Re-Envisioning the Ph.D. +13 Years

“Education is not the learning of facts; it’s rather the training of the mind to think.”
Albert Einstein


13 years ago, this month, the Woodrow Wilson foundation released the report THE RESPONSIVE PH.D. Innovations in U.S. Doctoral Education. The responses Ph.D. project was an attempt to test and evaluate programs that addressed “issues” with the Ph.D. The work revolves around four principles:

Principle one: a graduate school for real
The first principle of Woodrow Wilson’s initiative on the doctoral degree may appear at first bizarre or tautological. Every gripe, every conclusion from all the reports and our attempts to turn the reports into action prove one thing: the Ph.D. degree requires strong graduate schools and graduate deans with real budgets and real scope—a far stronger central administrative structure than typically exists at present.
THE RESPONSIVE PH.D. Innovations in U.S. Doctoral Education Page #6.

Principle two: a cosmopolitan doctorate
The second principle is a sibling to the first. Just as individual programs need to be connected more to each other in the shared experience of a strengthened graduate school, the doctorate in totality and every discipline will benefit enormously by a continuing interchange with the worlds beyond academia. The doctorate needs to be opened to the world and to engage in social challenges more generously. A responsive Ph.D. has implications for degree requirements, for the right administration of programs, for time to degree and the job search, and for improving the diversity of the Ph.D. cohort.
THE RESPONSIVE PH.D. Innovations in U.S. Doctoral Education Page #7.

Principle three: drawn from the breadth of the populace
Clearly, an expertise gap besets the United States. The Ph.D. cohort, source of the nation’s college and university faculty, is not changing quickly enough to reflect the diversity of the nation. The next generation of college students will include dramatically more students of color, but their teachers will remain overwhelmingly white.
THE RESPONSIVE PH.D. Innovations in U.S. Doctoral Education Page #9.

Principle four: an assessed excellence
The doctoral degree stakes a strong claim upon quality. Whatever the degree variously means, it guarantees that. And yet doctoral education, keen to interpret all phenomena expertly, almost entirely fails to interpret and evaluate itself. The quality of doctoral education depends upon assessment with reasonable consequences. Excellence is a receding horizon. Progress toward it is measured by 9 THE RESPONSIVE PH.D. the degree of success in achieving concrete objectives—objectives that can be redefined as circumstances require. Attainment of specific objectives can be rewarded through commensurate increases in valued resources. Numerous participants in the Responsive Ph.D. have established robust programs for connecting resources to outcomes in this way.
THE RESPONSIVE PH.D. Innovations in U.S. Doctoral Education Page #10-11.

My interest in this report has to do with The University of Colorado Boulder’s involvement with the project. Four years before the report was published seven graduate students at the University of Colorado Boulder were asked to provide feedback on several questions to the graduate school advisory council that was working with responsive Ph.D. project.

I was one of those graduate students. I’m also a bit of a pack rat, just recently I ran across my notes from this committee. I thought it might be interesting to look back and see how my thoughts have changed. The group of graduate students was asked several questions specifically what we thought about; Research, Teaching and the Responsive Ph.D., Interdisciplinary, Teaching and the Ph.D. Path, Mentoring and Advising, Scholarly Citizenship, and Time-to-Degree.

A lot of the questions concerning the Ph.D. and whether the degree was meeting current needs revolved around two points. One) most Ph.D.’s will not pursue careers exactly like their faculty advisers, they may even have different interests. The focus of research to the exclusion of all else limits the possible uses of the degree. While research should remain the focus, additional opportunities should be available to the students. Two) there are many underrepresented groups in Ph.D. graduates compared to the general population. Do specific aspects or approaches to the degree that limit the access of these groups?

What follows is excerpts from the graduate student presentations to the graduate advisory council. These presentations were created and assembled by the entire committee composed of graduate students from seven different colleges at the university

Research, Teaching and the Responsive PhD
Students often wish for a field of study that sharpens their research skills. However, many students would also like to develop complementary skills such as teaching. Many students report that their departments do not encourage development in teaching. The committee feels a paradigm shift is needed that recognizes both research and teaching as important components of the Ph.D. process.

Training opportunities should be available for interdisciplinary work. As a grad student, we had very little idea “research wise” what was going on in other departments and colleges. Additionally, it was often hard to take courses outside of our department. We also feel that graduating with a broad and diverse knowledge base would enhance our employ-ability both in and outside of academia. Schools should develop programs to encourage interdisciplinarity in graduate students.

