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Evolving The Doctorate

Carnegie initiative inspires reshaping of Ph.D. programs to fit modern times

by Sarah Everts
September 4, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 36

Hands On
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN
University of Wisconsin, Madison's Lockett (left) makes a point, while Burstyn listens.
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN
University of Wisconsin, Madison's Lockett (left) makes a point, while Burstyn listens.

Look no further than language for evidence that the nature of doctoral culture is changing.

Nowadays, graduate students refer to their research adviser as "my boss," or they say, "I work for" so and so. "Twenty years ago, when I got my Ph.D., we said 'I work with,' " says Brian P. Coppola, a professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan. For Coppola, lingo is just one indicator of how a changing world is morphing the landscape traversed by Ph.D. students, both during their training and after.

Evidence of a changing landscape is plentiful: Consider the globalization of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Consider funding constraints. Consider the rise of interdisciplinary science, intellectual property pursuits, and faculty entrepreneurs. Consider the mega-academic groups that operate like small businesses. Consider the stricter visa regulations for foreign students, and other science policy pressures.

So, if times are changing, what about doctoral education?

In 2001, two groups launched five-year programs to answer that question and to provide suggestions on how to reform the doctorate to reflect modern attitudes. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation asked graduate deans from across the U.S. how doctoral education could be more responsive to modern realities. The deans recommended boosting minority representation, broadening career options post-Ph.D., and applying doctoral expertise to solve challenges impacting society, to name a few.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching tried a bottom-up approach. Carnegie asked students and faculty in university departments of six disciplines—chemistry, education, English, history, mathematics, and neuroscience—to take a serious look at how to better prepare doctoral graduates in their departments for research and employment. And thus the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID) was launched.

"We threw a party and waited to see who would come," says Chris Golde, research director for CID. "Our goal with CID was to set a reforming process in motion," Golde says. "We wanted to initiate self-examination and then to keep poking periodically to stoke the fire. So little had been done to evaluate doctoral education, let alone to initiate reform."

Eleven chemistry departments across the U.S. stepped up to the plate: Duke University; Howard University; Northeastern University; Ohio State University; the State University of New York, Stony Brook; the University of Colorado, Boulder; the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; the University of Oklahoma; the University of Texas, Austin; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University.

These departments' motivated students and faculty used CID as a platform to make departmental changes to bolster or support mentor-student relationships. They enhanced curricula. They evaluated the idea of first-year lab rotations. They introduced a maternity leave policy for grad students. They improved professional development through writing workshops, teacher training, and internships. They addressed the issue of how to make students—especially foreign students—feel more included in departmental activities.

Golde says CID wanted faculty and students to come up with their own solutions to issues in their home departments. She explains: "Problems and solutions are so context-dependent. Chemistry at Howard is different from chemistry at Michigan. If we went to a bunch of chemistry departments and said, 'Here are the seven best practices that we want you to try in your department,' it would have never worked. Improvements or changes were more likely to stick if they were developed locally."

One of the biggest challenges for many of the departments involved was local engagement, essentially navigating the adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." "But why not improve things?" asks UW Madison chemistry professor Lloyd M. Smith. "Why not just take a look?"

"The reality is that the system isn't broken—we all successfully graduate doctoral students," says Charles P. (Chuck) Casey, another chemistry professor at UW Madison. "But CID gave us the opportunity to take a fresh look at things."

"CID added more intentionality to the program at Madison," says chemistry professor Judith N. Burstyn. "We identified weaknesses and came up with a course to address them."

But envisioning improvements to doctoral education depends largely on the discipline at hand: Doctoral programs in different departments vary dramatically. In humanities departments, for example, Ph.D. work is solitary, so much so that the concept of a dissertation comprising several papers from a mix of authors—not just the doctoral student—seems absurd to many humanities academics. But even among the sciences, there are significant differences in doctoral program structure.

Doctorate Dialogues
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN
Howard University's Ayorinde discusses the Ph.D. curriculum while faculty member Jason S. Matthews (left) and Smith (right) look on.
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN
Howard University's Ayorinde discusses the Ph.D. curriculum while faculty member Jason S. Matthews (left) and Smith (right) look on.

