Doctoral Education: Preparing for the Future

By Jules B. LaPidus

Virtually all discussions of graduate education involve the idea of preparing students for some kind of professional activity, that is, for jobs and careers in which they use the knowledge and skills that were the focus of their graduate education. For the most part, however, PhDs are prepared to do certain things, but not to work in any particular sector. Preparation for jobs or careers, in the sense of particular and specific training, rarely occurs. This is quite different for most master's programs, where the needs of the profession shape the majority of programs, and students are specifically prepared for professional practice.

It probably is true, particularly in the most prestigious departments, that there is a strong bias toward academic careers, specifically in research-intensive universities. But even in these cases, the only preparation for these careers will most likely be training in research. The ability to successfully carry out an independent research project has long been thought of as the primary, and perhaps the sole criterion, for obtaining a PhD. With few exceptions, however, employers of PhDs assert that this is not the only thing they are looking for, and that opportunities to function as an independent investigator are increasingly limited.

The situation has all the elements of a classic mismatch, with the universities producing a highly specialized product that the employers don't want. That clearly is not the case. Academia and industry are still attracted to candidates with outstanding research credentials. Prospective employers still ask candidates to present research seminars describing their dissertation projects. But they are beginning to ask for more.

Increasingly, candidates for academic employment are being asked about their teaching experience and about their views on education, and some institutions may ask candidates to present a lecture rather than give a research seminar. Likewise, industrial employers may try to elicit a broader view of a candidate's research training, particularly as it relates to the interests of the company, than can be expressed by just examining the dissertation topic. These expectations of potential employers, coupled with constrictions in the traditional job market for PhDs, translate rather quickly into student interest in a broader approach to graduate education.

American graduate schools are very good at preparing students for research. We have prided ourselves on the ability to produce research and researchers as part of the same process. To do that, we have developed a system that involves coursework coupled with doing research under the supervision of an established researcher. Until recently, this has been a uniquely American idea. Several other countries are adopting or adapting this approach, and developing coursework components in what were formerly research-only programs.

Clearly, the research experience has to extend beyond mere technical training. Graduate education must be more than a simple apprenticeship, and research, in this context, must be more than a technical exercise for producing research results. It must be a vehicle for preparing scholars. Making students more aware of the implications of their work and how it fits into a bigger and more complex pattern, is much more difficult than teaching them how to carry out a procedure and interpret the results. It may be that if research is what you do, scholarship is the way you think about it. We know that people with graduate degrees find their way into a wide variety of jobs and careers, some by choice, some by chance, and some by default. The further away from their specific training, the greater the use of their general education, particularly the scholarly process. But this broader view is what distinguishes good graduate education from advanced training programs.

Preparing for Jobs and Careers

Graduate programs are less effective in preparing our students for jobs and/or careers. Good graduate programs produce people who are prepared to become faculty members or industrial researchers or practicing professionals in a host of fields. They have acquired knowledge and skills that make them well-suited for a variety of different positions, but they may need to be assisted in adapting to them. Regardless of the type of employment, the challenge is to make the transition smoother and more productive.

For example, preparing students for faculty positions encompasses much more than teaching. The new faculty member faces a daunting number of responsibilities: teaching advanced and undergraduate courses, doing research, getting financial support for research, directing graduate student research, advising and mentoring graduate students and assuming varied administrative and service roles. Historically there has been little preparation for any of these activities except research. Being a teaching assistant (TA) provides some exposure to teaching, but the experience is often confined to lower-level courses, and has not usually been thought of in terms of faculty preparation.

A number of universities have developed programs to introduce graduate students to the full range of faculty life. The Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program, administered by the Council of Graduate Schools and Association of American Colleges and Universities is perhaps the most extensive. This program deals with the realities of being a faculty member in the variety of settings that constitute the academic job market.

Preparation for industrial careers has been even less structured. A number of institutions, in collaboration with industrial partners, have developed internships for doctoral and in some cases, postdoctoral candidates. In 1974, the Teaching Company Scheme was initiated in Great Britain. This has mainly involved engineering students but has been expanding to include other fields. In the U.S., a good example is the 'Externship' program in the MIT physics department. During the past few years, there has been increasing interest in reshaping the master's degree in the sciences to serve as a useful credential, particularly for industrial employment. This has been quite successful in Japan, and has been tried sporadically in the U.S.

Post-baccalaureate certificate programs are a rapidly growing but poorly defined area of graduate education. Certificates are offered by many kinds of organizations, including universities, companies and professional societies, for varying time periods and with different objectives. Sometimes these programs are designed to meet the needs of specific employers, or to satisfy continuing education requirements. Many deal primarily with professional updating, and provide information and technical training. They may be ideally suited for programming in electronic formats such as the Internet, compressed TV, or video cassette courseware.

