April 28, 2000 issue
Section: The Faculty
Critics Urge Overhaul of Ph.D. Training, but Disagree Sharply on How to Do So
By DENISE K. MAGNER
Most Ph.D.'s never land jobs at research universities, yet their training is geared precisely toward such positions.
That contradiction is inspiring a growing chorus of critics to argue that American doctoral education is in need of
Just how to fix it was the focus of an conference here this month, called "Re-envisioning the Ph.D.," which
brought together 150 people from academe, foundations, government agencies, and the business world.
Their prescriptions ranged from the mild (teach professors how to be better mentors) to the radical (turn the
Ph.D. into a broadly based four-year program with postdoctoral opportunities for those who want to concentrate
on research). Some focused their recommendations on federal agencies (require that grant applications for
research projects have a teaching component), while others urged changes within academe (require departments
to disclose the job-placement rates of their Ph.D.'s).
Whatever their angle, most here agreed that the apprenticeship model practiced by universities, in which faculty
members seek to reproduce researchers in their own image, was outmoded.
"We need to fish or cut bait with the German model of doctoral education, and I think we need to cut bait," said
David Damrosch, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, who spoke at the
conference. Doc toral education in the future will be less a matter of producing new knowledge, he said, than of
circulating knowledge across disciplinary boundaries.
Cataloging the complaints about doctoral education proved easier than reaching agreement on how to reform it.
Graduate students feel exploited as teaching assistants and trained for jobs at research universities that are few
and far between. Teaching institutions find it difficult to hire new Ph.D.'s who actually know how to teach.
Business leaders complain that new Ph.D.'s can't communicate and don't know how to apply theory to real-world
"We have an oversupply of Ph.D.'s for academia, and that's given us this occasion to rethink what we are doing in
doctoral education," said Jody D. Nyquist, the conference organizer and director of the Center for Instructional
Development and Research at the University of Washington. "We don't have an oversupply of Ph.D.'s for society.
We need more people who've been deeply trained, but not just deeply trained as academics."
A raft of recent surveys has documented the dissatisfaction of graduate students. "They do not feel prepared for
life outside research universities, which is where the jobs are," said Chris M. Golde, an assistant professor of
higher education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At the meeting here, she released the preliminary
results of a new survey that she helped conduct among 4,210 doctoral students at 28 universities from May 1999
to January 2000.
Among her findings:
* Fully one-third of graduate students are dissatisfied with the way their doctoral programs are organized.
* Doctoral students are interested in a wide range of faculty roles -- including research, teaching, and advising --
but feel prepared only for research, publishing, and leading discussion sections of courses.
* More than one-fourth said they would like to be able to take more courses outside their departments,
particularly in business, computers, and the humanities.
* Nearly half of respondents said their performance as graduate students is not reviewed annually. That varied by
discipline, with annual reviews given to a high of 83 percent of psychology students and a low of 35 percent of
students in English and chemistry.
Ms. Golde plans to release a full report on the study's findings this year.
The conversation about refashioning Ph.D. training stumbled here at times because of the vastly different
circumstances facing doctoral education in the sciences as compared with the humanities and social sciences.
In the sciences, some educators here said, the best and the brightest are increasingly choosing industry over
"When I was a graduate student, there was something really wrong with you if you went into industry," said Leroy
Hood, who recently left an endowed professorship in molecular biotechnology at the University of Washington to
head his own for-profit Institute for Systems Biology, in Seattle. "What I see now is some of the very best
students are going to industry. They see industry as more compatible with a reasonable life." Not only are the
salaries higher, he said, but it's easier to get strong financial support for research as a young scientist in industry
than as an assistant professor.
But companies are not completely satisfied with the product they are buying from graduate schools. Business
executives here said they aren't interested in a watered-down Ph.D. They said the central feature of the degree
should continue to be technical competence and the independent investigation of a research topic. But they also
want Ph.D.'s who can communicate their ideas, work in teams, and think beyond narrow disciplines.
"In industry, we're not looking for cross-disciplinary experts," said Joel Shulman, manager of external relations,
research, and development at Procter & Gamble. "We're looking for experts who can work on cross-disciplinary
In the humanities and social sciences, meanwhile, key issues remain how to broaden the professional
opportunities available to Ph.D.'s and how to lessen faculty resistance to careers outside academe.
"The vast majority of faculty haven't been anything but faculty," said Gregory Bezkorovainy, a graduate student in
English at the City University of New York's Graduate School and University Center and president of the
Graduate Student Caucus of the Modern Language Association. "It's unrealistic to expect them to advise students
on alternative careers when they don't have any experience."
Even so, said Mr. Bezkorovainy, who spoke on a panel here, the overreliance of many institutions on
graduate-student labor and part-time instructors shows that the "Ph.D. isn't even valued by the profession that
gives it out." His proposals for reform: Eliminate the Ph.D. altogether and come up with a terminal master's
program for teaching English. The alternative, he said, was for faculty members to improve the job market for
Ph.D.'s by demanding that administrators turn part-time faculty positions into full-time ones.
Few here seemed willing to go that far. But they were interested in more-modest proposals, such as tracking
more closely what happens to Ph.D.'s, shortening the time it takes to earn a degree by providing more financial
support directly to doctoral students, increasing the breadth of doctoral training by encouraging
cross-disciplinary work, and urging faculty members to take leaves from academe in order to work in "the real
The reforms don't all have to be big in scope, said Daniel Goroff, a professor of the practice of mathematics at
Harvard University and associate director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. One way to
expose Ph.D. candidates to nonacademic careers, he said, would be for departments to invite their former Ph.D.'s
who had gone into industry to serve on dissertation committees.
He's not sure they should be voting members of such committees, but involving nonacademics in the process
would provide contacts for students and help connect the department to its graduate alumni.
Another proposal at the conference was to give prospective students more information about potential advisers
through a national online directory of graduate faculty members. Professors could have listings in the directory
describing their "mentoring" styles, expectations of doctoral students, and the average time-to-degree of their
students. Ms. Nyquist, the conference organizer, said foundations were "standing by," ready to finance the effort.
As a first step, her center is setting up an e-mail list through its World Wide Web site
(http://depts.washington.edu/envision/index.html) to carry on the conversations begun at the conference. The
center also expects to publish a book that will include recommendations and descriptions of promising reforms.
Participants at the conference here acknowledged that academe had been hearing calls for reform of Ph.D.
training for decades. Lee S. Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching,
said he had seen a growing willingness by academic departments to experiment with doctoral education.
At the meeting, he announced that Carnegie planned to begin a multiyear study in September to explore alternative
Ph.D. tracks in which the focus might, for example, be on teaching.
Said Mr. Shulman: "Our own graduate programs must become the laboratories in which we experiment with
unconventional approaches to preparing people for the Ph.D."
Copyright © 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
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