Take, for instance, the issue of rotations, where incoming grad students work for several weeks in a series of laboratories before they officially select a mentor. Although this is the status quo in biology departments and even many biochemistry departments, the notion is deeply controversial among many chemistry faculty and students. Detractors raise concerns that range from how to pay students to the possibility that rotations are nothing but a fruitless elongation of the doctoral program. Proponents argue that students who participate in rotations make more informed choices about their doctoral research group and can create a network of mentors within a department. Proponents also point out that rotations are an opportunity to broaden the students' chemistry exposure. For example, incoming students interested in theoretical chemistry might be encouraged to try one rotation in an experimental laboratory.

Many of the chemistry departments involved in CID—like UW Madison and Ohio State—discussed including rotations as part of their changes to the doctorate. At Michigan, CID was an opportunity to evaluate a recently instituted rotation program, put into place in 2001.

Although Michigan's chemistry department had mandated research rotations, support was still not unanimous. "There was still debate going on, but it was an experiment people were willing to try," Coppola says. "CID came at exactly the right time because we were saying 'This is an experiment,' and it seemed appropriate that we collect data too."

Data now coming in, as the first 2001 rotation students graduate, are telling, Coppola says. "The students take the same or less time to graduate than in previous years." Graduate students increasingly appreciate their participation in rotations, he adds. "After the first year, there was a 50-50 split of people satisfied with the rotation program. After the second year, the students favored the rotation process 65-35. After the third year, the split was 80-20. By the fourth year there was near-unanimous approval."

Coppola says the basis for the change of heart might be as lofty as the appreciation of a broader education that comes with scholarly maturation or be as practical as the realization that more mentors means a greater portfolio of recommendation letters and contacts as graduation looms. And the faculty? Assistant professors are unanimous in their support of the rotations, while senior faculty are still split, Coppola says.

Across the nation, only a handful of chemistry departments—including Emory University, Harvard University, and New York University—currently have rotations in place.

Research rotations may be one way to help a student choose the right mentor, a relationship that many say is the most important factor dictating a student's doctoral experience.

In the best-case scenario, the mentor-student relationship is an intellectually stimulating rapport that becomes more reciprocal as the student advances through the doctorate. But this is not always the case. At one CID university, a survey revealed that some students feel like nothing more than a "pair of hands" in the lab. Other students voice that they would not choose the same mentor given a second chance. So what can be done to bolster this relationship?

"It's hard to make generalizations about how to improve doctoral programs for students when that experience is so contingent on the mentor we choose," says Sam Pazicni, a chemistry graduate student at UW Madison. Faculty are unique individuals and you cannot expect them to act the same, Pazicni says. "Evening out the playing field may not be realistic. You obviously can't streamline faculty."

It is, however, possible to streamline expectations. So when SUNY Stony Brook's associate chemistry professor Nancy S. Goroff meets prospective graduate students, she now gives them a list of expectations. Many faculty think some expectations are obvious, such as helping others in the lab or participating in group meetings, says Goroff. "For some students, this is just not obvious. A healthy relationship means clear communication from the start." Graduate chemistry student Erik Stolarzewicz couldn't agree more. "Many students don't realize the commitment required of you in graduate school. They don't realize what they're getting into. I've had grad students say to me, 'I didn't realize I'd be working 60 hours a week.' "

Students almost universally say that chance more than forethought featured in their choice of a mentor. "Some of us get so bogged down by courses that picking an adviser is often off the radar screen," says Howard chemistry graduate student Olamide O. Onakoya. Instituting ways to help incoming graduate students make clear choices of mentor was a focus of many CID initiatives. Brown-bag lunches between students and faculty members was one technique. In the absence of rotations, students need to show that they have spoken with several faculty before selecting an adviser. Departmental research seminars, graduate student meet-and-greets, and poster sessions are just a few of the mechanisms that CID departments instituted to help students select the right adviser. Colorado established a graduate-student-run shadowing program "designed to help new graduate students meet advanced students and get a sense of what it might be like to work in a few different research groups before joining one," says Colorado chemistry graduate student Deb Casher. Advice about what to look for in a mentor is provided at some schools in panel discussions about mentor selection.

Once a mentor is chosen, it is far from a fait accompli that the mentor-student relationship will be sound, so ways to support this relationship were also tackled. Many schools created doctoral advisory committees that met annually, instead of sporadically, if at all. "I'm ready to defend. The last time I saw my committee was when I started my research. I'm lucky enough to have a healthy relationship with my mentor," Stolarzewicz says. "But what if I didn't?"

