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Making Ph.D. Programs Transparent

Now, here's a concept that could catch on: Give prospective Ph.D. students (and others) accurate information about doctoral programs, including the experience of pursuing the degree, the content and length of the program, and career prospects after it is over. Indeed, wouldn't it be nice if "institutions [were to] develop indicators based on institutional priorities such as individual progression, net research time, completion rate, transferable skills, career tracking, and dissemination of research results for early stage researchers, taking into consideration the professional development of the researcher as well as the progress of the research project"? 

That recommendation was enunciated in 2010 by the European University Association in a project aimed at collecting facts about the transparency and accountability of doctoral programs at universities across the continent. It is repeated in a report on the outcome of that effort issued in February and entitled Quality Assurance in Doctoral Education—results of the ARDE project.

"Systematic tracking is a challenging, costly and time-consuming exercise." — Quality Assurance in Doctoral Education—results of the ARDE project

The report covers a number of issues that are not particularly relevant to universities in the United States. An important exception is Chapter 6, "Career Development," which presents examples that American universities would do well to emulate.

"The UK has probably been the most striking example of emphasising career development," the document states. "The 2002 report Set for Success, also known as the 'Roberts Report' after its author Sir Gareth Roberts, underlined that doctoral candidates needed to receive training in skills that, besides their research skills, would be needed in non-academic careers, i.e. transferable skills. These conclusions resulted in ear-marked funding for transferable skills training and career development. This funding stream was very well received by universities; when the 'Roberts Funding' was cut in 2011, many institutions decided to continue to fund these activities themselves, as they had become a key part of career development for researchers."

The report goes on to cite as a "noteworthy example" the "comprehensive set of skills training" offered at Belgium's Ghent University. Its four categories include "Communication, Career Management, Research and Valorisation, and Leadership and Efficiency. Each of these clusters contains a number of specific skills such as 'Popular scientific writing' (Communication) or 'Negotiating' (Leadership and Efficiency)."

Beyond offering skills training, institutions need to develop methods for collecting feedback about programs' effectiveness and tracking the careers of their alumni, the report adds. Finding out where their graduates get jobs will "show that doctorate holders find work, and if their tracking is detailed enough that they find work that corresponds to their level of training."

"[S]ystematic tracking is a challenging, costly and time-consuming exercise," the report acknowledges, noting that few universities are doing it successfully over a long term. "Only in countries such as Sweden where universities can access government data, could universities track almost all graduates over long periods of time," the report notes. Short of that, some find social networks like LinkedIn useful, and one has a system of "encouraging alumni to find each other and then inform the university about their current jobs." 

Despite the difficulties, many people "were positive towards tracking as a feedback mechanism." Knowing where graduates work "gives an idea of organisations and companies that find the graduates attractive, which could in turn be used to enhance the quality of career development services," the report says. Having an idea of where an institution's alumni are employed also helps students better understand their "career possibilities and work towards developing their skills to fit the needs of the career path they choose." Beyond that, the information would help faculty members "advise future candidates in a more appropriate manner" and "allow institutions to engage with future employers to get more detailed feedback."

If only more American institutions took this advice.