A Dean Discusses Doctoral Education Reform?

Dear Commons Community,

In today’s online edition, The Chronicle of Higher Education has a an article examining several current issues of doctoral education.  It is based on an email interview with a doctoral studies dean at a well-endowed private university.  The identities of the dean and the university are protected.  In a question and answer format, the article discusses curriculum revision, career opportunities, cost, innovation, and faculty conservatism.   Here is an excerpt:

What sorts of changes would you like to see in American graduate study?

“The biggest one is that our doctoral curricula need to be changed to acknowledge what has been true for a long time, which is that most of our Ph.D. students do not end up in tenure-track (or even full-time faculty) positions—and that many of those who do will be at institutions that are very, very different from the places where these Ph.D.’s are trained.

The changes will differ from program to program but might include different kinds of coursework, exams, and even dissertation structures. Right now we train students for the professoriate, and if something else works out, that’s fine. We can serve our students and our society better by realizing their diverse futures and changing the training we offer accordingly.

The other necessary change: We need to think seriously about the cost of graduate education. There is a perception that graduate students are simply a cheap labor force for the university, and that universities are interested in graduate students only because they perform work as teachers and laboratory assistants cheaper than anyone else.

At elite universities—or at least at elite private ones—that is simply not true, and I am glad that it is not. It is absolutely true that graduate students perform labor necessary for the university in a number of ways, but it is not cheap labor, nor should it be.

The cost of graduate education has repercussions for the humanities and social sciences, which is one reason you are seeing smaller admissions numbers and some program closings. It also has repercussions for the laboratory sciences, where I am seeing too many faculty members shift from taking on graduate students to hiring postdocs. Unfortunately, they regard postdocs as a less expensive and more stable alternative to graduate students, and postdocs come without the same burdens of education or job placement that otherwise fall on the faculty member who hires doctoral students.

I want to underline that I don’t think that graduate programs should be cheaper, but we can’t have an honest conversation about their future unless we acknowledge their cost.”

There are several other insightful comments in this piece that should be of interest to administrators, faculty, and students in doctoral programs.


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