The double doctorate

This post is by Associate Prof Martin Davies Principal Fellow in Higher Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne, and a Senior Learning Advisor at Federation University Australia. His most recent work (with Ron Barnett) is an edited collection entitled Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education (forthcoming, 2015).  His last book Study Skills for International Postgraduate Students  (2011) is presently being translated into Arabic. Martin did his SECOND doctorate at the University of Melbourne and is now working at Federation University. In this post he reflects on the PhD experience, the second time around.

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 7.12.21 pmI am not unique in having successfully completed two PhD degrees I suspect, but it is rather rare.

We have all seen that annoying thing that authors of (American) pop-psychology books do in order to make themselves sound impressive: “…. By Dr XXXXXXX, PhD”.

They are fooling no-one. “Dr” and “PhD”, while not synonyms, usually mean the same thing—excepting, of course, if one happens to be a General Practitioner of Medicine, whilst also holding a PhD. For most academics, however, adding both titles is superfluous. It also makes you sound like a wanker.

But double doctorate holders can simultaneously—and legitimately—add both “Dr” and “PhD” to their names with no hint of redundancy. They still might sound like a wanker, but at least they are honest, accurate wankers!

The first thing anyone would want to ask someone with a double doctorate is: “Why? Why would anyone want to do that?” Fair question.

I’ll answer that question, but not before I outline what I learned from doing it.

The first obvious thing I learnt was how to manage a large project over a long time period, with an immanent deadline, and with virtually no assistance. This is no easy matter, of course, and—for the uninitiated—managing the PhD is half the battle for the first timer.

A plethora of books abound on managing and writing a PhD. These are devoted to helping people develop skills in large project management. I didn’t need any of these the second time around. That’s quite something when you think about it. Give this person a project and it will be finished on time, and without help. I expect that this is a skill that most employers would want.

Consider that if you start doubting the value of doing a PhD.

Moreover, doing a second doctorate made it palpability clear that I did not fluke the task the first time around. This built my confidence. I really did learn something of enduring value. My “supervisor” for the second doctorate was in another state and another city. I never saw the man, and I didn’t need to.

Nor did I require any of the normal support people and programs that universities typically provide (structured programs, bridging programs, learning advisors, and the like). I enrolled one day, and submitted my PhD by post a couple of years later. (The first one took five years; the second took two—there were efficiency gains as well.)

Germaine Greer once commented that: “one could do PhD down the bottom of a well if one had library books”. This was essentially the case for me, except that, with computer-based scholarship these days, I did not really need a library either—merely a point of access and a password. I could have done a second doctorate whilst living in the Antarctic (as it turned out, much of it was done at a holiday shack in Gippsland—which is much warmer).

The second thing I learned was how to write academically. My “supervisor” commented in a written reference for me that: “I didn’t have to teach Davies how to write Philosophy, nor do much more than watch as it poured forth in polished form”. This is flattering of course, but—under the circumstances—not something very special: if one can write a PhD one can write a second PhD, and a third, and so on.

I found that the second PhD literally wrote itself. There were times when I was in the academic equivalent of what sports people call “The Zone”: that wonderful time when everything seems to “flow” and without any effort. (Of course, as in the case with sports people, and musicians, one does not get into “The Zone” without a considerable amount of skill building and practice.)

In doing a second doctorate it becomes very clear how the skills developed in doing a PhD, i.e., academic literacy, constructing an argument, marshalling evidence, citing sources, and so on, transfer to anything else one does in the academic domain. Now, I am no longer intimidated by having to write an academic book between 80-120,000 words in length, and on any topic. Again, that’s no mean feat. (I’ve since published five books, and a sixth is forthcoming in 2015.)

The third thing I learned was that I could construct an argument on a unique topic of my own choosing—a “thesis” for my thesis as it were. Again, this is no mean feat, and—as all PhD students learn—it is neither easy nor natural. Well, I can tell you from first-hand experience that the second time around it is much easier—almost effortless. One can spot a good thesis statement from 3 yards away. Indeed, they jump out at you and the problem is that you see too many!

Of course, with the skills acquired in academic literacy and managing a large project, one can also quickly detect which of the array of possible thesis statement will be any good. One can, within a few weeks of working of a topic, “narrow down” to something manageable, and interesting, and focus. This is an incredibly important skill for a range of writing projects. Again, it has to be of great value in the corporate or public domain for a range of jobs that involve writing reports of various kinds.

So why did I do it?

