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The NAGPS Survey: What DO America's Grad Students Think of Their Programs?

Finally, after all the experts and all the reports, recommendations, and best practice" guidelines, it is time for the nation's graduate students to have their say. And 32,000 have raised their voices in a common place--The National Doctoral Program Survey (NDPS).

Overall, the students' message is clear--more than 80% of all respondents report positive mentoring experiences, including continuous and constructive feedback on their progress toward their degree. And 75% believe they are involved in decisions relevant to their education. According to one respondent, "the faculty are committed to having a strong program with successful and happy graduate students."

The NDPS, conducted by the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students (NAGPS), received responses from graduate students in nearly 5000 individual departments at 400 graduate institutions. The authors attribute the high response to the collaboration and support of at least 60 universities, 115 doctoral programs, 60 graduate student associations, 80 professional societies, and 19 educational associations. The strength of this collaboration demonstrates both commitment to and great interest in the graduate experience.

The innovative survey method, using the Web and viral marketing, is reflected in the format in which the findings are delivered. The results are available only online at, where they are presented in an interactive format. The display permits visitors to review aggregate results by discipline, gender, enrollment status, citizenship, and student status. Likewise, discipline and subfield results can be viewed using the same criteria. For the 1360 programs that had 10 or more respondents, a public program report is available that permits comparison between one program and all the other programs in the same field.

Kimberly Suedkamp Wells, NAGPS president and one of the survey directors, believes the "survey is important because it provides students the opportunity to feel they can actually make a difference in their educational experience." Highly regarded doctoral programs are identified in hopes that they might serve as models to faculty and academic administrators looking for strategies to improve their own programs.

Many of these strategies are neither new nor unknown to graduate educators. In fact, the NDPS assessed doctoral programs based on recommendations embedded in several significant national reports. Using recommendations derived from the Association of American Universities (AAU), the National Academies of Science Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), and the National Science Board, the NAGPS survey team sought to determine if institutions and programs were taking the reports seriously, as measured by student perceptions.

Thus, the survey tested the National Science Board recommendation that "more should be done to inform graduate students of the full range of employment opportunities and to offer a choice of options for expanding career-related training." As Table 1 indicates, the NDPS found high satisfaction among graduate students considering academic careers, but considerably less satisfaction among those considering nonacademic careers.

COSEPUP urged universities to provide more students off-campus experiences to acquire skills desired by an increasing number of employers, especially the ability to communicate complex ideas to nonspecialists and the ability to work in teams of interdependent workers. This is critical, says NDPS co-author Geoff Davis, co-author of an earlier survey called PhDs.Org Grad School Survey, "it's a real problem when Ph.D.s can't function outside the university." The survey found that only 55% of students believe their programs actively encourage them to broaden their education through nonrequired activities, such as elective coursework or internships.

A great deal of national attention has focused on the role of graduate students as teaching assistants and the preparation graduate students receive as future faculty with teaching responsibilities. The AAU report was unequivocal in its assertion that "asking graduate students to teach courses without adequate preparation is inappropriate for both teacher and student." Yet the NDPS survey finds that 44% of teaching assistants report they did not receive adequate preparation and training before they entered the classroom and 49% believe they did not received appropriate supervision to assist them in developing their teaching skills while serving as teaching assistants.

More than 70% of students in all disciplines are satisfied with the amount of time and the quality of interactions they have with their advisors. More that 75% felt their advisor kept them appropriately informed of their progress to degree completion. More than 64% felt they could go to other faculty members for guidance and support.

Women and minorities were consistently less positive about their experiences than were their white male counterparts, but the survey reports do not suggest that this difference was significant for any items. This is one of the weaknesses of the elaborate online reportage--the aggregation of all minorities into one group for summary reports makes it difficult to determine any possible variation by subgroups, except men and women. It would appear that in the case of aggregate values these subgroupings would have been possible without risking identification of individuals because the number of minority respondents is substantial.

The survey reports respond to the popular interest in ranking academic programs, and visitors to the survey Web site will see that the authors have assigned letter grades (A+ to F-) to departments based on survey responses. Each response to the survey was scored on a 0 to 100 point scale; grades are determined by averaging these scores. This ranking structure is fun--if there were 10 or more responses from your department, you can see where it sits in the pantheon--but it is not the most useful feature of the reporting software.

A more useful device allows visitors to compare programs based on detailed responses to the survey. By using this feature, programs can also be sorted based on nine criteria: information for perspective students, preparation for a broad range of careers, teaching and TA preparation, professional development, career guidance and placement services, controlling time to degree, mentoring, program climate, and overall satisfaction. Moreover, you can separately select and give weight to these criteria, which allows for very specific comparisons. Nifty as it is, this feature is of particular utility to prospective graduate students--however, it may not be of much use to current students.

Graduate faculty and academic administrators will be critical--especially of the letter grades--but they will also find much to seriously consider. For example, Adam Fagan, survey co-author and Harvard doctoral student, points out that "even programs that excel at research may get an incomplete when it comes to preparing students for nonresearch aspects of their careers."

The NDPS is an especially powerful analysis of doctoral programs because of the high number of respondents. The distribution of respondents, when compared to the 1998 Survey of Earned Doctorates, indicates that women and students in the humanities are slightly overrepresented. Nevertheless, the NPDS offers a significant contribution--the graduate student voice--to the ongoing debate about the doctoral experience. The many collaborators bringing this voice to the table must now come together to translate these voices into continued improvement in graduate education.

Disclosure: The NDPS was made possible by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which also supports Science 's Next Wave. And Ric Weibl, the author of this article, was a member of the NDPS advisory committee before he joined the Next Wave staff.