An Overhaul of Ph.D. Training Is Urged, as Survey Suggests Frustrations of Doctoral Students
Chronicle of Higher Education ( 04/17/00)
By DENISE K. MAGNER
Most Ph.D.'s never land a job at a research university, yet their training is geared precisely toward such positions. That
contradiction is inspiring a growing chorus of critics to argue that American doctoral education is in need of an overhaul.
Just how to fix it was the focus of an invitation-only conference here this weekend, called "Re-envisioning the Ph.D.," which
brought together 150 people from academe, foundations, government agencies, and the business world.
Their prescriptions ranged from the mild (teach professors how to be better mentors) to the radical (turn the Ph.D. into a
broadly based four-year program with postdoctoral opportunities for those who want to concentrate on research). Some
focused their recommendations on federal agencies (require that grant applications for research projects have a teaching
component) while others urged change in academe (require departments to disclose the job-placement rates of their Ph.D.'s).
Whatever their angle, most here agreed that the apprenticeship model practiced by universities, in which faculty members seek
to reproduce researchers in their own image, was outmoded.
"We need to fish or cut bait with the German model of doctoral education, and I think we need to cut bait," said David
Damrosch, a professor of English at Columbia University. Doctoral education in the future will be less a matter of producing
new knowledge, he said, than of circulating knowledge across disciplinary boundaries.
Cataloguing the complaints about doctoral education proved easier than reaching agreement on how to reform it. Graduate
students feel exploited as teaching assistants and trained too narrowly for jobs at research universities that are few and far
between. Teaching institutions find it difficult to hire new Ph.D.'s who actually know how to teach. Business leaders complain
that new Ph.D.'s can't communicate and don't know how to apply theory to real-world problems.
"We have an oversupply of Ph.D.'s for academia, and that's given us this occasion to rethink what we are doing in doctoral
education," said Jody D. Nyquist, the conference organizer and director of the Center for Instructional Development and
Research at the University of Washington. "We don't have an oversupply of Ph.D.'s for society. We need more people who've
been deeply trained, but not just deeply trained as academics."
A raft of recent surveys have documented the dissatisfaction of graduate students. "They do not feel prepared for life outside
research universities, which is where the jobs are," said Chris M. Golde, an assistant professor of higher education at the
University of Wisconsin at Madison. At the meeting here, she released the preliminary results of a new survey that she helped
conduct of 4,210 doctoral students at 28 universities from May 1999 to January 2000.
Among her findings:
Fully one-third of graduate students are dissatisfied with the way their doctoral programs are organized.
Doctoral students are interested in a wide range of faculty roles -- including teaching, research, and advising -- but feel
prepared only for research, publishing, and leading discussion sections of courses.
More than one-fourth said they would like to be able to take more courses outside of their departments, particularly in
business, computers, and the humanities.
Nearly half of respondents said their performance as graduate students is not reviewed annually. That varied by
discipline, with annual reviews given to a high of 83 percent of psychology students and a low of 35 percent of students
in English and chemistry.
Ms. Golde plans to release a full report on the study's findings later in the year.
Participants in the conference here acknowledged that academe had been hearing calls for reform of Ph.D. training for decades.
But Lee S. Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said he had seen a growing
willingness on the part of academic departments to experiment with doctoral education.
At the meeting here, he announced that Carnegie planned to begin a multi-year study in September to explore alternative Ph.D.
tracks in which the focus might, for example, be on teaching. He said he had already had discussions with several departments
about participating in the project.
Said Mr. Shulman: "Our own graduate programs must become the laboratories in which we experiment with unconventional
approaches to preparing people for the Ph.D."