Accountability for Grad School Professors

A major criticism from students who have dropped out of graduate school is the lack of support they received from their professors, write Melissa A. Brevetti and Dana Ford.

September 30, 2016

High standards of accountability for teachers, which both the public and government called for, led to teaching standards for K-12 schools through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. As a result, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1990 and 2013 the dropout rate for white students decreased from 9 percent to 5 percent, for black students from 13 percent to 7 percent, and for Hispanic students, from 32 percent to 12 percent. Clearly, those standards appear to have made a difference.

But dropouts are not only a K-12 problem. Data from the Ph.D. Completion Project conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools show that graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields have a graduation rate of only 55 to 64 percent after 10 years. In fact, the graduation rate for humanities this past decade is not quite 50 percent. Given the significant number of dropouts, greater accountability seems a logical solution in the way it is has helped K-12 schools. Yet higher education has not turned to similar standards in order to increase retention and improve teaching.

Higher Education Critique

Most university retention efforts focus on problems of graduate students rather than quality control of professors’ teaching. For example, Ellucian, one of the largest education consulting groups in America, has said that “early academic achievement is a predictor of future success” for retention and student success in higher education. Nevertheless, improving teaching is never a part of the formula to improve academic performance. The only time professors are mentioned by Ellucian relates to advising rather than actual instruction.

Thus far a major criticism from the students who have left graduate school is the lack of support they received from their professors -- namely, the dearth of help with understanding class content. Students typically are left to tutors, classmates or other peers if they get lost in classes. Many students have wasted time and resources by not having relevant, helpful feedback. That lack of guidance leads many students to change advisers -- to those who seem to know what is going on. Even more just drop out.

Universities do claim to evaluate teacher quality, although not through standards such as those initiated by No Child Left Behind. Instead, most institutions use student evaluations, course syllabi, course examinations and peer reviews. But professional peers -- such as graduate students in psychology, science or history -- are seldom trained to recognize effectiveness in teaching skills. For that reason, only education professors’ teaching may be compared to a list of specific skills and classroom management techniques.

Implications for Graduate School Practices

Successful academic achievement in graduate school has been shown as a key factor for students’ low attrition rates. David Litalien and Frederic Guay, scholars at, respectively, the Australian Catholic University and Laval University in Quebec, have demonstrated that a student’s perceived competence is the strongest indicator of who completes their dissertation. Moreover, the other two significant factors -- quality of the student-adviser relationship and interactions with other faculty members -- indicate that more support and less isolation students have, the more likely they are to come to the final examination with a defensible paper. That means, of course, lower attrition and better graduation rates.

Having specific criteria for a graduate student’s preparation for the defense of their thesis is one way to increase perceived competence. Currently, students are told that the prospectus, exams and defense are a test of what they have learned. Yet that is often not the case. One student, for instance, was told by a professor on his dissertation committee that he needed to add feminist theory when his architectural design proposal was introduced. Because his vision was inclusive and not necessarily masculine or feminine, he failed his prospectus meeting. Another student had to retake the general exams due to her committee getting off topic about government in education, which had no relation to her research in morality. Many similar situations occur in academe when the objectives and goals of the program are not clearly conveyed.

In addition, professors believe that graduate students should be able to write for their academic discipline or field as they produce a thesis or dissertation. However, they often provide no criteria for the field as distinct from other fields. Instead of teaching that, many professors suggest books on academic writing or the writing-center tutors. They often just direct students to work with the “dissertation librarians” and figure it out. If professors taught students how to write a field thesis or dissertation, then students could understand the aims of research. As is, doctoral students are often left traveling without a map.

It need not be this way. Calls for reform in K-12 education resulted in a prescriptive approach which led to higher retention and graduation rates. In higher education, we suggest that five basic skills are necessary for effective teaching, as outlined by Raoul Arreola, professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center; Michael Theall, faculty emeritus at Youngstown State University; and Lawrence M. Aleamoni, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona:

  • content expertise
  • instructional design skills
  • instructional delivery skills
  • instructional assessment skills
  • course management skills

Such skills must be broken down into specific observable activities that can be measured in a way similar to how they are measured when K-12 teachers are evaluated. That would allow university leaders to assess graduate school professors and make sure the best pedagogy is in place.

Professors can also participate in professional development about educational and teaching approaches that they can consistently apply in both individual and class instruction. For example, as we look at higher education reform in particular, students need quality teaching about dissertation writing, along with more time with dissertation committees for constructive feedback about expectations.

We are hesitant to apply a one-size-fits-all type of instruction as part of doctoral studies. But many doctoral students face confusion every day with the current hands-off method from professors who seem unclear themselves. Indeed, in identifying causes for grad student attrition, we found a number of instances when students perceived that their questions were not answered and needs were not met during the process of writing their dissertation. Future researchers must learn how to complete accurate, relevant and original work in their research field. In order to contribute in diverse academic fields, students also need mentoring in scholarly writing. By demonstrating the skills that are needed for research success, professors could provide students with the knowledge and tools that would lead to a higher graduation rate.

So we ask again, how do professors need to be evaluated? We argue that professors are teachers, and because K-12 retention rose after strict standards were imposed on teachers, higher education’s retention rates could also rise with specific standards for professors that ensure that both they and their students attain success.


Dana Ford is an emeritus director of studies in English as a foreign language, and Melissa Brevetti is director of accreditation for the School of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Langston University.

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