Cover Story

Students entering doctoral programs in all disciplines often expect they'll one day devote themselves to research at a major research institution, just as their own professors do. After all, it's toward this end that most doctoral programs gear their training.

That's why it can come as a shock when students learn that half of PhDs in the sciences and engineering work outside academe and that of those who stay, many work at smaller, teaching-intensive universities, not at the major research institutions that train them.

And, as growing numbers of students see a mismatch between doctoral training and job opportunities, they're sounding an alarm that their training needs to change.

"There are fewer and fewer opportunities to become an academic, and because of that, students need preparation to be something other than their advisers," says Kristi Lemm, PhD, who recently earned her doctorate from Yale University. "It's not that students should all come in not expecting to be academics--it's more that they need more options for a tough job market."

A growing corps of educators--both within and outside of psychology--agree that PhD training needs closer scrutiny.

"It's time to take stock of what we're doing in doctoral training," says Cynthia Belar, PhD, APA's executive director for education. "We may at times be too narrowly focused on training for particular career paths. We must foster the critical thinking and adaptive skills required for a changing world, or we risk failing our students."

A focal point of the movement to scrutinize doctoral training has been "Re-envisioning the PhD," a large-scale project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Heading the project is the University of Washington's (UW) Jody Nyquist, who says, "We can do better in doctoral education."

"We're looking at how we can get the PhD experience to include a wider range of professional preparation," says Nyquist, associate dean in the UW graduate school. The concerns of Belar and others are well-documented in a 1995 report, "Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers," from the National Academy of Sciences. And the movement gained further momentum when Nyquist launched her "Re-envisioning" project in 1998, traveling the country to pinpoint the major PhD-related concerns of more than 375 students, educators and leaders in the public and private sectors.

Her efforts culminated in an April conference held in Seattle. There, 200 leaders in education, business, government agencies and associations discussed the concerns raised in Nyquist's interviews.

In sum, the concerns are these: Students feel ill-prepared for, and under-informed about, jobs outside research universities, with some complaining of lengthy training and poor mentoring. Academic employers at teaching-oriented colleges feel students are not prepared to teach. And employers in business and industry feel students are too narrowly focused and not interdisciplinary- and team-focused enough. Many also note that female and minority PhDs continue to be under-represented and underemployed relative to their male peers.

Suggestions for improvement range from requiring programs to publicize graduate placement information, to fortifying mentoring and teaching preparation, to building partnerships with other disciplines and sectors. Some also suggest reforming the dissertation and overhauling the way that government agencies fund research. Says Shirley Malcom, PhD, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), "To the funding agencies applies the golden rule: Those that have the gold make the rules."

Indeed, the dissatisfaction that's spurred the Re-envisioning initiative arises largely from the research funding system that drives doctoral education. The system relies on students to serve as apprentices to professors--the idea being that students will one day be academic researchers themselves. But as faculty positions dwindle and more PhDs work outside academe, that system is increasingly outmoded, says Daryl Chubin, PhD, senior policy officer at the National Science Board.

"The research model is too narrow and inappropriate for most institutions, but it brings glory to individuals and institutions alike, so it continues to be held up as the model," he says.

At the same time, many institutions overlook the teaching function of a degree that is, after all, called the "doctorate"--a word derived from "teacher," says Lee Shulman, PhD, an educational psychologist and president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. While specific changes to doctoral training must be tailored to the needs of individual disciplines, says Shulman, all fields ought to more strongly emphasize that "being a doctor means being steward of one's discipline, whether that be in industry, government or academe."

"A couple of decades from now there will still be something called the PhD in every field," predicts Shulman. "But it will take closer to four years than six or seven, and it will be more of a professional degree in the broad sense of professional--a degree that says someone has earned the right to profess their field."

What needs rethinking

Before programs can begin changing doctoral training, however, they need to carefully consider people's concerns about it, says Shulman. Reports and meetings over the past few years have revealed the major ones:

  • Students don't know where their program will place them. The placement question is "one that students didn't have to ask a few years back" when faculty positions were more plentiful, says Bettina Woodford, grant project manager on the Re-envisioning initiative. Now, she says, finding a job is one of their biggest concerns.

Some programs balk at publicizing data on their graduates' job outlook for fear of scaring off applicants. But, says Malcom of AAAS, "Not knowing what happens to students at the other end is no way to run a business. And we're in a business. We're in the knowledge and people business. If our graduates don't fit employers' needs, we've got a problem."

  • Length of time to degree. Earning a PhD can take seven or more years. As a result, significant numbers of students drop out of doctoral programs for fear of falling behind in the job market, says Nyquist. The lengthy time commitment--and lack of income during that time--also deters minorities from earning doctorates, she says.

As a result, some academics are reconsidering whether students ought to spend their first two years on coursework--and instead focus more on teaching or starting their dissertations--and some are exploring ways to reduce the time students spend on the dissertation.

  • Students are not being educated to teach and serve. Student teaching assistants no longer want to just "grade papers as if on a food production line," says Rich Heyman, conference attendee and past president of UW's Graduate and Professional Student Senate. Not only do they want better compensation, he says, but they want better preparation to teach classes and serve academic departments--desires reflected in the unionization movement among graduate students nationwide.

And, for their part, teaching-intensive institutions are increasingly demanding that doctoral programs produce faculty who can work well with students and other faculty.

