The Professional Doctorate in Practical Theology: Innovation in the UK

A group of leading higher education instituions in the United Kingdom is pioneering a new kind of doctorate in Practical Theology. The Doctor of Practical Theology was initially launched by the University of Manchester and Anglia Ruskin University in September 2006. Since then, similar programmes have been established at the Universities of Birmingham and Chester. Together, these centres (all recognised ‘centres of excellence’ for pastoral and practical theology) constitute a consortium, which aims for a common curriculum and some shared provision for student research training and staff development.

The main differences between a “professional doctorate” and the more conventional qualification of Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) lie in the nature of the research conducted, the form of assessment, and the type of candidate for whom each programme is designed. A professional doctorate is normally assessed by means of a portfolio of work, including a literature review, research proposal, publishable articles, and dissertation. It is therefore quite different from a traditional British Ph.D. in the arts and humanities, which is normally undertaken by a solo, desk–based researcher working towards the submission of a single dissertation. The professional doctorate in Practical Theology also differs from other practice–based programmes, such as the Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.), which tend to model themselves on a taught master’s degree with a combination of taught courses plus short dissertation.

The professional doctorate in Practical Theology is therefore a practice-based research degree aimed at participants in a variety of professional and/or voluntary contexts. It is particularly addressed to the needs of part-time candidates, who are supported not only by regular one-to-one supervisions, but also through their participation in regular residential seminars and workshops. These serve to punctuate the academic year and offer valuable peer support.

Given that the traditional Ph.D. has normally been designed for those seeking a career in academic teaching and research, the professional doctorate is an alternative that offers advanced training for a wider range of career paths, whilst retaining an explicit research focus directed towards enhancing the knowledge base and understanding of such professions. If the conventional Ph.D. was aimed at producing “professional researchers,” then it may be said that professional doctorate is designed to develop “researching professionals.” Those looking to pursue this career path will want to stand out from the competition as there will be a high standard of applicants looking to work within this field. Perhaps using services such as ARC Resumes IL to help polish and perfect their resume is the ideal course of action for someone looking to enjoy success at job interviews.

This means that candidates are encouraged to use their professional, voluntary, or ministerial practice as the foundation of a structured process of advanced research in practical theology. In that respect, the design of the programme fits very well with recent developments in practical theology that encourage a process of “theological reflection” on practice, and that increasingly regard the discipline as a form of “action research,” or strategic and participatory research directed towards transformative social change.

Typically, students come from a range of professional backgrounds, both “secular” and faith-based, including social policy, management, politics, health care, community work, congregational ministry, and institutional chaplaincy. So far, a total of over sixty students have enrolled in the four programmes within the UK, with other institutions planning to launch similar initiatives shortly. The consortium is looking for international partners for future recruitment, and would welcome further enquiries to any of its members. Please note that the University of Manchester is no longer recruiting new candidates, but Anglia, Birmingham, and Chester plan to recruit for an annual September intake, with applications accepted throughout the academic year.

– Contact details –

Anglia Ruskin University: Zoe Bennett (
University of Birmingham: Stephen Pattison (
University of Chester: Elaine Graham (


By Elaine Graham
Elaine Graham is the Grosvenor Research Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Chester, UK.