Graduate Schools Should Look Outward by Training for Nonacademic Jobs and Helping Society, Report Says

by Scott Smallwood
Chronicle of Higher Education
Friday, October 7, 2005

A new report on doctoral education calls for graduate programs to take a more public role in solving society's problems and to create clearer career paths for Ph.D.'s outside of research universities.

The report, which is titled "The Responsive Ph.D.: Innovations in Doctoral Education" and scheduled for release today by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, is the result of a five-year effort by graduate-school deans at 20 of the nation's leading research universities.

Reports about the failings of doctoral education have become common since the early 1990s. By now, the problems are well known: a high rate of attrition, a disconnect between the training students receive and the jobs they will eventually get, and a lack of information about career prospects outside of traditional academic positions.

Robert Weisbuch, who as president of the foundation led the project, acknowledged that numerous other studies had been done on doctoral education. Mr. Weisbuch, who is now president of Drew University, said he hoped that the project would help graduate schools focus on concrete changes they can make.

"We started with a sense from various kinds of reports that there was a lack of deep dialogue between all the social sectors that employ Ph.D.'s and the academics that prepare them," he said. "Given that, what then follows in terms of actual institutional practices? What we're saying is that doctoral education, which often has the stereotype of being enclosed within academe, could have a different idea of itself without losing its soul."

"If you have faculty in a closed faculty lounge making all the policy about a doctorate without any thought of the outside world," he continued,"then they will suffer from a certain degree of claustrophobia."

The report cites four general principles that its authors believe are needed to improve doctoral education. Universities must give graduate schools and graduate deans "real budgets and real scope." To increase its relevance, the doctorate must "open to the world and engage social challenges more generously." While universities have sought to attract more minority students to graduate schools, they must place a "still higher priority" on that effort. And finally, better doctoral education depends on better assessment of what programs are accomplishing.

In addition to an overview that highlights broad challenges facing doctoral education, the report includes detailed descriptions of more than three dozen specific programs or policies at graduate schools. The hope, Mr. Weisbuch said, is that those best practices could be replicated across the country.

Among others, the report highlights programs at:

The University of Texas at Austin, where graduate students from any discipline can enroll in a five-week summer course on entrepreneurship that seeks to help students see how to apply their academic training to the community or the corporate world.

Duke University, where the graduate school has created financial incentives for departments in the arts and sciences to strengthen their graduate programs. Support for Ph.D. students is allocated based on evidence of increasing the number of faculty members, attracting more graduate applications, improving student quality, and obtaining external money to support students.

Arizona State University, where the graduate school has created a annual faculty award for "outstanding doctoral mentor."

The foundation plans to post the report on its Web site.

Inside Higher Education
October 7, 2005

The Responsive Ph.D.

Ph.D. education needs serious reform, but outstanding models exist to help, according to a report being released today by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

The report, The Responsive Ph.D.: Innovations in U.S. Doctoral Education, is based on the foundations work with 20 graduate schools to make their programs more engaging and relevant. By examining the various reforms being tried, the foundation points out failings in graduate education and offers a series of options for those institutions that want to change. While the reforms cover a wide range of issues, many focus on breaking out of traditional boundaries of departments, of university insularity, and of typical career paths.

Most of the report deals with educational philosophy, but the first theme in the Wilson Foundation study is an administrative one: the need for strong graduate schools and graduate deans. Currently, the report says, the graduate level is the very place where the central administration exerts the least quality control.

The tradition of departmental autonomy in graduate programs, the report says, has much to speak for it and leaves faculty members with a strong sense of commitment to their offerings. But the report adds that this system results in some graduate schools having basically no central administration (or any power within one), and the evidence from the 20 graduate schools in the study suggests that some central authority with vision is key to reform.

Even with the right administrative structure, of course, graduate education can be a costly disappointment both for students and institutions. The report notes the ridiculously long and costly number of years taken by many to earn a Ph.D. and offers a number of ideas. In promoting the idea of a cosmopolitan doctorate, the report urges that universities begin to edge away from the idea of graduate school being a place where a student seeks in-depth knowledge from one professor with the idea of some day becoming a professor like his or her mentor.

This approach limits students educations and their ability to get jobs, the report says. Instead, the foundation calls for graduate students not simply to know a great deal, but to have experience outside of their disciplines and outside the academy that builds on their disciplinary knowledge.

Some efforts noted in the report that respond to these issues include an entrepreneurship course for Ph.D. students offered at the University of Texas at Austin, the K Through Infinity program that involves science and technology graduate students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison with elementary and secondary schools, and special dissertation fellowships being offered at Arizona State University to students with advisers in more than one discipline.

Another issue the report stresses is diversity. The report notes that only 7 percent of arts-and-sciences Ph.D.s are being awarded to black and Hispanic students (a group that by virtue of the age cohort receiving Ph.D.s should be earning almost one-third of the doctorates). The foundation issued a report on this topic earlier this year, and the new report reiterates its view that universities should not abandon affirmative action efforts even with some legal groups waiting to challenge them.

The obligation of graduate schools in this area includes both recruitment and retention, the report says. As examples of stellar recruitment efforts (which don't benefit just the sponsoring institutions), the report cites a 10-week program in which talented minority undergraduates are paired with faculty members at the University of Colorado at Boulder to better understand a life of research. Washington University in St. Louis is praised for an annual conference for minority students that covers academic careers and graduate school (including topics such as the admissions process and financial worries).

The Wilson Foundation plans additional activities in the years ahead to build on the report and to help universities follow through on some of the ideas first tried by other institutions. The ideas in the report (which goes into detail on the various programs that are praised) are intended, the authors say, not as a further sermon but as a toolkit.

The institutions in the project to date (whose ideas shaped the report) are the following:

  • Arizona State University
  • Duke University
  • Howard University
  • Indiana University
  • Princeton University
  • University of California at Irvine
  • University of California at Los Angeles
  • University of Colorado at Boulder
  • University of Illinois at Chicago
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • University of Kentucky
  • University of Louisville
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • University of Washington
  • University of Wisconsin at Madison
  • Vanderbilt University
  • Washington University in St. Louis
  • Yale University