  • Faculty don't provide adequate mentoring. Over the years, faculty have taken on more students and felt ever more pressure to publish. The result: Their students lose out on teaching and career guidance.

Another problem is the negative attitudes some faculty hold toward jobs outside major research universities--in, for example, the business, government and nonprofit worlds, says Maresi Nerad, PhD, dean in residence at the Council of Graduate Schools. Few professors encourage students to seek nonacademic jobs, she found in a survey of 6,000 PhDs in the 1980s.

  • Training is too narrow, offering "disconnected specialization." Students often feel they lack direction on how to apply their skills outside academe, Nerad also found in her survey. They want more preparation to be "professional intellectuals," she says. In clinical psychology, for example, students would be better able to develop new practice niches if they knew more about areas such as business, law, technology and medicine, says Carol Williams, past chair of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS).

What changes can be made

For each concern raised about PhD training, participants in the Re-envisioning project have proposed potential solutions:

  • Guaranteeing truth in advertising. Programs must be more upfront about the training they offer and how it applies to different work settings, says AAAS's Malcom. Businesses, for example, value broad skills in formulating problems, outlining options and building hypotheses more so than narrow identification as, for example, a biologist or humanistic psychologist, she says. Also, she says, to help applicants select a doctoral program that suits their goals, programs should supply data on student outcomes such as internship placement, attrition rates, indebtedness and types of employment.

  • Offering better mentoring and teaching support. Programs must provide more teaching experience and advice to students and can look to the Preparing Future Faculty program as a promising model for doing this, says Boston University student Marcus Patterson, chair of APAGS. Through the program, funded by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, students guest-teach at different types of academic institutions with guidance from faculty.

Patterson also suggests that faculty focus more on connecting students with job opportunities in nonacademic sectors by, for example, bringing in alumni to meet them.

  • Overhauling the research grant system. Government agencies must explore new models of research funding in which students receive research funds directly, rather than through professors, says UW professor Bruce Finlayson, PhD, president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. One such alternative is the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship Research Program, which funds students to pursue research topics of interest with professors of their choosing.

Through the program, says Finlayson, students can work at their own pace--possibly finishing their research earlier than the five or six years they often spend on a professor's research grant--and "they have more flexibility to shape their direction."

In addition, says the National Science Board's Chubin, agencies can use grants to reward departments for emphasizing teaching, career preparation and diversity. "Federal grants are a policy tool," says Chubin. "They either will keep doctoral education the way it is or they will change it."

  • Partnering with other sectors and disciplines. Government agencies and academic programs must foster more interdisciplinary collaboration, says Chubin. He points to NSF's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training rewards program as a promising model. The program awards grant funding to programs that provide multidisciplinary training and emphasize teaching, teamwork and communication.

Training programs should also build relationships with nonacademic organizations such as businesses and community agencies, says APAGS's Williams. In clinical psychology, for example, she'd like to see more partnerships between academics and real-world practitioners.

  • Developing new forms of the dissertation. Programs must more carefully consider whether their dissertation formats match their aims, says Shulman. There's little point in a dissertation, adds Patterson, if "it's just to help out your adviser or it's just a throwaway after you're done." He suggests that students earning doctorates in applied areas tackle a real-world issue they might encounter on the job, such as how clinical psychologists might treat a common form of anxiety, or how teachers can counter student assumptions and other obstacles to learning.

Some educators are proposing even more dramatic changes to revamp the PhD, such as having teams of students produce a dissertation or requiring students to mentor one another through the process. But Shulman cautions that programs should only change the dissertation in accordance with their goals, not just for change's sake.

"In more applied fields, maybe you only need a year to do the dissertation," he says. "But in more scholarly areas, you expect it to take longer."

What to do next

Seconding Shulman's call for caution, psychologist Frances Degen Horowitz, PhD, president of the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY), offers a caveat about proposed changes to the PhD: New models of training don't always solve old problems, she says. She notes, for example, that the doctor of arts--a degree intended to emphasize teaching--has fizzled at many institutions. By comparison, the doctor of education and other applied, professionally oriented doctorates have thrived.

Also successful, says Degen Horowitz, have been the certificates in specialized areas that CUNY has begun offering to doctoral students. As part of their work, Nyquist and Woodford of the Re-envisioning project have been gathering "promising practices" for doctoral reform. They've posted descriptions of the practices on the project's Web site (depts.washington.edu/envision), so that other programs can emulate, test and learn from them. They have also posted suggestions for revising the PhD, gleaned from those who attended the Re-envisioning conference last spring.

And, as they close out the first phase of their project, they plan to collaborate on a second phase with the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Together they will convene a series of smaller, more strategic meetings to develop initiatives in response to the recommendations for change from the April conference.

Meanwhile, says APA Deputy Executive Director for Education Paul Nelson, PhD, the project has done its main job of alerting academic leaders that the marketplace demands a broader, more student-focused PhD.

"The PhD project is a national wake-up call across disciplines," he says. "It's a call to programs for self-study--to reflect on the goals, outcomes, interests and needs of students."

And it's also a call to employers, deans, accreditors and government funders, says Nyquist. "Changes to the PhD have to come from everybody."

Further Reading

If your program is experimenting with an innovative form of doctoral training, please submit a description of your practice through the Re-envisioning the PhD project's Web page at depts.washington.edu/envision/promprac.html.

FURTHER READING