Reforming Graduate Education

Several qualitatively different approaches are being suggested for improving the education of graduate students. Brief descriptions of a number of these appear on the website of the Association of Graduate Schools of the Association of American Universities. Generally speaking, these approaches fall into several well defined categories.

A. Universities are trying to provide better information about jobs and the job market. Career services and career development offices usually have been geared to the needs of undergraduate students. Brown, Cal Tech, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania are among those that have developed specialized services of this type for graduate students.

B. Seminars or workshops on the relationship of graduate education to particular fields, and on how graduate education relates to work, are being offered at some universities, including Emory, Rutgers, Ohio State, University of California at Berkeley and Vanderbilt. The University of Alabama at Birmingham has developed a workshop on career development for the life sciences that addresses both academic and non-academic careers, as well as a monthly forum that brings in outside speakers to discuss unusual kinds of careers.

C. A number of universities are considering program modifications that will add more academic content. One method is to develop minors or collections of courses in closely related areas, e.g. molecular biology for organic chemists, economics for political scientists or computer science for physicists. The idea is to broaden the scope, but stay close to the student's major field of study. For example, Brown University has added an option for a second master's degree in a field related to the doctoral field, and Tulane is encouraging physics and astronomy students to take elective courses in computer science, engineering or finance.

Another option is to develop area studies options in very broad but related areas. The idea is to retain your expertise, but to relate it to a certain context or area of interest. The University of Colorado at Boulder has added interdisciplinary certificate programs in fields such as environmental policy and telecommunications.

Some institutions have developed courses, master's or certificate programs in presumably unrelated areas. In this case, the student is developing options that utilize the primary area as it applies to something else, for example, sales, writing or K-12 teaching. Penn State, Nebraska and Florida all offer combined or dual degree programs involving an MBA coupled with either a PhD or a master's degree. Cornell and others have developed 12-month MBA programs for scientists interested in business careers. Washington University and Wayne State have developed options whereby doctoral students can become certified to teach in the primary and secondary schools.

Other schools are developing programs similar to the Master of Research (MRes) degree recently initiated in the U.K. Students from different disciplines are brought together to discuss and dissect research in a number of fields. This kind of approach emphasizes multidisciplinary aspects of problem solving. A modification would be to have all graduate students participate in a research seminar that is multidisciplinary. Real world problems would be discussed, and students might work in groups and/or react to speakers. The emphasis would be on scholarly approaches to evaluating evidence, posing questions and suggesting ways to find answers.


All of the above suggestions are reasonable, and all suffer from the same drawback: they take time and increase the workload for students and faculty alike. But they hold out the promise of enhancing both the education and the career prospects of students. Graduate education, viewed in the broadest perspective, transcends departments and disciplines because the assumptions upon which it is based have more to do with the level of education than with the particular subject area in question. Whether it be physics or classics, the kinds of program modifications now being considered can be effective in improving the graduate educational experience of students and faculty alike.

Unfortunately, it is all too easy for departments or programs to become isolated to the point where they are not aware of good ideas from elsewhere that could be adapted to their own use, and are unable to share their good ideas with others. Graduate schools serve to create the linkages, to open the system and to focus the attention of the graduate faculty on the education of graduate students.

We have moved a long way from the one student, one professor, one research project concept of doctoral education, and are beginning to understand that graduate education should be designed to prepare students for a variety of roles and responsibilities. A broader and more realistic view of graduate education is emerging, one that is consistent not only with the size and scope of the current enterprise, but with the state of education, work, society and scholarship as we prepare to enter the 21st century.

Jules B. LaPidus is President of the Council of Graduate Schools, One Dupont Circle, N.W., Suite 430, Washington, D.C. 20036-1173. Adapted from Doctoral Education: Preparing for the Future, CGS Communicator, #10, Nov. 1997

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin

December 1997 (Volume 6, Number 11)

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Three APS Fellows Share 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics
Taking the Temperature of Dark-State Atoms
APS and Scientific Societies Endorse United Statement on Research
Unified Statement on Research: "A Decade of Investment"
APS Fellow Reception held in New York City
Interferometric Lithography, High-Density Plasma Sources Featured at GEC '97
Enhancements to APS Online Journals
Inside the Beltway
International News
Kennedy is APS Centennial Director
APS Group Insurance has Affordable Options
Lettieri Promoted to APS Membership Department Manager
Who is this Well-known American Physicist?
APS Views
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
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