At the very least, proponents say, an advising committee enlarges the set of mentors for a student, and at best, it can detect and possibly buffer the worst-case scenario of mentor-student relationship breakdown. As a consequence of the review, SUNY Stony Brook's chemistry department changed the composition of the advising committee so that all three faculty members have expertise closely related to the student's research. And the chair of a student's doctoral committee is not the adviser, so there is an additional voice in the discussion about when a student should write up.

George E. Walker is at the helm of the entire CID program. He's a theoretical physicist, and so he likes posing Gedanken (thought) experiments. "Imagine something contrary to fact. Suppose there were a rule that you could no longer have courses. What alternatives would you design in order to meet the same goals that those courses were supposed to meet but without lectures? Even though you don't have to eliminate courses from a curriculum, you use those alternatives to enrich what you are already doing."

Walker says the same sort of approach can be applied to any aspect of the doctoral program. "Suppose you couldn't give any qualifying exams, what would you do to meet the same goals? It means you have to ask yourself, 'Why do we do it?' Is it just a rite of passage? Is it because we don't believe that students' grades reflect what they know? Or maybe you are trying to weed people out? Or is it a pedagogical technique to encourage student learning in a subject by preparing for exams? You have to decide the reason for giving the exam, and then you have to decide how you would meet those goals without the traditional vehicle. There is often a better or a complementary way to achieve the same end."

These sorts of thought experiments were among the prompts used to foster discussion at gatherings for CID participants in 2003, 2004, and 2005. Two of the meetings assembled individuals from specific disciplines (for example, chemistry) to discuss discipline-specific topics, while the last meeting was issue-oriented, so that participants from all six disciplines tackled how to incorporate teaching into doctoral training or how doctoral students could develop robust intellectual communities.


One of the easiest ways that participating schools reformed their programs was to scrutinize their curriculum. "The biggest benefit of CID was that we took the time to ask if we know why we are doing what we are doing," says Michael G. White, chair of SUNY Stony Brook's chemistry department. "Then we asked whether it was meeting students' needs and whether we had evaluated this recently. The answer on all accounts was no, no, no. CID was a catalyst for change."

Often, seemingly simple things were changed with important consequences: For example, Stony Brook chemistry scaled what it considered a passing grade (B+) to be consistent with other departments (B), so that students could pursue interdisciplinary course work. UW Madison aligned requirements across all divisions so that students had a more uniform program and could easily switch divisions. Howard decreased a course-heavy first year, thereby allowing students to begin research earlier. Some departments replaced comprehensive exams, which focused on memorizing content, with cumulative exams, which assessed a student's ability to integrate content. Others wrote guidelines that helped explain the purpose of doctoral program requirements, which "made the hoops more transparent to those of us who have to jump through them," Pazicni explains.

"We often assume that what we do is well-tried and, therefore, works," says SUNY's White. "That's not always the case. CID provided the opportunity for a deep self-examination of the graduate program—a health checkup—which was due."

Pondering The Ph.D.
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN
Members of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, CID committee reflect on doctoral reform.
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN
Members of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, CID committee reflect on doctoral reform.

In the late '90s one of the few doctoral education "health checkups" (performed by Golde and University of Georgia chemist Timothy Dore) found that while chemistry Ph.D. graduates felt prepared to engage in an independent research program, they were at a loss for practical skills to communicate their results. It goes without saying—ironically so—that communication skills are essential for success in the workforce. Industrial scientists write research reports. Suggest to a tenure-track professor that good research skills are enough to get a grant, and you'll get a laugh. Many jobs require public speaking, and an increasing number of researchers do interdisciplinary science, where collaborators may speak a completely different lingo.

Then there's teaching: College professors at liberal arts schools—a major destination for many chemistry doctorates—have teaching-heavy workloads. CID would argue that if Ph.D.s are stewards of a discipline, they ought to be able to communicate its essentials. Yet few doctoral programs have striven to include professional training like teaching and communication in their curriculum, a trend CID schools strove to reverse.

At UW Madison, a new required course was developed for graduate students to improve science writing, teaching, and oral presentations skills and to coach students about applying for academic or industrial postdocs as well as alternative careers in chemistry. "That there are other options than academia or industry hit grad students squarely in the head," Pazicni says. "Grad students often feel like there is a narrow definition of success. To realize that we don't have to be streamlined in one of these two paths was a mind-opening experience."

