Going for the Gold Tassel: Getting a Doctoral Degree

Dr. Burton A. Clark discusses two words you did not learn in firefighter rookie school or in any course you have taken – doctrine and doctorate.


The concepts of doctoral education and firefighter are not usually connected in the same thought by anyone in the fire service, higher education or society in general. At the beginning of the 20th century, “firefighter” and “bachelor degree” were not thought of together. Today...


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When doctrine of these related disciplines is used in the unique fire service environment, the various scientific laws and principles may be affected. For example, the reaction of a chemical in the laboratory is predictable. When a tanker truck full of the same chemical crashes into a building downtown during rush hour, the science related to the chemical is different than the laboratory science. Another example: The science and research related to labor management typically does not take into account employees who work 24-hour shifts and sleep on the job, nor does it study a workforce made up of 80% voluntary labor expected to risk their lives doing the job.

These types of questions should be of interest to the fire service discipline. The place to study such issues is in a fire service studies doctoral program. Until we as a discipline can point to the science and research to justify our practice, we will continue to be subject to the whims of others who control our funding, standards, effectiveness and efficiencies.

Consider that there are 29 doctoral programs related to the police service. This higher education infrastructure generates about 100 dissertations per year compared to about 10 fire service dissertations per year. At Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, there are 12 faculty, fellows and researchers conducting research projects related to the police service. There are no programs listed related to the fire service. Is it any wonder that the police service receives more political and economic support? There are five doctoral programs related to the study of folklore. The fire service needs at least one doctoral program related to our discipline.

Getting a doctorate is not for everyone in the fire service nor does every fire chief need a doctorate to be successful, but some firefighters reading this will be motivated by the idea of conducting research that can help the fire service discipline become a true profession. A fire service doctoral studies infrastructure needs to be created so the stewards of the discipline can have a place to conduct their research from which we all can benefit. This connection among science, research and practice will help us all better serve each other and our communities.

What do you do with a doctorate? Those who graduate with a doctorate will assume three duties. First, you will generate new doctrine for the fire service to use. You will do this through scientific research. The questions you ask and the answer you generate will meet the highest possible standards of scholarship. Your work will be for the betterment of the entire fire service.

Second, your work will be based on a complete understanding of the history of the fire service and the foundations of the discipline. Your work will maintain the continuity, stability and vitality of the fire service by continually investigating which ideas to keep and which ideas to reject. Through your work, the best of the past will be preserved for those who follow. You will respect other disciplines and continually look for relationships between the fire service and other fields for their mutual benefit.

Third, you will represent and communicate fire service doctrine to the widest possible audience; from firefighter to policy maker, from lay public to Nobel laureates. You will do this through your writing, teaching, discourse and practice. This duty requires leadership that exposes your beliefs, values and biases to public scrutiny and review. Your work will be defendable based on the best available science and research.

If improving and impacting the overall fire service discipline sounds interesting to you; if working in the national and international fire service arena is what you want; if the role of change agent, researcher, educator, philosopher and advocate appeals to you; and if the concept of building up the fire service discipline as a whole seems like a meaningful life goal, going for the gold tassel and becoming a steward of the fire service discipline may be for you.

If you are still not convinced that doing all that work to get your doctorate will be worth it, think about this. When the first fire service studies doctoral program is created, it will need textbooks and faculty. To teach in a doctoral program, you need a doctorate; to write books for a doctoral program, you need a doctorate. So, those firefighters who have doctorates are guaranteed part-time work or a new career in academia after they retire. Finally, people will call you “Doctor” and your mother will be proud.

Dr. Burton A. Clark will present “Calling a Mayday” at Firehouse Expo 2005, July 26-31 in Baltimore.