Ph.D. program to be reviewed

The University will begin a detailed evaluation of the quality of academic programs and mentoring for students in the middle years of doctoral programs at the Graduate School next fall, Graduate School Dean Jon Butler announced Thursday.

In his introduction to the project, Butler asked departments to pay particular attention to years two through four of their programs, after students complete their coursework and begin to prepare the prospectus for their dissertations. A similar review conducted last semester by the Political Science Department will serve as a model for other programs, which are expected to complete their reviews by December, Butler said.

“I think that we can make our programs simultaneously more exciting [and] more creative as well as more efficient,” Butler said. “It’s very clear that reasonable management, clear expectations, strong financial support, good advising and mentoring can really make a difference in producing a Ph.D. that is disciplinarily and intellectually exciting, and at the same time doesn’t consume an entire decade of your life.”

Butler said the Graduate School chose to ask departments to conduct their own internal reviews — rather than implement a broad, school-wide evaluation of doctoral programs — because each discipline creates a different structure for its Ph.D. program. While students may get stuck in the same places along the path toward completing their degree, with difficulties in completing coursework, taking comprehensive exams or finishing the dissertation prospectus, Butler said, the causes of those delays differ from department to department.

“Even though we could identify a common generic problem, the solution is probably absolutely not uniform, and has to be attuned to the nature of the discipline,” Butler said.

The Political Science Department’s final report on its graduate program, completed in March, was sent to Graduate School faculty and students in other departments on Thursday to serve as a guide for reviews next fall, Butler said.

Stephen Skowronek, the director of graduate studies in political science, said the department decided to launch its own internal review because of general concerns about the lack of structure in the third year of doctoral programs, as well as discipline-specific concerns — such as an expanding number of subfields in political science. The department also focused on mentoring and job search assistance, he said.

“I don’t know that our institutional memory actually nailed down the last time the program had been reviewed,” Skowronek said.

The biggest change to the program following the review was a redesign of the department’s requirements for comprehensive exams, Skowronek said. Whereas students used to be certified in three fields of political science by taking a comprehensive exam in each one, candidates must now be certified in four fields, though coursework can be substituted for exams in two of those fields.

To facilitate writing the dissertation prospectus, Skowronek said, the department created a workshop on drafting a prospectus and a new timeline for meetings between students and their dissertation committees. Mentoring and professional development programs will also be enhanced, Skowronek said.

Catherine Millett, a research scientist at the Educational Testing Service, said her recent survey of more than 9,000 doctoral students — which Butler cited in his introduction to the Yale project — demonstrated that graduate schools need to reevaluate their programs. Millett said students’ experiences with funding, advising and research productivity significantly affected their ability to complete their doctoral degrees and find professional success.

“Our hope is that people will look at these data and begin to use them as the starting point of a conversation about how their departments are working together to craft an experience for their students,” Millett said.

Linda Peterson, the director of graduate studies in the English Department, said her department has not yet discussed specific plans for reviewing years two through four of its doctoral programs. She said she thinks the department already does a good job of getting students through oral examinations at the beginning of their third year so that they begin work on a dissertation prospectus quickly.

“Almost all of our students advance to candidacy by the beginning of the third year, which is right on target and ahead of most other departments,” Peterson said.

Peterson said she expects the English Department to consult with students and faculty about the strengths and weaknesses of the doctoral program as part of their review.

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