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April 7, 2000

Future of doctoral education is subject of conference

News and Information

The future of doctoral education will be the subject of a unique conference in Seattle April 13-15.

“Re-envisioning the Ph.D.,” an invitation-only conference, will be held at the Renaissance Madison Hotel. The conference is the culmination of a two-year study of the doctoral degree led by Jody Nyquist, director of the Center for Instructional Development and Research (CIDR) at the University of Washington and funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The 150 invited participants collectively represent the key change agents in doctoral education, Nyquist says.

Key leaders in academia, industry, government, foundations, disciplinary and educational associations, national graduate student organizations, K-12, accrediting associations and others will attend the conference. They will be discussing case studies–real-life stories in doctoral education–in order to shed light on three fundamental questions:

What are the “essence” and “goals” of a Ph.D.?

Can doctoral education be restructured to attract a diverse population of students?

Where in society will doctorates be needed, and what can be done to meet the demand?

Bringing about change, or even influencing the climate for change, is a complex process, Nyquist acknowledges. “When you discuss change, people will always point to ‘them’ as the reason it can’t be done. But if we bring enough of the ‘thems’ into the same room, they become ‘us’. Graduate education is a series of partnerships. Change is likely to occur in ways that are voluntary, but with the cooperation of institutions and funders working together, change can occur more quickly and systematically.”

Nyquist emphasizes that few people believe that doctoral education in America is broken. Indeed, doctoral programs in the United States are in many cases a model for the rest of the world. But, at the same time, the demands on modern Ph.D. education have expanded. This has increased the time necessary to complete the degree, and all the “add-ons” have begun to raise questions about the fundamental nature of Ph.D. education in the new millennium.

Nyquist has conducted more than 300 interviews around the country and some themes have emerged. One has to do with what she describes as the “prestige culture” of academia. Promising graduate students learn from their faculty mentors that, if they want to be regarded as at the top of their fields, with few exceptions their career choice should be academia. Those who choose to work in the private sector are often made to feel that they are second-class citizens. These attitudes persist despite the fact that, in many fields, there simply aren’t enough jobs in academia and there are many promising options in the private sector.

Moreover, Nyquist has found that Ph.D. preparation, while praised widely for its thoroughness, is often regarded by private sector employers as too narrow. With academic jobs in the humanities, and also in the social, physical and life sciences being in short supply, preparation for life outside of universities is becoming an important topic. Moreover, the “knowledge economy” requires more highly educated people than ever before, and Ph.D. students, if they receive the proper training, will be highly sought after for their deep analytical skills.

A key factor behind much of the interest in doctoral preparation is a concern for the quality of undergraduate education. Indeed, The Pew Charitable Trusts’ interest in funding this research has arisen largely out of this concern. “Pew is very interested in the socialization process for graduate students,” says Nyquist. “The preparation of graduate students as instructors of large numbers of undergraduate students, and as future teaching scholars, needs to become a central goal of graduate education.”

While most people have described the problem of diversity in graduate programs as a “pipeline” issue, Nyquist adds that it is also a completion problem: women and minorities in many programs across the country are disproportionately represented in the group that decides not to complete the degree. The reasons for this are many, but lack of support and encouragement continues to be a factor.

The conference proceedings are scheduled for publication in late summer. “There is broad interest in the academic community and beyond in the results of this conference,” Nyquist says.

A Website (http://depts.washington.edu/envision/index.html) summarizes the work that Nyquist and associates have accumulated to date. It includes a compendium of “promising practices,” examples of programs or innovations that institutions around the country have implemented to deal with various issues surrounding doctoral education. These include preparation for teaching, interdisciplinary doctoral training, professional development, working in teams, technology and innovative ways of assessing doctoral education.
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For more information, contact Jody Nyquist, (206) 543-6588, nyquist@cidr.washington.edu