Teaching and the Ph.D. Path
Since many academically employed Ph.D.s do not end up employed in R1 universities but other school and universities with a higher focus on teaching we feel that many Ph.D.s are being under-trained. Since most Ph.D.s come from R1 institutions these institutions, need to give more training to develop students teaching skills.

Mentoring and Advising
The current structure of the Ph.D. programs often limits the knowledge and advising available to students. Since advisers often only know about their careers. Especially in the STEM fields, a second adviser would be helpful.

Scholarly Citizenship
Many schools talk about citizenship and the importance of citizenship. Many projects occur but are often self-established by individuals. What could universities or graduate schools do to encourage and teach us how to establish projects around scholarly citizenship?

One of the biggest concerns presented is time-to-degree. How do we include all the things we listed while shortening or at least maintaining the time-to-degree? The easiest way to do this is to focus on the requirements or skills that are necessary for the degree and to remove as much of the extraneous work as possible.

These short excerpts summarize what the graduate students (the seven on the committee) thought about the questions. After rereading the final documents, I’m not sure that our input had any impact on the final report. Conversely, the project included 20 schools, and I don’t know how many of the schools involved graduate students so we may have represented a very small part of the project.

The bulk of the report was composed of “white papers” about the programs that addressed the issues that the report brought up. A question I had was how many of these programs are still functioning? Conducting a quick web search, I was able to find current program information on 27 of the 41 programs, which means 66% of the programs are still functioning. 66% is quite good for universities where programs often vanish after grants or projects are over.

Let’s go back to the questions if I was asked these questions today how I would respond?

Research, Teaching and the Responsive Ph.D.
It is true still true that most Ph.D. students will not end up in careers like their advisers, especially if they’re getting their degrees from R1 institutions. However, the Ph.D. is a research degree. The central core of the degree should be and stay research. The only thing I would like to see would be more teacher training since the Ph.D. is also a teaching degree.

There’s always been a tremendous interest in interdisciplinary because of how interdisciplinary teams have solved problems. However, actively trying to create or force interdisciplinary does not work. The only thing I will say is that a student should be able to take any class or collaborate with any group that makes sense for their research. Departments shouldn’t limit their students to only what is available within their department.

Teaching and the Ph.D. path
As I said before if we’re going to call a Ph.D. degree a teaching degree, then we should include teaching as part of the curriculum.

Mentoring and Advising
Mentoring and advising are a critically important part of graduate education. Mentoring can impact everything from how you deal with imposter syndrome to what career path you take. Schools and departments should encourage students to talk and interact with as many people as possible. The Ph.D. is a research degree you should choose your adviser for their research abilities. If you get more out of a relationship with your primary adviser that is great. However, your research adviser should be chosen predominantly for their ability to help you get through your research.

Scholarly Citizenship
The purpose of the Ph.D. is to learn a skill set involving research and problem-solving. These skills are tremendously useful in many fields, and careers, how graduates choose to use them when they graduate should be entirely up to the graduates. However, if you want to be involved in citizenship (or community service) as part of your degree and you should choose a school or program that is already doing this type of work. I feel trying to force faculty to include “citizenship” in the research is directly contradictory to academic freedom. If we choose to believe in academic freedom, faculty must have the right to choose or not choose to do something.

Time-to-degree comes up more than just about any other problem, people still discuss it regularly. I think this is probably a more complex issue than it seems. The biggest advantage of shortening the time-to-degree is a reduction in costs, which is, a very important consideration. The drawback is the amount of knowledge there is to learn nowadays. On top of the amount to learn we are living and working longer. With this increase in knowledge, we are starting to see more and more specializations in degrees at the bachelor’s level which I find sad. Personally, if there is a way to deal with the cost I would almost wish we gave the students more time to learn their field and all it has to offer.

13 years on I think the whole idea of re-envisioning the Ph.D. was ridiculous. While it is true that we did and still do have issues with diversity in advanced degrees the solution is not to change degrees but to engage and support the underrepresented. Also, if the Ph.D. is not suited to a job or career path again, the solution is not to change the degree. The Ph.D. is perfectly suited to its uses. If something different is needed, we should create a different degree not change one that already works. For the time being, I think I will close the door on the re-envisioned Ph.D., maybe ask me again in 15 years.


Thanks for Listening to my Musings

The Teaching Cyborg

One thought on “Re-Envisioning the Ph.D. +13 Years

  1. Pingback: "The New Ph.D." Again – The Teaching Cyborg

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