Preventing ABD Hell

From today’s Chronicle for Higher Education:

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Graduate-School Leaders Want Ph.D. Candidates to Finish Sooner and With Better Job Prospects

Doctoral programs in the humanities and sciences should take basic steps to improve their students’ completion rates and career prospects, several speakers said on Monday during a workshop here sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools and the National Science Foundation.

Many potential students, faced with Ph.D. programs that can take nearly a decade to complete and that offer hazy career paths, “decide that they want nothing to do with us,” said Lewis M. Siegel, vice provost for graduate education at Duke University.

Mr. Siegel encouraged other institutions to learn from changes put in place more than a decade ago at Duke, where Ph.D. completion rates in the humanities and social sciences have sharply increased. In the humanities, only 34 percent of the students who entered Duke between 1992 and 1994 earned a Ph.D. in seven years or less. For students who entered between 1998 and 2000, which was shortly after Duke changed its ground rules, the seven-year completion rate improved to 45 percent. The social sciences at Duke have seen even stronger improvements, he said.

Duke’s modifications, Mr. Siegel said, include requiring faculty members to read prospective students’ applications in full, rather than relying crudely on grade-point averages and GRE scores; providing high-quality child care for graduate students’ families; and structuring departments’ budgets in ways that discourage them from enrolling students simply to fill teaching slots.

“Interventions can make change,” said Mr. Siegel, who is also a “dean in residence” at the National Science Foundation. “That’s really the bottom line.”

National Effort

Duke’s programs helped to inspire a national project of the Council of Graduate Schools in which 29 universities are attempting to improve their doctoral-program-completion rates. That project released a set of baseline data last year (The Chronicle, December 7, 2007), and in May it expects to release data about how Ph.D. completion varies by ethnicity.

Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, vice chancellor for graduate education at the University of California at Los Angeles, which is among the participants in the project, said UCLA had improved its seven-year completion rate in 19 core departments from 38 percent to 47 percent over approximately the same time frame in which Duke saw its improvements.

The mere fact of carefully monitoring the numbers, she said, has made departments more conscientious about certain basic things. “For example, if you have a faculty of six, you can’t have three professors in Europe for three years,” she said. “That’s not going to help your completion.”

At both Duke and UCLA, the number of students admitted to certain departments, notably English and history, has dropped sharply as the institutions have tried to improve their completion numbers. In those fields, departments often lean especially heavily on graduate students to teach undergraduates, and Ph.D.-completion rates have sometimes suffered accordingly. “We have fewer students, but we’re supporting them better,” Mr. Siegel said.

Crispin Taylor, executive director of the American Society of Plant Biologists, praised the efforts of those two institutions, but he said that most universities could do a much better job of letting prospective students know what they are getting into.

“How many of you can tell me what your Ph.D.’s are doing two, five, or 10 years after they earn the degree?” Mr. Taylor asked the audience. Such data should routinely be posted on departments’ Web sites, he argued. “It’s not rocket science,” he said. “Professional schools do it well, including business schools whose graduates go off in all kinds of different directions. We should do it too.”

Mr. Taylor also urged federal science agencies to require the institutions to which they award grants to pay attention to graduate students’ professional development. Among other things, he said, universities could offer much better career counseling about nonacademic jobs.

Preparing Students

For the last seven years, universities in Britain have been required to offer graduate students professional-development services and training in “transferable skills.” Mary A. Ritter, who oversees postgraduate and international affairs at Imperial College London, explained that her university requires doctoral students to attend a three-day program at a rural park where they are cut off from e-mail access. There they receive training in research ethics, time management, writing skills, stress management, and career planning.

One speaker dissented from the conference’s sunny tone of roll-up-your-sleeves reformism. Yehuda Elkana, president of Central European University, in Hungary, said that all the day’s talk of professional skills and time-to-completion evaded fundamental questions about the nature of education.

“There is no way to reform structures without getting into content,” said Mr. Elkana, who is a prominent philosopher of science. He argued that graduate programs in almost every discipline have become intellectually timid. Students, he said, are trained to push their mentors’ work forward in small increments, and are discouraged from asking basic questions about the foundations of their disciplines. The winners of the Nobel Prize during the first half of the 20th century, he argued, were much more likely to ask fundamental questions than more-recent Nobel laureates.

Mr. Elkana said that graduate students should be required to take at least six months to develop their dissertation topics, and should do so in consultation with faculty members in more than one discipline. They should not proceed with the dissertation, he said, until they are confident that “this is a worthwhile topic, not only from the point of view of feasibility, but also intellectually.”


About lizardqueen

If single-mothering were a paid job, I'd be rich. However, it doesn't, so I write (which doesn't pay the bills) and teach (which does). I'm overly-educated in the liberal arts, but that doesn't hinder my ability to be pragmatic and realistic. YAY.
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