An emerging PhD curriculum and what this might mean for doctoral level threshold concepts

Margaret Mary Kiley


Until recently the PhD in Australia consisted mainly of individual study and research with a supervisor and optional attendance at university/faculty workshops. However, over the past five years universities have begun introducing forms of coursework, often with mandatory attendance by candidates and sometimes incorporating work from existing Professional Doctorates.  With these developments in Australia there has been an opportunity to examine this more formal approach to learning to undertake research and the possible role of Threshold Concepts in the related curriculum and pedagogy.

It was hypothesised that universities would focus their coursework on those areas which they considered significant and from there embed into the assessment the various Threshold Concepts identified in learning to be a researcher. To test the hypothesis three cases were used as examples from different Australian universities with different doctoral cohorts and different forms of coursework. Of the research-related areas of focus all three universities included the Threshold Concepts of research paradigm, framework, knowledge creation/originality, theory and writing. On the other hand, the Threshold Concepts of argument/thesis, analysis, creativity and ‘doctorateness’ were not readily evident in the case analysis. Of particular interest was the inclusion of mandatory courses in research integrity in all cases, although this has not yet been identified as a Threshold Concept.

 However, the evident focus on flexibility and personalising the learning programs, even where there were required courses, reflects the strong view of many supervisors in Australia that the PhD is an individualised learning program negotiated between candidate and supervisor.

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