Reforming the 'Formation of Scholars'

Doctoral education in the United States, though the envy of the world, needs serious reforms that require a new emphasis on the creation of "intellectual communities" that will change the roles of both professors and graduate students, argues a book being released today by the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching.

December 4, 2007

Doctoral education in the United States, though the envy of the world, needs serious reforms that require a new emphasis on the creation of "intellectual communities" that will change the roles of both professors and graduate students, argues a book being released today by the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching.

The Formation of Scholars: Rethinking Doctoral Education for the Twenty-First Century (Jossey-Bass) emphasizes the importance of some concepts -- like intellectual community or having professors in a graduate program actually talk among themselves about their goals for the program -- that at first glance may sound a bit obvious. But surveys of graduate students and professors collected for the book illustrate that such basics as having a departmental consensus on graduate education are nothing to take for granted. The surveys in fact found that major aspects of doctoral programs aren’t well understood by the professors who require them or the students who must complete the requirements.

While the book goes to great lengths to say that it is not suggesting an overhaul of everything in graduate education, it could be read to be suggesting numerous significant changes. For example, it says that a key feature such as the qualifying exam is currently offered in many cases without a departmental vision of what it is for -- and with students left confused and frustrated. Dissertations, the book argues, are defined in a much too narrow way. And the apprenticeship model, in which a graduate student theoretically learns from a learned scholar in the field, needs to be rethought to, among other things, get away from the idea that any one professor can provide what’s needed.

The book comes at a time of considerable public discussion of reforming graduate education -- and some concrete steps at key universities. The Council of Graduate Schools has been engaged in a series of studies on the factors that lead students to complete programs (or not). Yale University started a major campaign last year to re-examine its graduate programs. Stanford University on Monday announced new fellowships and faculty mentoring programs designed to diversify the graduate student population -- and the faculty members who will emerge from it.

For the Carnegie book, many of the conclusions were based on surveys of students and faculty members from six fields at 84 Ph.D.-granting institutions. The fields are chemistry, education, English, history, mathematics and neuroscience. While the surveys indicate that some of the issues raised by the book are more prevalent than others, it found variations of the problems discussed in the broad range of programs studied.

The book is by no means a scolding for those who run graduate education -- it repeatedly notes the successes of doctoral education in the United States over time, and offers examples of reforms currently being tried that reflect the issues involved. The concerns discussed are important not only for the 375,000 students currently enrolled in doctoral programs, the authors note, but for those they are likely to someday teach as professors themselves.

The range of problems faced in the programs -- while not new -- is quite broad, the book says. "About half of today’s doctoral students are lost to attrition -- and in some programs the numbers are higher yet," the book says. "Those who persist often take a long time to finish and along the way find their passion for the field sadly diminished. Many are ill-prepared for the full range of roles they must play...."

Efforts to assess the quality of what goes on in graduate education are minimal, the report says, and many professors aren’t excited about talking about these issues. "One finds attitudes of complacency (‘Our application numbers are strong and so is our national ranking’), denial (‘We don’t have problems with gender or ethnic diversity here’), and blame (‘Students these days just aren’t willing to make the kinds of sacrifices we did to be successful.’)," the book says.

While many programs resist change, many doctoral students find themselves uncertain about expectations or the rationale for requirements that are consuming years of their lives, the book says. "The rationale for program requirements has often been lost in the mists of history: Students may not well understand why certain elements are required or toward what end, and faculty, if pushed, will acknowledge that there is no unified vision underpinning many of the experiences students are expected to undertake."

Given the Carnegie Foundation's longstanding push to get academe to move beyond the teaching-research dichotomy to a model in which the two are seen as related, it’s no surprise that the book advocates such an approach in graduate education. But the authors note that the problems they identify have a significant impact on the pure research functions that graduate students in theory are picking up.

In promoting a vision of doctoral education that is more collaborative and transparent, the book suggests three central themes: scholarly integration, intellectual community, and stewardship. All relate to the more specific recommendations in the book about specific practices of doctoral education.

Take for example the qualifying or comprehensive examination that is, the book says, "often dreaded" by students, and that theoretically serves gate-keeping functions while also encouraging students to have amassed a certain critical mass of knowledge. While these exams are central to Ph.D. education, it turns out they are little understood, the book says.

While students in the Carnegie surveys said they understood the theory behind the exams, their descriptions of their knowledge of what they would involve, why they were given and how to prepare were less than optimistic. Among the phrases students gave: "we are left drifting," "in the dark," "terrifyingly nebulous," "opaque" and "just stumbling through."

