Beyond Theory – The Practical Value of a PhD: Insights from a Torrens University Education Professor and PhD Supervisor

Beyond Theory - The Practical Value of PhD's for Educators: Insights from a Torrens University Education Professor and PhD Supervisor

Educators are some of the most practical people in the world. They are always problem-solving, strategizing, designing, mediating and managing relationships.

There’s not a lot of time for theoretical musings when you’ve got five classes to manage per day. But, as every educator knows – what happens on the ground level is shaped by policy and pedagogy. It’s inescapable – the theory is present on every level, no matter how practical the task at hand.

No-one is more aware of the relationship between practice and theory than Professor Tim Moss, the Program Director in Education at Torrens University. Tim has spanned the dual roles of educator and academic during the 15 years he’s worked in higher education. Alongside the Dean of Education, Mick Grimley, Tim will be supervising new students as they embark on a PhD in their chosen area of Education at Torrens.

Tim has extensive experience in online and blended modes of delivery and has taught in areas ranging from Literacy and English Education through to university preparation, research methods, Drama curriculum, and the role of schools in society. His experiences in the two worlds of theory and practice have inspired him to focus particularly on innovative approaches to learning and teaching.

From Tim’s point of view, it’s essential to apply theory to the practical reality of educational environments– and a PhD offers a means of testing that in a controlled way.

“Like all courses at Torrens, we very much believe in the value of application – of taking your learning and putting it into practice. It’s often during this application where your learning comes to life. We certainly support students in designing projects that value and incorporate practical and applied areas of focus. Also, we believe in the value of learning together, so we offer a ‘cohort-based’ Ph.D. experience – where we bring together all Education Ph.D. students several times for workshops, discussions, and to provide a community that can support each individual.”

Previously, a PhD has been considered a level of education only relevant to those wishing to pursue an academic career in a specialized field. Recently, however, that’s begun to change with growing recognition of the transferable skills and problem solving-capacities of Doctorate holders.

Recent research found that those with a Doctorate working in non-academic settings were more likely to report that the skills and knowledge developed during the PhD enabled them to make a difference in the workplace. Skills such as creative problem solving, critical reasoning, and sustained, in-depth analysis are essential to innovation across all sectors – including education. In a global economy increasingly geared towards knowledge and innovation, this skill set is gaining value.

A PhD is often considered as a key milestone in establishing a career as an academic – so for those interested in working in a university or taking on other kinds of academic work, it’s something you would be expected to hold or be working towards. However, we’re increasingly seeing practitioners in educational settings interested in pursuing PhDs as well – it’s a fantastic opportunity to take a really ‘deep dive’ into an area of interest and relevance, and shows to potential employers that you have the capacity to plan, implement, and manage an extended project that involves many complex parts. It also shows expertise, which is something that many are starting to look for in educational leaders.”

The field of education itself is becoming increasingly diverse, with many different opportunities for specialized areas of knowledge.

Recognising this, Torrens University has developed a whole raft of short courses, graduate certificates and masters courses on topics ranging from autism to mental health, innovation and change, design thinking and new technologies in education. It’s an exciting time to bring different disciplines together.

“It’s really up to the individual to find their passion and to identify the area that they will contribute to. Having said that, they need to be matched to effective supervisors who have some knowledge of their field. At Torrens, we have supervision expertise in higher education pedagogy and leadership. We would also have expertise in digital teaching and learning, innovation in schools, technology and education, and student engagement. Some of these are relatively recent areas, particularly around innovation and change, and lend themselves well to students who actually want to explore the practical implications of a topic – perhaps through applied action/research approaches (again we have expertise in supervising these kinds of projects). We’re very flexible thinkers, and so even if the topic seems a little ‘out of left field’, I’m sure we can think of an angle that might form the basis of a great PhD.”

We’re facing some serious challenges on all levels of education in this country; Economic disparities between schools; the need for a 21st-century curriculum; growing diagnosis of learning conditions and an increasing demand for flexible learning, just to name a few. Australia needs PhD level policymakers and administrators who blend innovative ideas with practice as educators.

The pedagogy that drives policy must be informed by experience gained in the classroom or it won’t be effective when applied to reality.

The relationship between theory and practice should be a circular one, with an effective feedback system. Unfortunately, the information flow can sometimes be one-way. In Tim’s opinion, this is why a PhD can be such a valuable resource. Students have the capacity to test established the pedagogy that may not have been adequately examined in practice.

“The fantastic thing about a PhD is that it really does provide an opportunity to undertake sustained inquiry into something that really matters to you, and to your setting. So when you combine this with our interest in, and capacity to support, PhDs that involve applied research and making real change, this creates an opportunity for individuals to become change agents in their own settings.This is an exciting thought – we can change schools for the better from within, and develop education experts who are able to bridge the gap that sometimes exists between theory and practice.”

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