'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.

October 7, 2005

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 foundation's 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


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