At several schools, including Howard and the University of Colorado, Boulder, opportunities for graduate students to talk with visiting speakers, without local faculty present, were created. "Speakers suggest papers that graduate students read ahead of time," says Veronica Vaida, chair of the chemistry department at Boulder. "Then they meet with the speaker and ask questions before attending the seminar." At SUNY Stony Brook, there's a student-only lunch with seminar speakers. At UW Madison, graduate students ask industry recruiters to give a talk about their careers while they visit the school. "One of the speakers gave a talk called 'How to communicate with engineers.' He explained that engineers are interested in process, while chemists are interested in mechanism," says student organizer Matthew Lockett. "It gave me a good perspective for my own research, which involves engineering collaborators."

Several schools are also instituting seminar series given by people with chemistry careers outside research. "We've invited speakers from government and wine-making to our series, and we'd like to have a science journalist speak as well," Wisconsin's Lockett says.

At Howard, professional development is also promoted by encouraging students to participate in internships during their Ph.D. years, says faculty member Folohan Ayorinde. This resonates with Howard's Onakoya, whose internship at GlaxoSmithKline convinced her that she wanted a career in industry. "I came back more enthusiastic about finishing my degree, because I knew what I was working toward." For Howard's Ramsey Smith, an internship at the National Aeronautics & Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center gave him ideas for a postdoctoral proposal and a first exposure to interdisciplinary science. "I was one of the only chemists in the group. It was great to have some expertise to contribute."

Most of the changes introduced as a consequence of CID were "more evolution than revolution," says SUNY's White. Indeed, many of the changes spawned from CID were instituted through the committee mechanism, a notably conventional element of academe. For example, student representation was increased on many committees.

Part of the reason many of the CID changes occurred through existing structures was because participation came with no financial support. "I wondered whether people held up our initial call for proposals to the light and shook it to see if any money fell out," Golde says. "We were offering people the opportunity to do a whole lot of work for nothing. And we were asking people to consider trying things that might be really challenging and politically difficult."

Golde thinks this may have worked in their favor in the long run. "The beauty of not giving money is that funding wasn't going to stop. The reforms will stick on the quality of the effort. It was not about money flowing from an external source."

UW Madison's Burstyn says the thoughtful contribution and the energy of students during the CID meetings "made it hard for the department not to listen to them and not to include their voice further, on more committees." For example, when asked for suggestions for doctoral reform, several UW Madison grad students including Pazicni and Erin McElroy contacted the University Survey Center for help in creating a nonbiased survey. Then they linked with the school's computer services to use a pilot online-surveying program. "It was extremely professional," Burstyn says.

"From my point of view, the most interesting part of this program was working with our graduate students as collaborators and equals," says Colorado's Vaida. "It was an experience illuminating to both students and faculty." SUNY's Goroff agrees, saying the CID experience showed the valuable contributions students could make during their program. "There's not a magical moment that suddenly when the dissertation is filed, their opinions are suddenly valid, whereas before they were not. CID gave grad students more of a voice in our department."

Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN

Graduate students agree. "The CID gave us some teeth," UW Madison's Lockett says. Pazicni adds, "Getting involved in the CID, we felt like we were treated professionally, as colleagues."


When a University of Wisconsin, Madison, graduate student survey showed that some of the international students felt left out socially, the chemistry department started to implement a buddy system for incoming foreign students. One of the organizers is chemistry faculty member Song Jin. "I got involved because I felt I could add to the discussion, because I have some personal experience in coming to a new country," he says. The department pairs incoming foreign graduate students with domestic students. "People will naturally connect with others from their own communities readily once they arrive. But the domestic student can help answer some questions about Madison and the program, about getting apartments, maybe pick them up at the airport. Whatever works best."

What's Next

In 2006, the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID) program officially came to an end. Organizers hope it will spread across disciplines and to other schools. George Walker, the director of CID, will move to Florida International University as vice president of research and dean of the University Graduate School, where he will encourage CID-like reviews of doctoral programs campuswide. The American Mathematics Society has voted to assume the directing role of the Carnegie Foundation to inspire doctoral reform across their society. Within the American Chemical Society, the Graduate Education Advisory Board is recommending that ACS sustain the doctoral reform initiative, but no firm action has been taken beyond disseminating information about CID through the Office of Graduate Education. Many of the chemistry departments involved in CID are continuing the reflection and review that led to improvements for their doctoral programs and the several hundred graduate students enrolled in them.


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