The September issue of Business Information Review carried an article by Jela Webb about mid-career professional education. In part the article addressed the place of doctoral education for Information Professionals. Traditionally PhDs have been undertaken predominantly by individuals hoping to enter academia as a kind of entry-level qualification. However in recent years a range of doctoral level qualifications have been developed specifically intended to facilitate mid-career education within professional contexts. Professional Doctorates are doctoral level qualifications that blend the research grounding of traditional PhDs with career orientated classroom based teaching; they are designed to be not only more relevant to professional practice but also more manageable within the context of part time study that traditional PhDs. At the current time professional doctorates in information management, librarianship, and information science are scarce in the UK context. This raises questions about the role and function of professional education and the means by which it contributes to a shared body of knowledge and experience, and to the formation of a coherent and integrated professional identity.
On the most fundamental level professional education benefits the individual by inculcating a set of professional knowledge and competencies that can be used as a kind of tool-kit to address both familiar and novel problems. This “body of professional knowledge” idea also has a gate-keeper function ensuring at least in principle a base level of professional competency governed by the professional body. However, the benefits of undertaking professional education for the individual extend far beyond this basic idea, and include the development of professional networks and partnerships that benefit individuals throughout their careers. The social capital that individuals gain a consequence of undertaking educational courses is often what endures from the experience in the longer term.
There is however also a broader role of professional education in generating and sustaining professional identities and communities. What binds the information profession is not merely a set of jobs with overlapping responsibilities, but a shared sense of values, identity, and belonging. It is this sense of coherence within a profession discourse, and difference with other professions and occupational groupings that define the nature of professions. Professional education and practice-based research, scholarship and publishing contribute to this shared identity, and to the relative status of practicing professionals. Business Information Review also aims to contribute to professional identity formation by offering opportunities for individuals to contribute to broader debates, and to the sharing of experience.
It follows that the kinds of qualifications that make up the professional education provision have an influence on the status, coherence, and social capital of those professional groupings. Information professionals generally qualify and achieve chartership at an early stage in their careers; studying for (usually) an accredited masters degree often occurs in the years following undergraduate study, or in the early years of a paraprofessional role for returners or mid-career switchers. Predominantly post-chartership education is managed through short course provision and professional networking events, much of which lacks recognition beyond the profession. This is not unique; the teaching profession has a similar structure. While Information professionals in the commercial sector may also often follow the MBA route into, this may sometimes sit uneasily with the broader professional values.
What has been missing in the information profession is ways for experienced practitioners to gain wider recognition of their professional seniority. It is this gap that an expansion of doctoral education in the information sector could fill, not as a replacement of senior fellowship of CILIP and other professional bodies, but as a stepping stone towards it. The benefits of this would be both for the individual, but also for the profession as a whole, increasing the status and social capital of library and information profession. As public librarianship has declined in recent decades, academic and commercial practitioners make up a greater proportion of the professional community, and in the financial, legal and academic sectors working alongside colleagues for whom higher level professional and academic qualifications are relatively commonplace. Interestingly, the area in which professional doctorates are most common is in education; the EdD or Doctorate in Education is for many educators a stepping stone to more senior roles and responsibilities. Perhaps there is scope in the Information Profession for similar qualifications both benefiting the individuals who undertake such programmes, but also the status and coherence of the wider professional community.