UGA Graduate School launches initiative to optimize doctoral completion

UGA Graduate School launches initiative to optimize doctoral completion

Athens, Ga. – The University of Georgia Graduate School launched its Initiative to Optimize Doctoral Completion at information sessions held Jan. 28-30 at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education. Led by Dean Maureen Grasso, the initiative is a three-year project designed to keep faculty members well informed about the trends and issues surrounding doctoral completion, to provide faculty with information necessary to realistically assess their own programs’ successes, and to support individual programs in their efforts to improve completion rates.

“Doctoral completion matters to the Graduate School,” said Grasso. “I am committed to supporting faculty in building strong internationally recognized doctoral programs, and that is why we are launching this important initiative.”

Noncompletion of doctorates has come to the fore of national discussion in recent years because it is an expensive proposition for society, institutions and individual students. Doctoral students represent substantial investments in terms of time, scarce intellectual resources, and public and private dollars. When students fail to graduate, there is little or no return on these investments.

The National Research Council (NRC) is in the final stages of its Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs, conducted every 10 years. The results, expected this spring, will have a profound influence on how policy makers, funding agencies and prospective students perceive individual doctoral programs. Most of UGA’s 93 doctoral programs participated in the assessment.

During the sessions, Grasso presented “Framework for Action,” setting forth ideal conditions for enhancing doctoral completion. Developed from higher education literature and the Graduate School’s own research and program improvement activities with 12 programs on campus, the framework is intended to guide department heads, graduate coordinators and other faculty and staff who play an important role in doctoral completion at the program level, all of whom were invited to attend the sessions.

Grasso also introduced the searchable database now available to faculty to study patterns of doctoral completion in their own programs and compare them with other university programs. Administrators in the Graduate School worked closely with the Office of Institutional Research to construct the database, which faculty may use to initiate improvements in their programs’ completion rates. Access to this data is currently limited to UGA faculty.

According to Grasso, UGA fairs better than the Council of Graduate Schools’ national average for doctoral completion. The Graduate School examined the performance of 474 doctoral students, representing all disciplines, who entered programs between fall 1998 and summer 1999. In this cohort, 66 percent completed their doctoral degrees. The CGS national data for an earlier cohort (1992-1995) shows that 57 percent completed their degrees.

Robert Sowell, vice president of programs and operations at CGS, presented at the sessions results of a national doctoral completion study conducted by CGS. Another speaker, Lewis Siegel of Duke University, who is currently serving as CGS National Science Foundation Dean in Residence, described the pioneering work undertaken at Duke to track doctoral completion and develop interventions for improvement.

“It is generally agreed that doctoral education in the U.S. is the model for the world,” said Sowell. “However, the Council of Graduate Schools believes that we should continually explore ways to improve the quality of doctoral education. One way we can improve is by increasing completion rates and reducing attrition.”

The Graduate School, through external funding by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), has been spearheading a study the last four years on doctoral completion (the project can be followed at www.uga.edu/gradschool/cgs/). Data collected will enable the Graduate School to strategically respond to the forthcoming NRC findings and more generally work to improve completion statistics in all university doctoral programs, whether or not they are part of the NRC assessment.

“Our experience at Duke University has shown that it is possible by altering processes for selection of and targeting financial support for Ph.D. students, to significantly increase doctoral completion rates, particularly in the humanities and social sciences,” said Siegel after the Graduate School’s information sessions.

Empowerment at the program level, where faculty know their students and departmental cultures play a major role, however, seems to be the overriding factor in ensuring the successful quest for a doctorate. At the conclusion of the sessions, Grasso charged all faculty to learn their programs’ performances and trends, engage their colleagues in discussions about doctoral completion and treat the Graduate School as a resource and partner in this important issue.

For more information about the Graduate School, see www.grad.uga.edu.