Background for the Project
U.S. graduate education has proven a model for the world and is widely considered the most successful level of our educational system. But increasingly, leaders within its ranks have demanded a profound rethinking of its traditional emphases and practices. A too-exclusive concern with scholarly research, often to the neglect of the numerous other faculty responsibilities that include teaching, collegial evaluation, collective and individual curricular planning, service to the college, university and community, appears to many educators to be an inadequate preparation for future faculty. The 1995 COSEPUP study set forth some of these issues for the physical sciences and engineering. Subsequently, education leaders such as Lee Shulman, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Jules LaPidus, President of the Council of Graduate Schools, Robert Weisbuch, President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, Donald Kennedy, President Emeritus of Stanford University, Robert Atwell, President Emeritus of the American Council of Education, John D'Arms, President of the American Council of Learned Societies, and Shirley Malcom, Director of Education and Human Resources of the American Association for the Advancement of Science have broadened the challenge to all of graduate education. They join others in advocating a new degree of attention to aspects of the educator's life not included in the traditional notion of scholarship. They urge us to identify and sponsor new opportunities by which graduate students can employ their learning and abilities to benefit segments of the society beyond the academy. And, some of them even call for a rethinking of graduate degrees that pays attention to real-world needs while not sacrificing the degree of autonomy required, if the university is to remain a free and independent critic of society, a creator of new knowledge and a contributor to a better social future.
A further incentive to rethink graduate education is the difficulty graduates experience when seeking employment. While the "job crisis" in the humanities, after a quarter century, seems to become more of a permanent shortage than a crisis, other fields in the social, physical, and life sciences have begun to experience this same shortfall of available academic positions. It is common knowledge that many graduates with Ph.D.'s, especially in fields such as English and other humanities, anthropology, sociology, mathematics and other sciences will not find positions in higher education even though that may be their career aspiration. While the number of part-time, underpaid and impermanent positions has risen and the number of full-time, tenure-ladder positions has declined, the prospect for non-academic employment has become an increasingly important issue in most disciplines. But at the same time, leaders of business and the public sector have sent forth a collective complaint that the doctoral degree in any number of fields prepares its graduates very poorly for productive work outside of academia. Perhaps the real problem is not over production of Ph.D.s, but rather a problem of a preparation that is too narrow, which results in under-utilization by a culture that should be able to benefit richly from such a highly educated and skilled cohort.
These issues in graduate education are intensified by a growing concern for the quality of undergraduate education. We are all familiar with the urgency with which legislatures, the public, and students have pressured higher education to improve undergraduate education. Driven by strong and persistent criticism, many institutions have undertaken numerous new initiatives and programs. No real gains can be accomplished, however, unless the performance of instructors, both graduate teaching assistants and faculty, is exceptional and focused squarely on the needs of undergraduate students to acquire an education that will prepare them for the 21st Century. Excellence in performance needs to be addressed both in the preparation of graduate students as instructors of large numbers of undergraduates and in the context of graduate students as future teaching scholars.
The problems identified above clearly are national concerns that demand a concerted, collective effort. There is widespread agreement that a major reconsideration must be advanced in graduate education across disciplines; thus we are creating a process for conceptually redesigning what is possible. We have pressure to change, but we need both powerful examples of innovative efforts and communities of conversations to assess what we find, as well as sustained efforts over time. Therefore, along with others we continue to explore the question, "How can we re-envision the Ph.D. to meet the needs of the society of the 21st Century?"