Issue Date: August 25, 2008
Getting A Doctoral Degree
THE DAILY PRESSURES of doctoral programs are such that students and their mentors often lack time for thoughtful reflection on how these programs are structured and what they aspire to achieve. “The Formation of Scholars: Rethinking Doctoral Education for the Twenty-First Century,” by George E. Walker, Chris M. Golde, Laura Jones, Andrea Conklin Bueschel, and Pat Hutchings, provides insightful perspectives on doctoral education in the U.S. The significance of our national investment in this enterprise is reflected in the fact that more than 400 universities award at least 40,000 doctoral degrees annually in the U.S. As the authors note, the doctoral degree has been a path to leadership positions in many fields, and doctoral programs have been engines for innovation.
In some respects, the book is an overview of the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID), an action and research program concerning doctoral education that spanned the years 2001–05. CID recruited teams of graduate students and faculty from six disciplines—chemistry, education, English, history, mathematics, and neuroscience—representing more than 80 university departments and programs. Leading scholars in these fields provided commissioned essays that framed the resulting dialogue. The essays were published in an earlier volume, “Envisioning the Future of Doctoral Education: Preparing Stewards of the Discipline—Carnegie Essays on the Doctorate,” edited by Chris M. Golde and George E. Walker. (Disclosure: I participated in some CID meetings and my department during that period was a CID participant.) CID aimed to help participants reflect on current practices in their doctoral programs and, when evidence suggested it, to design, implement, assess, and share new practices that could enhance the quality of the doctoral experience.
The new book focuses on the formation of “stewards of the discipline.” In his foreword, Lee Shulman, Carnegie Foundation president, states that the term “formation” reflects the “integration of the intellectual and the moral in preparing for the many roles of the scholar—discovery and synthesis, teaching and service.” The book’s seven chapters elaborate on this theme. After presenting a history of doctoral education in the U.S., the book discusses the requirements associated with doctoral programs, the apprenticeship model around which these programs are based, and the characteristics of the intellectual communities to which doctoral students belong. The book concludes with “a call to action,” targeted to various groups invested in doctoral education.
Though generalization is difficult because of the different disciplinary cultures involved, the book identifies common requirements associated with the doctoral degree: coursework, teaching, qualifying examinations, original scholarly proposals, and the dissertation. It analyzes the contributions of each requirement to doctoral education. The book highlights a number of practices that were discussed as part of CID—such as portfolios that present collections of students’ work, dissertation writing clubs, and rotations among laboratories for beginning doctoral students—and it addresses their impact.
Results of surveys completed by CID participants punctuate the book. Examples of the tabulated data include “Extent to Which Faculty Perceive a Shared Understanding of the Educational Purpose of the Departmental Qualifying Exam,” “Percentage of Students at the Dissertation Stage Reporting Reaching a High Level of Proficiency in the Ability to Design and Teach a Course,” and “Percentage of Students at Dissertation Stage Reporting Participation in Community Service Activities.” One of the quotations in the book, attributed to Columbia University professor Kenneth Prewitt, is “The genius of American graduate education is that no one is in charge.” In examining the data, this reviewer found it noteworthy that even without centralized planning, U.S. graduate programs have evolved with many similarities.
Mentoring appropriately receives considerable attention in the book. Chemistry was unusual among the six fields studied by CID in its relative emphasis on a single faculty adviser. From the standpoint of professional development, the book accentuates the importance of mentors in encouraging risk-taking and in fostering creativity at as early a stage as possible in doctoral education.
EVEN IF reform-minded individuals took all of the advice provided in this book, however, what is lacking is a clear articulation of the human resource issues that will compromise the health of U.S. doctoral education if not addressed. One is the time needed to obtain the doctoral degree. For many students it is simply not feasible economically to devote a substantial number of years at relatively low income to pursue this degree. It is even riskier in fields with low starting salaries and uncertain job prospects. A related issue is inclusiveness. In many fields, certain demographic groups are chronically underrepresented among applicants, despite efforts by some departments to encourage their participation. And the high attrition rates for students enrolled in doctoral programs represent a significant loss in human resources. It also raises the question of whether there is an inadequately recognized misalignment between the expectations of incoming doctoral students—who may not see themselves as future “stewards of the discipline”—and those of their mentors.
Although the recent work of CID frames its focus, the book also examines the goals and practices of doctoral education in the context of the competition among doctoral programs both nationally and, increasingly, internationally. Individuals associated with doctoral programs are justifiably concerned with the reputations of these programs. The perceived quality of doctoral programs, as measured, for example, by the National Research Council’s rankings, influences the faculty, staff, and students they attract; the resources they are able to garner from campus and extramural sources; and their competitiveness in what has become a global marketplace for talent. Although the U.S. has traditionally been a destination for students from around the world wishing to pursue doctoral education, other nations are increasingly competing with the U.S. for outstanding faculty and students.
Powerful forces currently are reshaping doctoral education. The breathtaking developments in information technology that are feeding an explosive increase in data and growing use of cyberinfrastructure, coupled with the emergence of team-based and interdisciplinary scholarship and the establishment of academic centers of excellence around the world, are fundamentally changing the nature of scholarship in many traditional fields. Doctoral students today, for example, might be collecting and analyzing terabytes of data, sharing this information with networks of collaborators in other countries and other disciplines, and exploring intellectual property and technology transfer considerations associated with their research. They might be doing this while helping teach an undergraduate course, taking graduate courses, and completing a required online training module.
Faculty mentors and administrators have critical roles to play in facilitating these transformations. Many current practices in doctoral education can be linked to incentives associated with a traditional “reward system” in which faculty and doctoral students are evaluated and recognized for individual research accomplishments in a single discipline. As collaborative scholarship spanning disciplines becomes more prevalent, new evaluation processes and criteria that address this more complex research landscape are needed, as are appropriate incentives for conducting such research.
The authors recognize that we may be on the cusp of major changes in doctoral education. As they note in the concluding chapter, “Indeed, in view of the fundamental transformations taking place in knowledge production more generally, and within higher education in particular, doctoral education is due for a sea change.” Just as fields have to continuously reinvent themselves or risk becoming irrelevant, doctoral education will need to do so as well. Having seen many departments make thoughtful adjustments over the past few years, I am sanguine that doctoral programs have the capacity to make constructive changes. This book makes a strong case that these changes need to be driven by departments and that their doctoral students have a critical role to play in catalyzing, designing, implementing, and evaluating effective interventions. As departments contemplate changes in the doctoral training they provide, they would be well served to consider the goals described in “The Formation of Scholars.”
Arthur B. Ellis is vice chancellor for research and Distinguished Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego.
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