The ‘Professionalization’ of Academic Teaching and the Challenges for PhD graduates

Tom J. Kehoe, University of New England: 

The academic profession is changing rapidly creating challenges for Australian doctoral programs and their graduates. Reflecting university requirements, hiring committees often seek impeccable credentials in discipline research and in teaching, including in course design and knowledge of relevant higher education literature. Applicants for first lectureships should have taught extensively–including online–and developed curricula. Terms like “blended” and “flipped” learning should be familiar. Formal qualifications like a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education are often expected.

Despite these requirements, education expertise is not emphasised in Australian doctoral training. Instead, completing the thesis in three years remains the priority. There is a financial imperative–universities only get paid in full for on-time completions–but it is not the full story. Academia has long emphasised research over other professional development and assumed good teaching flows from content expertise. This myth has largely been debunked by research and the experience of every student who has sat through a stupefying lecture from a world expert (Laurillard 2013). But detractors still attribute current interest in innovative teaching to university corporatisation and the fetishization of student retention, which is also financially motivated in Australia (Knapper 2016).

Such debates mean little to new PhD graduates faced with satisfying employment criteria. The astute (or lucky) doctoral candidate will become aware of the broader professional skill set required. Achieving it, however, often means a more holistic approach to professional development and de-emphasising the thesis, which runs counter to institutional inertia. For instance, doctoral workload restrictions hinder taking courses in higher education, or gaining experience in coordination and curriculum development. I was financially motivated to take more teaching, coordination, and contract marking than permitted officially. I also finished on time and received excellent examination reports. Doctoral training should be broader as skills in higher education not only facilitate academic employment; they open other opportunities in a difficult job market. In my case, they facilitated my post-graduation appointment as Learning Designer, during which time I completed my Graduate certificate in Learning and Teaching and established beneficial research collaborations.

Such aggressive self-service should not be expected. US and Canadian doctoral programs routinely include training in higher education to create well-rounded graduates. The economics program at the University of Technology in Sydney has adopted a similar approach (Economics PhD 2018). Willingness to defy my doctoral program’s regulations came from recognition that hiring committees do not care how one acquires necessary skills, just that the appointee has them. Business experience allowed me to recognise and quietly reject self-serving advice such as “people would understand” if I had limited teaching experience or–when I was Learning Designer–if I failed to publish in a non-academic position. Both were untrue, yet such ideas permeate doctoral education and should be formally rejected. I became comfortable bending the rules to achieve necessary professional development; but deviance should not be normalised for PhD candidates. Programs should acknowledge academic professional realities and design education that empowers candidates to meet them.


Knapper, C. (2016) ‘Does educational development matter?’, International Journal for Academic Development, 21(2): 105-115.

Laurillard, D. (2013) Rethinking University Teaching: A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies. Routledge: New York.

University of Technology Sydney, (2018) Economics PhD. Avail:

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