institutions in the UK, including the doctorate in education (EdD), and the programmes have been undertaken by some health professionals as well as educators.

The professional doctorate award has emerged owing to the limited applicability of the PhD qualification for advanced professional work outside academia (Green and Powell 2005). It aims to address the needs of professionals concerned with the advancement of research evidence within practice and to offer a qualification, equivalent in status and challenge to a PhD, that is focused on professional practice and the generation of practice knowledge (Bourner et al 1999). It therefore seeks to develop 'researching professionals' rather than, as with the traditional PhD, to develop 'professional researchers' (Bourner et al 2001, p71). In the current political climate, researching practitioners are essential to the survival of the health professions. A robust knowledge base gives a profession authority, legitimacy, persuasiveness and political leverage (van de Meene 1978, 1988, Higgs and Titchen 2001).

Professional knowledge creation

A profession's knowledge base can be considered in terms of three types of knowledge: propositional or scientific knowledge generated through scholarship or research, professional craft knowledge and personal knowledge, each augmented by critical reflection on professional and life experiences (Eraut 1994, Higgs and Titchen 2001).

The technical rationality view of practice (Schon 1987, 1991), grounded in positivism, has privileged scientific knowledge over professional craft and personal knowledge. In contrast, the professional artistry view of practice (Schon 1987, 1991, Fish 1998, Fish and Coles 1998), grounded in subjectivism, acknowledges the value of all types of knowledge. It assumes that professional knowledge is socially constructed by practitioners and applied to specific clinical situations, which are uncertain and unpredictable (Schon 1987, 1991).

From the stance of professional artistry, the enhancement of a profession's knowledge base depends on developing the capability of practitioners to generate knowledge in and from practice (Kennedy 1987, Schon 1987, 1991, Eraut 1994, Fish and Coles 1998, Rolfe 1998, Billett 2001). This approach synergises the strengths of knowledge and practice, bridging rather than dividing the two, and reflects the professional doctorate programme.

Two doctorate journeys illustrate the contribution of work-based research to professional practice. The 4-6 year programme is delivered on a part-time basis in two stages. In the first 2 years, the student completes three assignments: one to identify a research question and the second to explore appropriate methodologies, followed by a small-scale pilot study. The final years concentrate on the completion of a practice-based research study written up in the form of a 50,000-word thesis and a viva examination.

Two journeys

The occupational therapist's journey

An occupational therapy manager in the National Health Service (NHS) was involved in the early implementation of the NHS employment contract. This introduced preceptorship for occupational therapists in their first year of practice and provided a new area of study in occupational therapy in the UK. During the first stage of the course, the literature review from the first assignment informed a small-scale action research study to design a preceptorship programme (Morley 2007). In stage two, the preceptorship programme was evaluated within a realist research framework and published as a thesis.

The research findings were used to identify improvements to the preceptorship programme and have informed a revised version of the preceptorship handbook (College of Occupational Therapists 2009). The programme is now being delivered across many occupational therapy services in the UK and has been adapted for allied health professions.

The outcomes of this practitioners' study show that new knowledge can be generated within the workplace and can make a real difference to practice (Morley 2007). Skills were developed in research techniques, leading to greater confidence in presenting work for peer review. However, the most significant learning relates to a deepening appreciation of the tensions between different research paradigms and the need for practitioners to make visible the very real knowledge generated by applied practice-based research.

The physiotherapist's journey

A physiotherapy lecturer in higher education was course leader of an MSc in Neuromusculoskeletal Physiotherapy. This professionally recognised practice-based MSc enabled alumni to achieve extended scope practitioner and consultant roles in the NHS. During the first stage of the course, the literature review from the first assignment identified a limited understanding of the learning process of the students undertaking such a course and the way in which practitioners develop clinical expertise. A small-scale exploration of the impact of the course on two alumni was conducted to explore their learning experience. This was continued into stage two and resulted in an explanatory theory of the learning transition of alumni on completion of the MSc (Petty 2009).

The doctorate was completed in the early part of 2009 and so the impact of the research has yet to be realised. At a local level, however, through its findings it has influenced course delivery. It has guided the selection process and helped the students to set realistic expectations of the course. It has informed the course tutors on the dynamics of the learning journey of students both in the classroom and on practice placement. This understanding, while not formally evaluated, may potentially enhance the learning experience of students completing the course. On a more personal level, the completion of the doctorate has enabled the author to take up the role of Programme Leader of a Professional Doctorate in Health and Social Care.

Interprofessional peer support

These journeys highlight the contribution that the professional doctorate can make to professional knowledge. In addition, the programme incorporates learning within an interprofessional context, which offers an additional benefit not afforded by the traditional PhD route. The student undertakes the research activity within his or her own work environment as an experienced practitioner. However, the student also joins a 'community of practice' (Lave and Wenger 1991) of students from a wide range of professions. The students have regular opportunities to explore issues of scholarly and research interest through seminars and action learning sets. This facilitates peer support and learning and may be an advantage over the traditional PhD route, which is often described as a lonely experience (Phillips and Pugh 2000).

The value of peer support and learning cannot be underestimated and is of particular relevance to the NHS reforms, with integrated patient care necessitating blurred professional boundaries (Department of Health 2000). Although practitioners on a doctorate programme work at a senior level, there is often limited scope for reflection on one's changing professional identity within the highly dynamic work environment. The creation of a professional identity is complex and is thought to be constructed through reflexive practice and collaborative dialogue with colleagues (Mackey 2007). To work in a truly collaborative way, practitioners need to reach a state of professional adulthood in which they have enough confidence to share knowledge and relinquish exclusive claims to territory (Barrett et al 2005). Through participation in the professional doctorate's interprofessional community of practice, experienced practitioners are able to re-evaluate their understanding of their own professional identity and to extend their skills in interprofessional working. This has led to sustained collaboration across institutional boundaries and prompted joint working, as in the case of this paper.


The case studies of two very different journeys on the professional doctorate have allowed both authors to combine scholarly inquiry with professional practice in an environment that meets the demands of their work roles. The applied nature of the professional doctorate, which investigates and explores research questions in, and from, professional practice, not only adds to the profession's knowledge base but also advances professional practice. The richness of learning from, and with, other professionals is an additional benefit not afforded by the more typical PhD journey. This collaborative interprofessional learning is believed to strengthen the students' personal understanding of their own professional identity as well as to enhance their potential for effective interprofessional working. This makes the professional doctorate an attractive option for a senior practitioner in clinical practice, management or higher education who wants to influence practice.


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Mary Morley (1) and Nicola J Petty (2)

(1) South West London and St George's Mental Health NHS Trust, London.

(2) University of Brighton.

Corresponding author: Dr Mary Morley, Director of Therapies, South West London and St George's Mental Health NHS Trust, Springfield University Hospital, 1st Floor, Admission Block, 61 Glenburnie Road, London SW17 7DJ. Email:

Reference: Morley M, Petty NJ (2010) Professional doctorate: combining professional practice with scholarly inquiry. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 73(4), 186-188.

DOI: 10.4276/030802210X12706313444063
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