Serendipity, as it turns out. I was under-employed after the first PhD, doing part-time lecturing. This was in the 1990s—and “the recession we had to have”. Universities were freezing academic positions left, right and centre. Despair was in the air. An elderly gentleman offered $22,000 tax free prize for a young scholar to write a monograph on a long-forgotten Scottish intellectual. I accepted the challenge and enrolled for a Master’s degree. It was upgraded … and the rest is history.

Thanks for telling us your story Martin! I have a deal with Thesis Whisperer Jnr that when he starts his first PhD I will start my second. Does anyone else have ambitions to do it all again? Or is once enough? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Related posts on ‘ye olde academia’ – what was it like before the internet anyway?

Writing now and then

Researching now and then

36 thoughts on “The double doctorate

  1. I don’t know if using Dr X, PhD by academics is always redundant for single PhD holders. I work in public health, and it is a necessity to highlight that you are a ‘doctorate’ (I hesitate to say ‘real’) doctor rather than a clinician. In fact, ethical, legal and professional guidelines demand it, as we often comment on health issues and must clearly show that when Dr X is talking, they are doing so as an academic expert, not the family doc.

  2. I have the “usual problem” of qualitative researchers – too much data for one thesis and had a notion for while, of doing a double doctorate. However my thought was to recycle the (finished) theory chapter and cut the (almost finished) methodology and introduction in half (neatly inserting each into the appropriate thesis) and write up two sets of results/discussions for each set of case studies. My supervisor just looked at me (the way supervisors do) when I said the thought had occurred to me, and said it would be twice the workload for the examiner. I realise it is a bit of a drastic solution an otherwise common problem, but I just can’t quite shake the idea still…is it pathological?

    • “Recycling” the theory chapter might verge close to plagiarism I suspect Anne – which would be particularly obvious if it was two doctoral submissions (as opposed to recycling in the publication domain – in different journals — a very common practice). It sounds like you have a wealth of opportunities for publishing your data! That’s the direction I’d go. You’ll get no advantages for having two PhDs, but you will if you have loads of spin-off publications. “Pathological?” Can’t answer that…

  3. Ha! I’ve thought about doing that too. While I was doing my PhD I published a paper with a colleague on our hobby which is the performance of Australian silent films with a live band and sound effects. This one paper has generated a massive amount of interest which has made me think that a second PhD in practice based research (my first was social sciences) on Australian Silent Film performance practice would be fun. I clearly need some good therapy.

  4. The most remarkable double doctorate holder I know is Race Mathews. Not content with becoming an elected Minister at both federal and State government level, he completed his first doctorate in 1999 and worked as an academic. On retirement from that he took on a second doctorate when over 70 years old and completed it this year. Even though he is not to my knowledge, particular religious, the second PhD is a Theology doctorate and traces an intellectual line between the workers co-operatives of Mondragon to the thinking of BA Santamaria, who, for those who do not know or cannot remember, was a significant anti communist conservative Catholic influence on Melbourne intellectual and political life in the sixties and seventies.
    His second thesis, for the interested, is here. http://repository.divinity.edu.au/1509/

  5. I am in the midst of doing a 2nd PhD.
    The second is a result of questions being raised in the first.
    I am doing it in a different faculty, same uni, with a different topic but linked to the first.
    Being in the messy realm of qualitative research in the social science arena, and due to family reasons, the second one will take as long as the first.
    I am finding that the data is much larger than the first, due in part to the focus group being much larger, but also because of the level of awareness I have from the first.
    It is kind of odd, holding a PhD and also being a PhD Candidate, but why not.
    Perhaps employment will be easier with 2 PhDs 🙂

    • Slightly Mad: can assure you that employment is no easier with two doctorates! I have had – at best – a meandering career. Selection panels don’t give you a leg-up because you have two. Indeed, they might look slightly suspiciously at you: “why hasn’t this person been “picked-up”?

      Devote yourself to publications. That’s what counts. (And if you have to do two PhDs make sure both are publishable.)

      • Thanks Martin,
        my first PhD is published by a very reputable publisher, and I hope my 2nd will be also.
        Like you, my 2nd PhD came about because of life opportunities, it just works out like that.
        One reason I opted for a 2nd PhD is that the research and data is less likely to come under pressure from vested interests in a PhD, as opposed to a grant. I am not sure my topic would have been in the running for a grant, even though I believe it is highly needed research.
        Just as life has given me opportunities to do a 2nd PhD, it has similarly constrained my employment opportunities, so things fitted in well.
        Hopefully by the time my 2nd PhD is completed I will have more ability to seek work.

