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People carrying books and bags and coming in different directions yet all moving toward the same door

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For more than half a century, doctoral education has hewed to disciplinary boundaries. Programs are housed mostly in academic departments, to which students apply and where they spend the majority of their time during the graduate experience. Those departments and their corresponding fields are the anchor points for students’ professional networks.

Some programs provide more extensive support now than they did 20 years ago—though program length has crept up—while others have modified coursework requirements as time has passed. Students benefit occasionally from some exchanges with adjacent areas—take the chemist who aligns with some peers in physics, the historian who mingles with the anthropologists, or biosciences tracks that group incoming students together before they choose a program path.

But large-scale and frequent collaboration across Ph.D. programs is nonexistent—despite students expressing their interest in crossing borders and employers consistently clamoring for that experience—and at odds with long-standing and more recent pleas for Ph.D. reform. Simply put, the overarching configuration remains unchanged, and little experimentation has occurred with doctoral program design, unlike what we see with undergraduate and even master’s-level programming.

There are familiar explanations as to why. Some are acknowledged: tradition, the prestige of a program, the fact that specialized knowledge requires specialized training, and hurdles to changing curricula that program modifications entail. Others are frequently hinted at but less often discussed: Why would humanists converge with scientists or engineers? Why would faculty members invest the time and energy in modifying a system that they do not know will yield a more positive result? Then there’s loss aversion: What will students in field A miss by taking classes or engaging in regular activities with students from field B? Or, a significant change in program design will equate to less rigor, right? The list goes on.

And yet we have seen an acceleration in changes affecting the landscape of graduate education nationally. Some programs paused admissions during the pandemic or have decided to close their doors completely. Others limited admissions in particular areas in order to expand in more specific directions.

Employment outcomes have shifted significantly, as well. That is especially—though not exclusively—true for humanities Ph.D.s. While a downward trend was in motion for a decade pre-COVID, as surveyed by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the decline has grown steeper. Pandemic-related hiring freezes, the downsizing of humanities departments and programs, and changing institutional priorities and student interests have often outpaced the ability and—let’s face it—the willingness of departments to adapt. Beyond the humanities, questions of purpose in pursuing a Ph.D., graduate students’ well-being and the rising tide of mistrust in higher education all make clear the urgency of experimenting with doctoral education in creative ways.

Yet the key question is how. How can we experiment with the Ph.D. without taking on the steep financial and practical challenges of creating new programs or consolidating existing ones? Framed differently, how can we explore the benefits of new configurations, enlist graduate faculty members to support the process and do so with available institutional resources?

That is what we plan to try at my institution, Washington University in St. Louis. Beginning with the current admissions cycle, we are implementing a new cohort recruitment and experience model for students in our arts and sciences doctoral programs. Each year, faculty members from our 21 programs will partner with the Office of Graduate Studies to introduce a new cohort theme, selected and designed by faculty colleagues. The themes must be broad, while aligning with areas of faculty strength, and open to cross-field trends or spaces for innovation. They will orient the transdisciplinary curricular and co-curricular experiences of cohort students once at the university.

Cohort groups will be together formally for two years, engaged in coursework and in cross-departmental intellectual community building. Students will continue to apply to and enroll in existing Ph.D. programs—English, history, Hispanic studies or chemistry, for example—expressing in their application their interest in being part of a cohort. Ph.D. programs can choose to participate in the cohort and give their students the opportunity or not. The first cohort theme, Public Scholarship, set to begin in fall 2024, was imagined initially as an attempt to bring humanities and humanistic social science programs together. The result, though, is something much larger, with Ph.D. programs from all corners participating.

Of course, cohort models are not new—they define the first year in many biological sciences programs, while some individual departments, like English at the University of Chicago, have focused on a thematic model for several years. But what we are exploring aims to connect students not just from adjacent fields but also from the most distant ones. The Public Scholarship cohort, for instance, links chemistry with classics; earth, environmental and planetary sciences with music; political science with English. Potential themes in the coming years may not have the same breadth as Public Scholarship, which has a somewhat utilitarian function, but we anticipate that cohorts around AI and Society or the Environment and Human Hopes will continue to catalyze connections across all our programs. The only ask of participating programs is that the course or courses that students take as part of the cohort experience count toward their Ph.D. coursework requirement. Thus far, this has been palatable to all participating disciplines.

What do we hope to get out of the experiment? For programs that have small incoming classes—often in the humanities—this approach can provide students with a more robust peer network and make graduate courses more viable, more sustainable and, frankly, more vibrant. This approach can help students in widely different disciplines find purpose and develop enduring connections across fields. The cohort experience model can add to the possibilities for research collaboration. It’s also a chance for our graduate students, many of whom are still emerging from the isolating fog of the pandemic, to find community. And for participating programs, cohort experiences provide greater visibility when recruiting, additional support structures for their students and stronger relationships across the university.

Admittedly, this approach is an incremental one with low financial stakes. It does not radically alter the traditional structure of doctoral programs. But that’s also what allows us to introduce significant agility into program offerings with widespread faculty support.

We know many current and prospective students are excited about the cohort opportunity, and with more than half our Ph.D. programs on board for the first iteration, there is real enthusiasm on the campus. We’ll have to wait until spring to see how many people join the first group of students and how their experience goes. If successful, the cohort experience model can guide us toward much larger beneficial changes.

William Acree is associate vice dean of graduate education at Washington University in St. Louis.

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