Austin American-Statesman

In Doctoral Education, It's Time for an Overhaul

Philip Cohen and Rick Cherwitz
Austin American-Statesman
January 17, 2006

Students and parents are experiencing something akin to sticker shock: Tuition at public universities in Texas and across the nation continues to rise as a direct result of stagnant or declining state funding. These increases especially impact graduate education because the programs are more costly to run than their undergraduate counterparts.

As the price of a Ph.D. rises, it's time to ask whether Texas graduate students and the state are getting the best doctoral programs for their investment.

Doctoral education in Texas generates cutting-edge research contributing to economic development. It also produces researchers needed to solve critical issues confronting our state, prepares future faculty and helps build an educated, literate workforce for the 21st-century.

Yet all isn't well. Although American doctoral programs are widely and accurately acclaimed throughout the world for their ability to produce innovative researchers, educators, and professionals, fundamental reforms in doctoral education are urgently needed.

Reports on the state of doctoral education from the usual suspects (the Association of American Universities, the American Council on Education, the National Research Council, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation) express concern about time-to-degree and completion rates, lack of diversity among those seeking and receiving degrees, uneven mentoring practices, the relevance of curricula to pressing public problems, poor preparation of students for the transition to academic and non-academic positions, and the paucity of American citizens pursuing doctorates in science and engineering fields .

A recent investigation by the Council of Graduate Schools discovered that after 10 years of study, the completion rates were only 64% in engineering, 62% in life sciences, 55% in physical sciences and social sciences and 47% in the humanities. These findings are consistent with those reported in previous studies.

The national median at all universities for registered time-to- degree (from completion of a baccalaureate degree to receipt of the doctoral degree.) is 7.6 years----a figure that has been rising steadily over the last 30 years.

Although similar information for Texas doctoral programs is not available, which itself is disturbing, there is no reason to believe that such data would paint a rosier picture.

Since training doctoral students is a time, money and labor-intensive proposition, such data are profoundly alarming.

True, some students will drop out or fail to meet required academic standards, but research shows that significant numbers of doctoral students who do not complete their degrees are performing well academically yet are alienated by poor social and academic integration into their programs, poor mentoring practices, and other factors.

We must wonder how many more students might complete their doctoral studies if substantive reforms were made in graduate programs. Surely Texas taxpayers deserve a better rate of return on the dollars they invest in doctoral education.

The state should act decisively to improve the performance of its public doctoral programs. Indeed, The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) took the first step by adopting a staff report that became the official policy on doctoral education.

Recommendations include: making available to the public reliable data about the performance of doctoral programs; adopting more rigorous planning and approval processes for new programs; implementing more substantive reviews of existing programs; improving diversity and broadening doctoral program curricula to emphasize transportable skills that prepare doctoral graduates for jobs outside as well as inside academe.

An advisory board consisting primarily of graduate deans from doctoral degree granting universities and health-related institutions is working with the THECB to implement these recommendations.

As is often the case in higher education, it is tempting to assume that recommendations will bring change. It is more likely that faculty and administrators will resist, viewing the THECB's recommendations as an unnecessary intrusion into academic affairs.

Those of us in academe, however, would do well to respond by developing, implementing and owning a flexible but comprehensive approach that seeks to remedy the issues the report identifies while recognizing and respecting the different missions of public research universities.

Rather than wait for the chorus of calls for accountability to swell and lead to externally imposed, poorly designed solutions, we should take the initiative by working together to devise strategies for improving our doctoral program success rates, participation, and program of study. In so doing, we will be acting as both good academic citizens and good Texans for the benefit of faculty, doctoral students, taxpayers and the future of our state.


Phil Cohen is Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington. Rick Cherwitz is Professor of Communication Studies and Director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium (IE) at the University of Texas at Austin.