The article sets out to explore how PhD programme leaders in South Africa view the purpose of the PhD, and how their views shape their responses to recent policies with regard to the PhD. If refers in particular to the vision of the Department of Science and Technology for a five-fold increase in the number of PhD graduates by 2018, and to the drive to achieve racial and gender equity as part of the transition to democracy. The article is based on interviews with leaders of 16 doctoral programmes in nine top PhD-awarding South African universities, representing a range of disciplines. The data indicate that there is a strong predisposition among PhD programme leaders to perceive the doctorate largely as an academic pursuit. At the same time, some tentative changes are being seen ‘on the ground’ in response to the needs of industry and business, to the various policies, and to a diverse student cohort. It seems that the PhD attempts to serve several purposes within the single structure provided by the Higher Education Qualification Framework, sometimes in tense associations. Going forward, the article discusses two policy options available to South Africa.