The quality of doctoral programs [Part 2]

By | June 25, 2014

[Part 1 of this series is found here.]

The single most important factor in the quality of the student’s dissertation is the quality of the advising and mentoring that the student receives from his/her committee and most particularly, from the Chair. But the most highly visible part of doctoral programs is generally the course work. There are generally two parts to this curriculum. One is the research methods and statistics training, critical to effective quantitative research but generally considered of less interest by most doctoral level faculty. The other is the “advanced seminars” on various arcane professional topics; these are the most prized part of the entire curriculum for most research-focused faculty members, since they feature an opportunity to talk about your research to a captive audience and then grade them on how carefully they listened to you. Awesome!

Institutions often proclaim that their doctoral programs are net money-losers, and therefore their maintenance is evidence of institutional commitment to scholarship rather than profit. This may be true overall. But one of the bizarre little secrets of doctoral education is that these programs are generally net money-generators for their schools, among students in the first couple of years of these programs, where the course work is more general, screening standards are less rigorously applied, and advancement is less controlled by prevailing academic standards. This is true for most institutions, traditional as well as online – but it is particularly true among the for-profit programs, which have a tendency to set lower admissions standards and then let academic attrition deal with the problem of controlling student quality. The effect of this is to keep enrollments high among students in the money-generating early years of their programs and lower in the money-losing more faculty-intensive later years.

In practice, then, unqualified and ill-prepared doctoral students are a key revenue source for many institutions. The faculty know this, and yet have to deal with every student in the same way, assuming that they are there to graduate even though we may know very well that we are essentially taking their money under false pretenses. When these students are told, sometimes after having been passed through all the coursework in the program, that on the basis of an exam or some other screen they can’t write an acceptable dissertation and are out of the program, it often seems hypocritical. In some cases, students at later stages are subjected to academic quality standards and expectations they were never trained to meet, such as the use of statistical tests and research methods they never learned adequately or at all.

This situation is somewhat less likely to arise in traditional FTF doctoral programs, for the simple reason that the faculty who advise students at the dissertation stage are most likely the faculty who designed their curriculum, taught their courses, and got to know them throughout their program. There is often an explicit or implicit agenda of competition among the students that discourages the weaker students from continuing through. Qualifying exams are clearly established as major barriers that not all students should expect to hurdle. So while traditional programs can and often do continue to take money from students they know are unlikely to finish, it can be rationalized through an attitude of caveat emptor, and the attrition rate is even sometimes proclaimed to the world as a mark of program quality.

Online doctoral programs, particularly for-profit ones, generally can’t afford such a cavalier attitude toward attrition. They usually operate on a narrower margin, and each student lost at any stage means less revenue. Most such schools have a relatively small core of full-time faculty even for the doctoral programs, and most courses are taught by adjuncts who, while generally PhD-level qualified, usually have little or no discretion in course content or methodology and often even little sense of the curriculum, let alone the student body. Sometimes this information is merely inaccessible; at other times it is actively withheld from the adjunct faculty. And a large proportion of the faculty who do dissertation-level advising and committee chairing are also adjuncts, who are likely to be, in today’s academic world, part-timers paid little more than minimum wage.

Significant institutional pressures generally encourage retaining students in the program even when their performance is in the low range. The idea is that quality will be enforced at the dissertation level, through the actions of the dissertation advisor and other screening mechanisms. If the student arrives at the dissertation stage deficient in key skills, it is generally up to the advisor to make up all these deficiencies; if the student doesn’t finish, it’s a significant black mark against the advisor.

[Part 3 of this discussion will follow shortly.]

  • Jason

    Hey JD, does this article cover the difference between chapter 4 and chapter 5 doctors? In any case, I am still interested in this overall topic. I hope you get to part 3 soon!