This is an archived article.

October 18, 2001

A ‘responsive’ Ph.D.: UW ready to take action as national program kicks off

News and Information

On Oct. 24, the UW will officially kick off its participation in an ambitious nationwide movement to improve doctoral education by hosting Earl Lewis, vice provost for academic affairs and dean of the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan.


Lewis is the director of the Responsive Ph.D. Initiative, organized by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The goal of this initiative, which includes 14 institutions, is to develop models for innovation and change within doctoral programs throughout the nation.


Lewis will speak at the Quarterly Forum on Teaching and Learning Oct. 25 and also meet with University representatives involved in the initiative.


The UW is well ahead of the curve in thinking about changes to doctoral education. It is the home of “Re-envisioning the Ph.D.,” a major national examination of the essence of doctoral education that has involved all stakeholder groups.


Jody Nyquist, associate dean of the Graduate School, headed the two year project, which involved interviews with more than 300 individuals involved with doctoral programs, as well as a compendium of “promising practices.”


While the study “concluded” with a major conference last year, it has never really ended, as information continues to flow to the Graduate School on the latest thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of American doctoral education. Information is available at: http://www.grad.washington.edu/envision/.


Few people believe that doctoral education in America is broken, Nyquist says. Indeed, doctoral education in the United States is a model for the rest of the world.


But, at the same time, the demands on modern doctoral 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 doctoral education in the new millennium.


“While many of the other participating universities are beginning to have discussions on the nature of the Ph.D. and the kinds of changes they’d like to see, we felt that those preliminary discussions already have taken place here, and that it was time for action,” says Marsha Landolt, dean of the Graduate School. Immediately after the grant was awarded, she began meeting with deans and other key leaders to decide how the UW can be at the forefront of change.


What emerged from these discussions was a plan to create three “action teams” within the College of Arts and Sciences. The teams, which will be composed of faculty, students, a department chair, a graduate program assistant, a divisional dean and an outside representative, will come from the arts and humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Each team will initiate a pilot project by Winter Quarter; they also will propose a more extensive project for funding by the end of Spring Quarter.


“Initially, we’ll be looking at things that have little cost,” says Landolt, “We believe that change in doctoral programs need not be costly. The Graduate School will be staffing the action teams, and we’ll be providing them with whatever information they need, including the findings from ‘Re-envisioning.’”


The UW is not starting with an empty slate when it comes to change in doctoral education. The past several years have seen a dramatic growth in certificate programs, which provide added value to a degree, denoting that the student has acquired an additional specialty by taking a cogent group of courses.


In addition, Landolt identified three graduate programs that have broken new ground in graduate education: Urban ecology, the new doctoral program in communications, and a program in chemical sciences. All of these are highly interdisciplinary and reflect society’s changing needs for expertise.


“Our examination of the Ph.D. is not for purely vocational reasons,” says Nyquist. “We do need to be more responsive to society’s needs and to re-examine what students need to know to be successful in their chosen field. We also have to decide what is fundamental, and develop ways of adding information that don’t take up huge amounts of time. For example, graduate students spend time now on professional development, but it’s done individually and tends not to be very well organized. We can include this information in a doctoral program, making degree options more transparent, and thus making the program more responsive to their needs.


“Our experience with the Preparing Future Faculty initiative is that adding information doesn’t necessarily require more time to a degree, and that the exposure to more topics related to teaching in higher education energized the students. We just need to add material that is targeted and strategic.”


Landolt points out that there may be policy changes that would have dramatic effects on education. The new urban ecology program, for example, requires that students become accustomed to working in groups – up to and including the dissertation, which in this program is likely to have several authors. “This is a very reasonable approach,” she says. “After I received my doctorate, I published almost no papers on which I was the sole author. That just isn’t the way that research operates.


“We also need to honor students’ career choices beyond the academy. The tendency has been for faculty to pass along the message that students’ first choice should be a job at a research university. This is no longer true. We want doctoral students to be comfortable and supported in whatever career path they choose. We need to unleash the knowledge generated at universities for the benefit of business and government, as well as universities.”


“A decade or more ago,” says Nyquist, “most of us didn’t see the possibilities that now exist for people with a doctoral degree. Many businesses now insist that they need the deep analytic skills of these individuals in evaluating complex decisions. We have a sense of how our educational programs should adapt and expand to meet those needs.”


“The goal of doctoral education,” says Landolt, “should be to create scholar-citizens. I think in the wake of Sept. 11, we recognize how important that is.”