Grad programs see scrutiny

For a study of graduate education conducted several years ago, doctoral students were asked to draw pictures representing their journey through graduate school.

“They were all pictures of people trying to go across chasms or climb mountains,” said Jody Nyquist, an associate dean emeritus of the graduate school at the University of Washington. “We were just amazed at how they viewed their own personal journeys.”

Nyquist’s research is one early piece of a national reexamination of doctoral education that began in the 1990s and continues today, focused on concern that students are dropping out of graduate programs at an alarming rate. The Graduate School’s announcement last week that departments will consider changes to the middle years of their doctoral programs next fall places Yale at the forefront of a national movement toward Ph.D. reform.

Concerns about attrition, time-to-degree and students’ dissatisfaction with their doctoral programs have sparked investigations by several non-profit institutions and independent researchers. Proposed solutions have focused on improving mentoring and increasing financial support to reduce barriers to Ph.D. completion.

Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said the cost of doctoral programs and their importance to academia has spurred national interest in evaluating how well they prepare future scholars.

“These are also the programs that really symbolize every university’s commitment to producing leadership in American intellectual life,” Butler said. “They are really critical for sustaining America’s leadership in the world. If the United States is going to continue to lead in that area, it needs to assess and reassess its highest degree programs.”

One of the first calls to reform doctoral programs came in 1992 with the publication of “In Pursuit of the Ph.D.” by former Princeton President William Bowen and then-Harvard President Neil Rudenstine. The book claimed that only 50 percent of students who enter doctoral programs ever complete their degree — a statistic that caused graduate school administrators to begin to think about the causes of student attrition, said Catherine Millett, a research scientist for the Educational Testing Service.

“Re-envisioning the Ph.D.,” Nyquist’s project at the University of Washington, was an early attempt to identify obstacles and possible solutions to attrition and long time-to-degree in doctoral programs. Nyquist said graduate school administrators were initially reluctant to take a critical look at Ph.D. education.

“People told me, ‘Don’t do this. Ph.D. is the only thing that’s working well in education in this country,’” she said.

Doctoral programs continued to follow the model of education established in the 1970s and 1980s, Butler said, without receiving the level of attention that was given to revising undergraduate education at the same time. Compared to the 1940s, today’s doctoral candidates spend more years in school to complete a more complex program of coursework, Butler said.

Graduate schools cannot control all of the factors that may lead students to drop out of a doctoral program, such as child care or new job opportunities, Millett said, but graduate schools should work to meet students’ needs in other areas.

“If these institutions do such a good job getting undergraduates through, we need to be thinking about why people may not be staying [in doctoral programs],” Millett said.

The “Responsive Ph.D.” project recently completed by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the ongoing “Ph.D. Completion Project” at the Council of Graduate Schools both seek to identify best practices to improve retention and shorten time-to-degree. Daniel Denecke, the director for best practices at CGS, said anecdotal evidence shows that several institutions have improved completion rates through dissertation support groups and peer mentoring groups that foster social networks among graduate students.

Beverly Sanford, the director of communications for WWNFF, said the “Responsive Ph.D.” study — in which Yale was a key participant — focused on improving equity in graduate education. Its report praised Yale’s Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity for improving recruiting and retention of minority graduate students.

Millett said these reform projects are beginning to have an effect on graduate programs nationwide. While long-term effects cannot yet be seen, she said extra funding is already helping students in the middle or later years of their programs. She said she hopes that researchers see current first-year students graduate in shorter time frames within five to six years.

Denecke said Yale is a leader in the national movement for Ph.D. reform, particularly because the upcoming reviews recognize a need to look separately at individual departments and programs.

“They’re really recognizing the subtleties and the nuances of disciplines, fields and demographics,” he said.

Butler said the goal of Yale’s departmental reviews is to make changes that offer a significant chance of improving completion rates and students’ overall experience in graduate school.

“We want to make these reviews work at the ground level, where real students can feel the impact,” Butler said.

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