Wednesday, February 20, 2008

“Paradigm Shift” Needed in Social Science Doctoral Education

Social Science PhDs – Five+ Years Out is a survey of 3,025 individuals who received their Ph.D.s between 1995 and 1999 in six fields, including political science, to assess the quality of doctoral education in U.S. social science programs.

The survey was conducted by the Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education (CIRGE) at the University of Washington. Similar to a report released in January by the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (see related story “Five-Year Study Calls for Change”), the CIRGE study found current doctoral education programs lacking in preparing their students for the 21st-century job market. According to the report:Social science doctoral students need better career preparation and better support for learning to manage careers.

In particular, universities need to recognize that most men and women are in relationships, many with children, and this situation influences PhD careers; universities need to pay more attention to connecting research training with teaching, writing and publishing; and universities need to bring professional development competencies such as teamwork, working in interdisciplinary contexts, grant writing, and managing people and budgets, from the margins to the center of PhD education.

Respondents represented six fields of study -- anthropology, communications, geography, history, political science, and sociology. Of the 701 political scientists who responded, 37.8% were female, and the age in median years at the time the doctorate was awarded was 31.8 years. A majority (91.9%) of political scientists surveyed were employed full time, 30.6% were tenured faculty, 32% were in tenured-track positions, 25% were employed in the business/government/non-profit sector, and 12.4% were in other academic positions.

The job characteristic that the greatest percent (68.8%) of political scientists said they were “very satisfied” with was the autonomy of work, and the characteristic that the smallest percent (25.2%) said they were “very satisfied” with was salary.

When it comes to support from the dissertation chair or advisor, about one-half of all political science Ph.D.s said they were “very satisfied” with the quality of advice in developing their research topic (50.1%), the quality of guidance to complete the Ph.D. (51.4%), and support in making career decisions (52.6%). Fewer said they were “very satisfied” with the overall quality of mentoring (45.3%), support in their job search (40.2%), and help in publishing their research (25.3%).

The table below shows the percent of political science Ph.D.s who said a skill was “very important” and the percent who said the quality of training for that skill was “excellent.” (n=701)

Percent Who Said It Is "Very Important" Percent Who Said the Quality of Training Was "Excellent"
Thinking critically
Analyzing/synthesizing data
Designing research
Working with people from diverse social/educational backgrounds
Working in interdisciplinary context
Working collaboratively
Developing presentation skills
Writing proposals for funding
Managing people/budgets

To read a summary of the report, click here.

Five-Year Study of Doctoral Education Calls for Changes

The Formation of Scholars: Rethinking Doctoral Education for the Twenty-First Century (January 2008, Jossey Bass, 256 pages, $40) is the culmination of a five-year study by the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID) of 84 doctoral-granting departments in six fields to assess how well they are preparing their graduates to be scholars in the 21st century.

The authors, George Walker, Chris Golde, Laura Jones, Andrea Conklin Bueschel, and Pat Hutchings, find doctoral education programs generally lacking. More teaching opportunities for graduate students are needed as well as “better, more systematic feedback and reflection that can turn pedagogical experience into pedagogical expertise.” Preparation for research has been taken for granted and ignored in reports and recommendations for doctoral education, they note. Additionally, graduate students “may be treated as cheap labor in the service of an adviser’s current project and personal advancement,” and funded research does not encourage the types of behaviors, such as creativity, collaboration, and risk taking, that are valued in today’s work world.

The participating departments in the CID study made a commitment to examine their purposes and effectiveness, implement changes in response to their findings, and monitor the effects of the changes. The authors report that, in some cases, departmental deliberations revealed “inconsistent and unclear expectations, uneven student access to important opportunities, poor communication between members of the program, and a general inattention to patterns of student progress and outcomes.”

The authors suggest four focal areas to guide change in doctoral education programs:

(1) Protocols for faculty and graduate students to question whether traditions, such as qualifying examinations and doctoral dissertations, serve their intended purposes;

(2) Attention to the “complex process of formation,” a phrase the authors use to describe the development of professional identity, guided by principles that delineate faculty and student responsibilities and emphasize collaboration and mutual respect;

(3) Adoption of an apprenticeship model that is reciprocal and fosters learning for both the professor and student, “with greater collective responsibility for the student experience”; and

(4) Cultures that are “lively” intellectual communities that celebrate “the advancement of learning and knowledge.”

To read more about the CID or to learn more about some of the participating departments and their work in the study, visit

© 2008 Midwest Political Science Association

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