Faculty members might be expected to have a better sense of qualifying exams, in light of the fact that they give them. But when asked if they thought that qualifying exams reflected “a shared understanding of the educational purpose” of a department, professors weren’t conclusive. In only three of the six disciplines studied (education, neuroscience and mathematics) was there a majority view that there was a shared understanding, and the percentages were only 53 to 55 percent. In chemistry, history and English, only 49, 44 and 35 percent, respectively, of professors saw a “shared understanding” in what qualifying exams mean. Similar figures were found in the surveys for whether there was a shared understanding of what student success should mean on the exams.

Given that departments could develop shared visions on such issues, why don’t they? The surveys and interviews conducted for the study found that it's largely a matter of conflict avoidance. Professors know that they don’t all agree, and consider it preferable to ignore those disagreements (even if that leaves graduate students hanging) than to actually talk about them. "The greatest obstacle to serious, substantive deliberation about purpose, as a number of department leaders told us, is that some differences are better not discussed," the book says. "Not talking about purposes, that is, helps maintain a precarious peace."

The book urges departments to overcome such fears, and says that however difficult some of those discussions may be, they are necessary to provide doctoral students with direction and to identify ways programs can improve.

Another area where doctoral education needs change is the dissertation, the book argues. Here again, it finds dissatisfaction among both Ph.D. students and the professors who lead their committees. "Standards by which dissertations are judged are unclear to students, and faculty members complain privately that poorly written, poorly conceptualized, and poorly executed dissertations are often passed to appease a colleague or to simply get a student out the door."

In many ways, the book suggests, the dissertation process reinforces some of the problems of graduate education (going narrow when most of the interesting scholarly work this day is interdisciplinary, focusing on research to the exclusion of teaching and separate from it, and so forth). At the same time, the book notes that the dissertation is "firmly ensconced as the capstone experience in doctoral education" and that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

"The dissertation requires students to put theory into action, consider multiple lines of evidence, and display a comprehensive understanding of previous scholarship in the field; it is strongly linked to the development of research skills and content area mastery," the book says. The challenge, the book says, is to preserve those good features of the dissertation while breaking the mold in other ways.

As an example, the book cites the chemistry department at the University of Michigan, where doctoral students -- while doing research for their dissertations -- are also encouraged to study a possible teaching idea or curricular reform. In some cases, dissertations have then combined traditional research questions with such teaching issues -- setting those new Ph.D.’s off in a direction of careers where teaching and research are integrated.

Another feature of doctoral education about which the book offers a new view is the apprenticeship relationship between doctoral students and the professors who advise them. The book acknowledges many stories of abusive relationships, but also the many academics for whom these relationships launch significant careers, creating "intellectual lineages" that are important long after a Ph.D. has been awarded. In fact, the book says, "apprenticeship is the signature pedagogy of doctoral education."

The current system works well sometimes, the book says, but only sometimes. "When the relationship is bad, it can be horrid," the book says. "At its worst, it has contributed to murder and suicide, but more common problems are student attrition and the demise of passion and love for the field." Other problems include the system’s emphasis on the "reproductive model of mentoring," in which students learn how one scholar thinks more than how to think for themselves.

A potential solution that the book endorses is to shift from “a system in which students are apprenticed to a faculty mentor to one in which they apprentice with several mentors."

Doctoral students have many needs, the book says. "It is rarely the case that one relationship can meet all those needs," it adds. "Today’s students are thus best served by having several intellectual mentors. Incoming students, for instance, have evolving research interests that may or may not align perfectly with those of a single faculty member. And even if students’ interests closely parallel those of a single professor who becomes their adviser, novice learners benefit from seeing the field through different theoretical or methodological perspectives…. Multiple mentors can also increase the number of possible connections and collaborators available to each student."

The multiple mentors approach already has some traction – but apparently only in some departments. When doctoral students were asked about the number of mentors they had during their programs, more than 60 percent of chemistry students and nearly 50 percent in mathematics and neurosciences said they had only one. But in English and history, students were more likely to say “three or more” than one, and in education they were more likely to say two than one.

The authors of the book are:

  • George Walker, vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School at Florida International University.
  • Chris M. Golde, associate vice president for graduate education at Stanford University.
  • Laura Jones, an applied anthropologist who is currently university archaeologist at Stanford University.
  • Andrea Conklin Bueschel, senior program officer at the Spencer Foundation.
  • Pat Hutchings, vice president of the Carnegie Foundation.


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