La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, offers more than 76 schools and departments with bachelor’s, graduate and doctorate degrees from aboriginal studies to zoology. Prided on its international presence with an emphasis on teaching, training, scholarship and research, the most recent international ranking by the UK Times positioned La Trobe University as 98th in the world and 23rd in humanities, 68th in social sciences and 86th in biomedicine. The university has links with more than 250 institutions in more than 40 countries. In addition to the main campus in Melbourne, there are six additional regional network campuses.
In part five of the series “Advanced Degrees in O&P,” O&P Business News highlights the two orthotic and prosthetic doctoral programs available at LaTrobe University.
Differences in programs
The school of human biosciences incorporates five departments: human physiology and anatomy; podiatry, clinical vision sciences; oral health, and the national centre for prosthetics and orthotics. It also encompasses the forensic expertise profiling laboratory and the Centre for Ergonomics and Human Factors.
One of three universities in the world that offers a doctorate degree with an emphasis in O&P, La Trobe offers two doctorate programs under the umbrella of the school of human biosciences: a doctor of clinical science (ClinScD) with a specialization in prosthetics and orthotics and a doctor of philosophy (PhD) by research.
“The fundamental difference between the two programs is that the ClinScD has a course work component and is directed at clinical professionals – it is what we refer to as a course work doctorate, and the PhD has primarily a research orientation,” said Timothy Bach, PhD, an associate professor in biomechanics who holds a joint appointment in the National Centre for Prosthetics and Orthotics and the department of human physiology and anatomy, school of human biosciences at La Trobe University.
The clinical doctorate is focused on the profession and on professional practice, Bach said. It consists of a smaller thesis – 30,000 to 60,000 words, which is not as extensive or as in depth as the PhD thesis. It is designed for practicing clinicians who want a higher qualification, either because they are motivated to study in greater depth or because they are motivated to have a higher qualification as a stepping stone in career development.
“In the public health care system, many of our graduates who are working as managers of clinical facilities might aspire to move higher in the hospital administration,” Bach said. “In those cases, they would have an advantage if they had a higher degree of some sort. Sometimes, people do that by acquiring a master’s degree in business administration, a master of public health or a clinical doctorate.”
The PhD program’s focus is research preparation for someone who might be pursuing an academic career or looking for a research leadership role within a hospital organization or something similar, Bach said. It is a doctorate completely by a research thesis. The thesis is expected to be no more than 100,000 words.
“In Australia, students do not submit a thesis in partial requirements of the fulfillment of a degree, they submit a thesis in complete fulfillment of the requirement of the degree,” Bach said.
The usual pathway into the doctoral programs is an upper second-class honors degree. An honors degree in Australia has a research component and usually 6 months to a year of additional study on top of a bachelor’s degree. It includes writing an honors thesis based on an independent research project.
There is also an alternate pathway for people who have not completed a bachelor’s degree through what is called a post graduate diploma in health research methodology, Bach said. This is basically a one-year program of study that involves research method study and a thesis. It is equivalent to an honors year for students who did not take an honors year when they received their bachelor’s degree. Entry into the ClinScD requires an honors degree or equivalent research preparation such as the postgraduate diploma in health research methodology offered by the university. It also requires 3 years of relevant professional experience.
Components of programs
The O&P doctorate programs are set up to be largely independent study. The research method subjects and seminars are attended by students from all of the clinical doctorate programs; for example, doctor of social work and doctor of nursing, so there is a class of maybe 15 to 20 students who are doing the clinical doctorate in various disciplines.
The components for the various doctoral programs are similar, but the research portion will specialize in the appropriate area. The other components are done by independent study under the direction of a supervisor. The course is set up so it can have small cohorts of students so they can progress at different rates, Bach said. The ClinScD is designed to be the equivalent of 4 years of full-time study.
“Most of the clinical doctorate students work on a part time basis, which means many students would require 6 or more years to complete the doctorate,” Bach said.
The PhD is usually done with the support of a research stipend or scholarship. There is an Australian post-graduate award that pays about AU $20,000 per annum. This award will support students who are undertaking the degree provided they do it on a full-time basis. The usual expectation for students in the PhD program is that they enroll on a full-time basis and complete the degree in 3 years. There have been three graduates from the PhD program in O&P since 1997. There is one candidate in the ClinScD program. No one has graduated from this program yet.
“We are just starting to get some interest in the clinical doctorate in O&P,” Bach said. “A lot of our clinicians are oriented more toward master of public health or the MBA. They see these more as more relevant qualifications if they are interested in pursuing careers in hospital administration.”
In both doctoral programs, students are expected to do an individual project while working with a particular supervisor. Any faculty member who holds a PhD and has relevant experience is deemed capable of supervising a doctoral student. Bach presently supervises six doctoral candidates and there is one other staff member in the national centre who supervises doctoral students.
“Because some students do course work outside of O&P, there are staff from other schools and departments involved in teaching those subjects, particularly the research methods subjects,” Bach said.
Thoughts on higher education
“I feel strongly that the hallmark of a profession is that the members are involved in developing and refining the knowledge base of that profession,” Bach said. “For too long, the knowledge base in O&P has been contributed by orthopedic surgeons, rehab engineers and physiotherapists. There has been far too little contribution by prosthetists and orthotists. In Australia, we see O&P differently than in many other places. In this country, prosthetists/orthotists are equal members of the allied health team. We are moving to where prosthetists/orthotists are autonomous decision makers; that is, they prescribe and acquit devices.”
As an outsider with a biomechanics background who became more involved in the O&P area, Bach said he was surprised there was so little contribution to the knowledge base coming from prosthetists and orthotists.
“We tried to change that at La Trobe by preparing students to participate in research,” he said. “First by doing small research projects in their undergraduate degree and then by attracting students to research careers in O&P. The biggest advantage for the profession is that there are prosthetists and orthotists who have research training and are therefore in a better position to make a research contribution to the development of the knowledge base in O&P.”— by Rachel Kelley
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