In the South African context, three doctoral discourses are heard, each with their own assumptions about the purpose of doctoral education and the kinds of people who undertake doctoral study, and with their own implications for the practice of doctoral education. Two of the three discourses are familiar and well documented in the local and international literature. The third is an emerging discourse identified in the course of a qualitative study of four doctoral programmes at three South African universities. This paper unpacks these discourses, examining tensions that arise between them. I argue that all three discourses contribute useful perspectives to our national understanding of doctoral education, and I discuss some implications for the practice and research of doctoral education.