        Oddly, when I first talked about doing a 2nd PhD my 1st PhD supervisors said it was often seen as an insult to the first faculty – as though the first one wasn’t good enough.

        From some more recent conversations, I have been told that in some European countries a 2nd PhD is a prerequisite for university lecturing. I have not verified this though.

  6. This is a question for Martin, Inger and anyone else who can weigh in. For someone like myself, with a number of publications from my PhD and one publication from my interest area which is related but only fairly distantly (both music), would it be possible to apply for a DECRA in said interest area and have all the phd publications count? Or not? This seems like a better thing to do than another phd however it should be kept well in mind that I know nothing of which I speak. Just a half baked plan 🙂

    • I’ve never had a DECRA, but my understanding is that publications are considered as a “whole of career” thing, as opposed to the narrow and restrictive criteria applying to other ARC grants. They are assessing “trajectory” of a scholar, not your established expertise in area X.

      There is certainly no advantage of a second PhD – except that it might extend the length of time you have for applying for DECRAS!

  7. Thank you so much for this post. I have been considering a second HDR degree – family were somewhat bemused/aghast (!) and one of my supervisors suggested (nicely) that it really wasn’t necessary. However, the second project is in a different discipline (science, not social science/humanities) and a totally different topic with almost no research into a particular illness. I thought perhaps starting it as an MPhil, with potential upgrade to PhD, might be the better pathway. Any ideas would be welcome.

  8. As my post made clear. I only did one because: a) some money was dangled in front of me; b) I had few other opportunities at the time. I made sure both were published (as books) and a got a few peer-reviewed articles as well. So no loss and plenty of gain for me. But I wouldn’t do one ‘for the sake of it’ or just because you want to change fields (after all academics can do research on whatever they want).

    If anything can be said for the double doctorate is that it forces you to write, and more writing = more potential for publication. But a second PhD while helpful in getting more publications, is not a necessary condition of getting them. You can achieve this just by writing more in your new, or emerging, field of research.

  9. Having complete a PhD in Chemistry 15 years ago and now working in Academic Development, I would value the opportunity to do more research, and develop my research skills, in educational & academic development. But another doctorate seems much too big a commitment at present.

  10. *bowing* (repeatedly). Kind of reminds me of one of the most amazing but unassuming lecturers I ever encountered, during the period of my LLM. Bruce. Had a PhD in philosophy but still pursued a doctorate in Law (said he was a ”sucker for punishment” lol).. I think he also completed his in something around two years.
    Frankly though, there be a special place in heaven for double doctorates (”wankers?”). Bruce be a primary inspiration behind my own doctorate (currently undertaken), you’ve just made my day- thank you.

    • Thanks B Enofe, but I did not write this for adulation. I really don’t think it is such a big deal. If you can do something, you can do it twice. The real message is the instructive lessons if offers for PhD writers — if they are in any doubt that what they are doing is teaching them transferable skills.

  11. I am a bit divided on the issue of double doctorates. A former supervisor of mine had two doctorates, one from Sweden and one from the USA. The PhD systems in the USA and Europe are very different, and a second doctorate makes some sense. Likewise, PhDs from different academic fields makes sense because they indicate different proficiency.

    However, I don’t think there is much to be gained by multiple doctorates within the same country and similar disciplines. For example, one could enrol in a PhD externally alongside their research position and/or submit a PhD by Publication and be a double doctor (and continue to do so for a third, etc), but really I do not see how this achieves anything other than perhaps generating revenue to a university from the government based on the university awarding another PhD without much supervisory work. It is also concerning when the motivation for the second doctorate is for a scholarship/employment position because this takes away an opportunity from someone else and it is hard to accept that it is fair competition. I would also be concerned if a person completed a subsequent doctorate in order to gain eligibility for funding, such as DECRA or other early career grants.

    • Thanks Peter. I am far from an advocate for them — I thought that was pretty clear from what I said. And I accept your points about the inequity of them vis-a-vis other students. And I also made the point in reply that they are certainly not necessary for publishing. But whether you are conflicted on them or not, it appears that (given qualifications creep) they are on the rise — rightly or wrongly. I read that in Germany there is even the convention of using “DDr” or “Dr Dr” — they are becoming that common.

