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Judging Doctoral Programs

With methodology in place, long-awaited graduate program rankings may soon be released

by Carmen Drahl
July 20, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 29

Credit: Shutterstock
NRC's methodology release has campuses nationwide eagerly awaiting the research council's rankings.
Credit: Shutterstock
NRC's methodology release has campuses nationwide eagerly awaiting the research council's rankings.

After repeated delays, the National Research Council on July 9 released the methodology behind its rankings of doctoral programs, including those in chemistry and chemical engineering. The methods represent a departure from previous assessments, abandoning reliance on reputation surveys in favor of a more data-intensive approach. A release date for the rankings themselves has not been scheduled.

The assessments by the research council, which functions under the National Academy of Sciences, are a valued resource for students, educators, and administrators, but they were last updated in 1995. The release of the new rankings, to be based largely on data from the 2005–06 academic year, have been postponed on multiple occasions.

"It's frustrating for everybody—the longer it takes to get the rankings out, the more dated the information becomes," says Charles A. Wight, a physical chemist and dean of the graduate school at the University of Utah. "But there's also a sense that people would rather have things done right" than done hastily, he says.

That's also the council's view, says Jeremiah P. Ostriker, chair of the committee overseeing the project. Each program will have a range of rankings, in order to stress inherent uncertainties in the analysis, he says. Rankings are based on 20 criteria in three areas: scholarly activity, student support, and diversity. In addition to an overall ranking range, programs will be ranked in those three areas. Data for several criteria, such as degree completion rates, have never before been collected or disseminated on a nationwide scale, Wight notes.

Furthermore, weights given to criteria are driven by faculty input, says Ostriker, an astrophysicist and former provost at Princeton University. What's deemed an important measure of program quality "turns out to be quite different in different fields," he says. Where possible, measures will be reported per capita of full-time faculty, in efforts to avoid giving artificial advantages to larger programs.

Rankings may be released by the end of 2009, Ostriker speculates. "Now that the methodology is in place, we hope to update rankings more quickly in the future," he says.



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