Eric Riedel, PhD, is the chief academic officer of Walden University. He oversees Walden’s academic support centers, academic governance, and the university’s efforts in assuring regional accreditation.

Historically, only a narrow range of students who fit into a very specific age group, demographic, and academic profile have pursued doctoral degrees—and almost exclusively for scholarly or academic reasons. Up until about the year 2000, the typical doctoral student was a 25-year-old, white, single male who studied full time. It was assumed that he would ultimately seek and obtain a tenure-track faculty appointment after graduation.

Today, the world of doctoral education looks very different.

Doctoral students today are more likely to be female and come from a range of backgrounds. We’ve also seen an increase in older students—between 1987 and 2007, the number of graduate students age 40 and older increased by 87%. Of these graduate students, many are already professionals with a decade or more of career experience. Though some are seeking to enter academia as part of a career change, many are pursuing their doctorate as a means to support an established, non-academic career path.

Their goals are different, too. Instead of using a doctorate to seek a university appointment, today’s graduate students want to enhance their existing careers by further developing their research and problem-solving skills. Some even go on to pursue research topics that fulfill their passions to contribute to the greater social good.

Whereas in the past doctoral students studied full time with few other obligations, more students are studying part time while maintaining full-time employment and personal responsibilities. Similar to other demographic shifts in higher education enrollment, we see doctoral students who are singularly devoted to their studies less often, and students who are balancing their professional and personal priorities more often.

In 2007, for the first time, women earned more doctorates than men in every ethnic and racial category. African-American and Hispanic degree holders of both genders have more than doubled since 1987. Through the rise of online learning environments—Walden among them—access to doctoral education has increased. No matter where students are in the world, they have access to quality education and options of institutions to attend. This improved access is partially responsible for the rise in international students pursuing graduate-level education. Student admissions from Africa, Brazil, Canada, Europe, India, and the Middle East have all increased in the past decade, and that trend is expected to continue. And of this growing faction, many are forging a path as the first in their families to earn an advanced degree.

So what is behind this shift in doctoral education? One factor is the shrinking availability of tenured faculty positions. In 1969, tenured and tenure-track positions made up approximately 78.3% of the university faculties in the U.S., and non-tenure-track positions accounted for about 21.7%, according to The American Faculty. Today, non-tenure-track faculty account for 75% of the instructional faculty at colleges and universities across the U.S.

Another factor is the increasing globalization of the workforce. With more workers competing, having an advanced degree to demonstrate applicable knowledge in a particular field is one way to gain an advantage. In general, there is an increasing need for higher levels of education in society. With decreasing resources coupled with a more competitive economy, a range of industries require evidence to support investments. For example, health insurance companies require research to prove that the treatments they’re paying for work. State and federal governments require evidence that educators are effectively teaching students. In a time of intense demand for financial resources, those holding the purse strings are requiring research to back up requests.

The Future
We will continue to see an increase in non-academic needs for doctoral education as there are more practical needs within industries that require and can benefit from professionals equipped with doctorates. A more interconnected world increases access to data and research, and the greater inclusion of stakeholders contributes to the need for scholar-practitioners who can thoughtfully manage and apply information in relevant ways to solve problems within communities, workplaces, and society.

The idea that engagement with the community outside of academia can lead to strengthened development of doctoral students has increasingly gained traction across doctoral programs. For example, research from the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate has highlighted the increasing commitment by programs to create “citizen-scholars” who use their research to create real-world impact. Walden has long required students to demonstrate the social change application of their dissertation or doctoral study research as part of the university mission.

The traditional form of the dissertation is also being reconsidered in doctoral education. Some institutions already accept peer-reviewed articles or books in lieu of a dissertation. Future developments may consider additional methods of disseminating or applying new knowledge. This year, the Council of Graduate Schools announced a partnership with ProQuest on a Best Practice project to explore the future of doctoral dissertations, which culminates in a 2-day workshop in January 2016.

Changes in technology, the workforce, and academia generally have brought about significant changes in the nature and purpose of doctoral education. Enrollment has become more inclusive and the application of the degree has become much broader. The challenge to make doctoral education relevant to the society in which its students and faculty live is one that’s well-aligned with Walden’s history and mission.

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