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November 14, 2002

Career paths one key to evaluating, improving doctoral education

News and Information

The University of Washington is now home to the only center for the study of graduate education in the United States. The Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education, directed by Maresi Nerad, has opened its doors for business.

It is also celebrating the arrival of a major Ford Foundation grant to develop a national data bank on the educational outcomes of doctoral students, starting with a survey of their career paths in the social sciences.

Nerad, who came to the UW a year ago after 12 years as director of graduate research at University of California, Berkeley, envisions the center as place for empirical research, the study of innovation in doctoral education, the translation of research into innovation, and the development of policy recommendations for the future of graduate education nationally and internationally.

The absence of systematic research on graduate education is partly a function of the decentralized nature of U.S. higher education. “Unlike Europe, there is no ministry for higher education in the United States,” says Nerad, who was born and partially educated in Germany. Nerad, who has conducted international research on graduate education, brings an eclectic and critical approach to her work.

For example, Nerad says, little attention has been given to the educational outcomes and employment experiences several years after students complete their doctoral studies. The retrospective evaluation of the usefulness of the doctorate for careers could help determine if changes to graduate education are necessary and, if so, what changes should be made.

Such career path analysis is not new to Nerad. A previous study, “Ph.D.s – 10 Years Later,” surveyed 6,000 individuals from 61 universities and six disciplines, ten to 14 years after they received their doctorates. “Ph.D.s in Art History –a Decade Later,” a current study, surveyed all art history doctoral recipients in the United States between 1988 and 1991. Both studies not only analyze the career path inside and outside of academia and look for patterns in connection with the educational path, but also focus on issues such as the intersection of family and career and the fate of international students at U.S. universities.

International students in the United States – the flow to and from the United States, which countries they come from, how the mix changes over time, their experience here, what they do when they complete their degrees – are studies Nerad plans to undertake. “With so much talk about globalism, it’s somewhat surprising that we haven’t investigated the international population that already exists on our campuses,” she says.

Nerad conducted research in Germany on a doctoral reform effort that parallels a similar program in the United States. The German “Graduiertenkolleg” and the United States’ Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training program, funded by the National Science Foundation, are interdisciplinary, problem-oriented, team-based, research programs.

At present at the UW there are three such Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training programs that cross disciplinary boundaries. The U.S. model is the most novel effort to restructure doctoral programs today, Nerad says. It is centered on the premise that many important societal issues are so big that no one discipline can provide all the answers. The Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education plans to study these programs in the United States and Germany.

Meanwhile, locally she is working closely with the UW’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training program in urban ecology to compare the students to traditional students in longitudinal research, to determine whether the integrative program is achieving its goals. This work with the urban ecology group is creating a conceptual framework for designing and administering innovative doctoral programs. Nerad has created a link between the urban ecology group and a similar one at Humboldt University in Berlin. “We need to prepare scholars who are able to work collectively in complex global communities during their doctoral training,” she says.

Despite her conviction that international collaboration is a good thing, she also intends for the Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education to embark on research showing why it’s a good thing, and documenting its effects.

Nerad’s academic appointment is in the College of Education. The new Center for Innovation and Graduate Education is affiliated with and supported by both the College of Education and the Graduate School. Additional support comes from the College of Engineering and Office of Research.

As research produces results with practical and policy implications, Nerad intends to disseminate the findings broadly at the UW and to work with the Graduate School to be a catalyst for change. “It’s clear that there is strong interest at the University of Washington in graduate program innovation,” she says. The university already is home to “Re-envisioning the Ph.D.,” which serves as a clearinghouse for innovation and best practices in graduate education.

“The things we learn in our research will, we hope, be of benefit to the campus as a whole,” she says.