      • Actually, the faculty of my 2nd PhD was delighted at the opportunity to be part of my research because they aknowledge the great need for it. Likewise they could also see that it would be difficult to pursue through grants etc, and I have doubts it would be accepted for a 1st PhD topic.

        The faculty and academia stand to benifit from my research, with not a lot of input from them.

        Finding supervisors who were willing to take on the supervision of a person pursuing a 2nd PhD was tricky, because they had to be confident in themselves and believe in my research.

        For the many reasons why I am undertaking the 2nd PhD there is one stand out one – the joy of pure research. It can be so very rewarding and enriching. Sharing it in publications is a natural outcome.

        Often when people ask me why, I answer – because I can.

      • Thanks for your reply. I certainly did not mean to imply you were an advocate, your post was clearly focused on the pragmatic side of it.

        Note that the case of Germany is a little bit peculiar due to more common use of formal titles (lack of “wanker” stigma for Prof. Dr. Dr Schmidt), and the impact of “Habilitation” process which requires academics with PhDs to write another thesis for promotion to professorial ranks. Though not a doctorate per se, this additional monograph could easily be used to gain a PhD by Publication in a different country, allowing for the formal use of Dr. Dr.

        Pragmatically, if faced with unemployment after my PhD (I am currently externally enrolled overseas), technically I could apply for a subsequent PhD in Australia. I could do the bare minimum to maintain my eligibility for 3 years, knowing that even if I didn’t submit the PhD, I would still have one PhD to my name. There are no legal restrictions on me taking on other work to supplement the scholarship (scholarships are not employment, so technically, universities have no leg to stand on in this matter). Alternatively, I could apply for a subsequent PhD in Norway where a 3 year PhD salary is $74,000-$82,000 p.a., which is comparable salary to a post-doc position in Australia. Either option would be preferable to unemployment, but I do think there is something unethical about this approach.

        The problem I see is that, in Australia, limited funding is available for curiosity-driven research at a post-doc level or throughout the academic career (and too much concentrated into a high-volume/low-quality PhD system). This is wasteful because what is learned during the PhD process may not be applied after the PhD (which, in turn tempts people into double doctorates). As “Slightly Mad” said, universities certainly benefit from double doctorates in terms of research output, but I feel they are also gaming the research block grant funding system by taking on PhDs who require little support, whilst pretending they are the same as younger inexperienced candidates.

  12. Thank you for sharing your journey toward a double doctorate. I don’t believe pursuing education is ever superfluous. I am definitely a late bloomer in education as I am in my late 40’s and currently in my last year of finishing a Doctor of Ministry. However, I am disappointed in what I didn’t get in all reality – academically speaking. My wife just entered a Ph.D. program (cohort 1) for Counseling in Marriage and Family. There is a world of difference, which I would suspect given the different degrees, and yet, I feel gypped. She is being exposed to so much more and I am seeing the benefit of the Ph.D. program, sadly, quite after the fact of my own journey.
    Now, I am already considering a Ph.D. I found this site and am very pleased to learn of a community and “social” resource dealing with the topic of higher education. Not sure where I will go from here but I will never stop learning – “Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought” Albert Szent-Gyoygl.
    Love what I am reading so far! Hopeful that I will experience so much more in the near future through my own exploration in the world of the Ph.D discipline. Blessings to you!

  13. I’m in quite a different kind of double doctorate situation, a “co-tutelle” where I’m enrolled in two universities simultaneously under the supervision of two advisers, which will (hopefully) result in a double PhD granted I successfully defend my research twice. It’s all rather confusing and making two people happy is extremely difficult, but I’m quite hopeful it’ll work.

    As for the Dr. X, PhD… well. I’ve never even thought of that before. Here in Italy you get a Dott.(ssa) before your name just for finishing your Masters! Titles, titles everywhere!

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  16. So having a second PhD is not the same as you being title as a professor or something?. DrXPhD is kind of funny unless a medico with a PhD..

  17. I’m in the midst of completing my 2nd doctoral degree right now. Attained the first one in 2006 at the age of 29. I love learning, love research, love writing, and found that it is better for me to combine all three of those loves into something that will result in a greater feeling of accomplishment (I love a finished product). My first doctorate is in higher education administration w/ cognate in adult learning theory. My current doctoral study is clinical psychology (foci of organizational psychology and neuroscience). My professional goal is to be a college president – so I find these two doctorates very complementary to that goal. Best of luck to all who pursue this crazy endeavor!! May we never stop learning.

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