Director of the Graduate Record Examination says U.S. doctoral programs are being tested by financial, political and public pressure to change.
Not even Judd Sheridan could answer the question always raised at conferences devoted to the future of U.S. graduate education.
He was asked whether the nation's colleges and universities -- including Kansas University -- produced too many Ph.D.'s?
"I don't know how much of this problem is real and how much is perceived," said Sheridan, executive director of the Graduate Record Examination.
Sheridan attended a workshop at KU on Friday and Saturday that was devoted to a critical examination of doctoral education.
The workshop offered 75 participants an opportunity to ask hard questions about Ph.D. programs operated at KU and 400 other U.S. institutions.
- A recent survey of doctoral programs ranked only five KU programs in the top half nationally and only two in the top quarter. Are KU faculty out of touch? Should programs not in the top ranks be abandoned?
- Is there a glut of Ph.D. recipients in academic fields offered at KU? If so, should KU curtail enrollment to reduce surpluses or press lesser institutions to get out of the Ph.D. business?
- Why does it appear to take doctoral students longer and longer to complete a degree? Are dropout rates too high?
- Is the relentless push for research funding distorting scholarly objectives?
- Should doctoral programs move from course and research specialization in which faculty often clone themselves in the persons of students to a broader approach that offers new graduates career flexibility?
- Is advising, mentoring and preparation for careers adequate for Ph.D. candidates? Are KU's grads finding employment in their academic field?
"None of the things we're talking about are simple matters," said Sheridan, a Rhodes Scholar and former faculty member at University of Minnesota, University of Missouri and University of Maine.
He said too many students entering graduate school were confused about the potential mismatch between the annual crop of doctoral program graduates and the higher education marketplace. That can lead to hard feelings five or six years later at commencement.
"A lot of students are not as savvy as they should be about the potential outcomes," he said.
Sheridan said students were best served by doctoral programs with faculty mentoring, stimulating academic challenges, diverse scholarly experiences and innovate learning environments -- extensive use of computers, for example.
"Successful students are really the gauge of successful programs," said Sheridan, a neurophysiologist with expertise in intercellular communication.
Sheridan said U.S. graduate schools should strive to do a better job recruiting minority students in all fields and women in underrepresented fields such as science and engineering.
In addition, he said, colleges and universities need to address student financial aid shortfalls. Forty-six percent of U.S. doctoral students are enrolled part-time. That reflects lack of financial assistance and inadequate job demand, he said.
He said thousands of people would continue to flock to graduate schools each year in spite of economic realities. The academic challenges of many doctoral programs are irresistible to them.
"Getting a Ph.D. has its own value." Sheridan said.