Knowledge and Theory Development in Public Administration: The Role of Doctoral Education and Research

By White, Jay D.; Adams, Guy B. et al. | Public Administration Review, September-October 1996 | Go to article overview

Knowledge and Theory Development in Public Administration: The Role of Doctoral Education and Research


White, Jay D., Adams, Guy B., Forrester, John P., Public Administration Review


The purpose of doctoral education and research in public administration might seem almost self-evident. If public administration were thought of like most other social science disciplines, the traditional purpose of the doctorate - the development and dissemination of knowledge relevant to the field and preparation of the professoriate - would hold for public administration as well. Most academics in public administration may continue to think of the doctorate in our field in precisely that way. However, the evidence simply does not support this view. Indeed, the public administration doctorate appears to advance knowledge and theory development in the field only to a rather limited degree.

Doctoral education and research is one aspect of the larger debate in public administration concerning the status and nature of research in the field, and more broadly, the question of knowledge and theory development in public administration. A number of studies in recent years have focused on the research issue (White and Adams, 1994); some of these have discussed doctoral research (Adams and White, 1994; Cleary, 1992; McCurdy and Cleary, 1984; Stallings, 1986; and White, 1986b), and some have examined the kinds of research manifested in journal publications (Houston and Delevan, 1990; Perry and Kraemer, 1986; Stallings and Ferris, 1988). Another group of studies has addressed the broader philosophical issues related to the generation of knowledge and the development of theory in the field (Adams, 1992; Balfour and Mesaros, 1994; Box, 1992; Hummel, 1991; and White, 1986a).

We examine the publication records of the 1981 through 1987 classes of public administration doctorate recipients and assess their contribution to knowledge and theory development in the field, as measured by publication in refereed journals. These findings are compared with other data on publication rates of public administration doctorate recipients, and then, we take a closer look at the class of 1987. These data on publications are contemplated in light of the research on the quality of dissertation scholarship. Taken together, evidence from these two streams of research renders the traditional view of doctoral education and research untenable for public administration and also shows that doctoral education and research appear not to be making significant contributions to knowledge and theory development in the field, at least as measured by publication in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. Finally, we offer some suggestions for improving the condition of the public administration doctorate. However, we are unable to paint an optimistic portrait of what appears to be a doctorate with multiple, and possibly conflicting, purposes.

Recent Research on the Doctorate

Published assessments of doctoral education and research in public administration in the 1980s and 1990s have raised serious questions for those who hold that the doctorate should advance knowledge and theory in the field. In 1984, McCurdy and Cleary examined public administration dissertations and found that the majority lacked a central focus on the field, addressed relatively unimportant questions, and failed to meet the standards of mainstream social science research. White (1986b) agreed with them in a replication of their research. He also found that much of the nonmainstream research lacked methodological rigor according to the standards of interpretive or critical research. Stallings (1986) has also raised several significant questions about the scope and role of the doctorate in our field. In the 1990s, Cleary's research concluded that the quality of dissertations had improved somewhat (Cleary [1992] replicated his previous research with McCurdy). Unfortunately, the amount of improvement has been modest at best (Adams and White [1994] replicated White's earlier research). Indeed, the majority of the dissertations studied lacked a theoretical framework, were methodologically unsound, and tended to address questions of moderate to low interest to the field. …

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