EUA Council for Doctoral Education


No future for the doctorate without uptake

This contribution argues that research uptake is essential for doctoral studies. The doctorate is a qualification that serves the needs of academia, government, private and public sectors and social communities. As Laetus O.K. Lategan writes, research uptake addresses the relevance of doctoral research and is a strong reminder of the doctorate’s contribution to the social contract, the usefulness of research for economic development and the imperative to move research away from a mono-disciplinary perspective. The importance of research uptake for doctoral education is based on the meaning, impact and value that new knowledge creation should have as an outcome of the research.

The doctorate is initiated through curiosity, and the outcomes of the resulting research contribute to knowledge creation. The construction of new knowledge is therefore the basis of doctoral education.

However, the doctorate serves more purposes than knowledge creation alone. It is “the licence” to become part of the academic community, the platform to innovate within the graduate curriculum and the basis to identify the scope of one’s research specialisation. The doctorate is not only of value for the academic community. Government and the private and public sectors benefit from doctoral education too. Research supports specialised activities to implement government policies, develop communities and transform knowledge into new products, which in turn, contribute to growing the economy. The leading role that doctoral qualified staff plays in all these activities is self-evident. Indeed, the doctorate is an “all rounder.”

Through the years the doctorate has transformed itself to meet various demands and needs in academia, government, business, industry and civil society. Evidently, a greater awareness has emerged to address the role of the doctorate in the workplace and to prepare for a career outside academia. The workplace is, after all, crucial for both developed and developing economies. Although its role in the workplace is not new to the “traditional doctorate”, the professional and/or industrial doctorate has contributed to a broader awareness of how doctoral research is relevant to the workplace.

A second claim is that the doctorate must subject itself to continuous transformation — be it as qualification, scope or curriculum. Whether the doctorate, as research, professional and/or industry-focused qualification, is preparing for teaching, researching, a professional career, or a combination thereof, there is one commonality that is fundamental for any doctoral programme: its uptake.

Research uptake is commonly understood as the dissemination and application of research results. Dissemination is usually through journal articles, conference presentations or conference proceedings. Application is part of implementing the research results, also known as technology transfer or innovation. Although there is a long list of definitions for research uptake, the crux of the term’s meaning is the usefulness of the research results. Research results must be useful for a particular field of study and the application to society. The outcomes of a doctorate cannot be without value for society. Should that be the case, then one can claim that the research was wasteful.

The next claim I am advocating is the relevance of the doctorate — whether for knowledge creation, knowledge application or the development of professional careers. The relevance of the doctorate has become the “raw material” for any economy — either developed or developing. Research uptake has become the driving force to secure the application and implementation of the doctorate’s research results.

Apart from these well-known aspects of research uptake, there are three more perspectives that can be linked to it.

An important question addressed by research uptake is who will benefit from the research and in what way institutions will benefit. Despite my view that doctoral research must be curiosity-driven, this in no way means that there is no or limited benefit as a result of the research outcomes. Benefit may be less of an issue for the sciences (for example, engineering and medicine) and more for the human and/or social sciences (for example, philosophy and art). But benefit should not be quantified. It is not about “how many” but rather “how much” of a difference is made. Both technological innovations (such as medical devices through 3-D printing) and social innovations (for example, new services or a way of thinking) benefit society.

Research uptake thus narrows the gap between the sciences, the humanities and social sciences: it may include a social innovation, like the application of care ethics to care givers and patients, or a technological innovation, like the redesign of a value chain for service delivery in healthcare. The claim here is that research uptake acknowledges knowledge creation in the context of multi-, inter- or trans-disciplinarity.

Research uptake cannot be removed from the social contract between doctoral researchers and society. Apart from being the “payback” to taxpayers for their support, it includes also a civil responsibility to contribute towards society and its institutions. I argue that the days that the research problem is informed either through identifying a gap in literature or challenging results based on empirical data are long over. Doctoral candidates’ research topics should be close to what is happening ‘on the ground.’

A snapshot of global challenges will confirm, for example, a growing elderly community. This development has tremendous challenges for public health policies. Accommodation, access to healthcare services, affordability of healthcare and integration into a community are but a few challenges to mention. These and many more topics are ideal for doctoral studies across disciplines and their traditional boundaries. The question, however, is how much attention is given to these or similar topics.

Research uptake is also an advocate for good research. Without useful results there is no way that government, business, industry or social communities can benefit. An indicator for quality in doctoral research is not only the training of the doctoral candidates but also the meaningfulness of the results and their impact on society. If the metaphor of “raw material” is again considered, the question would be if the research results are unique, competitive, useful and exportable.

Another unique feature of research uptake can be borrowed from “translational medicine” where new diagnostics, therapies or procedures can be built from the research results. This is known as translating results “from bench to bedside.” This should be applicable to all studies in their particular contexts.

Sustainability is more than a buzz word — it is a reality. If this remark is true, then research uptake is the sustainability factor for doctoral education.

My claim remains: there is no future for the doctorate without research uptake.

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Laetus O.K. Lategan

Credits: Central University of Technology, Free State.

Laetus O.K. Lategan is Senior Director for Research Development & Postgraduate Studies at the Central University of Technology, Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He holds a doctorate in Philosophy and Theology from the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. He has an extensive background in senior and executive management. His research areas include research ethics, healthcare ethics, applied ethics and doctoral education. He is the (co-)author of more than 200 publications in various disciplines and the editor of the Journal for New Generation Sciences (ISSN 1684-4998) and a South African National Research Foundation rated researcher. His most recent books include Get ready, Get set, Go! Preparing for your doctoral studies and doctoral education [2017, LOK Lategan (editor), SUN MeDIA: Bloemfontein] and Vulnerable Responsibility (2019. L Vanlaere, R Burggraeve and LOK Lategan, SUN MeDIA: Bloemfontein].