Doctoral education at Ohio State

Patrick S. Osmer — May 24, 2011

Pat Osmer

This post is focused on the future of doctoral education at Ohio State. My purpose in writing is to initiate a dialog with the graduate faculty across campus about the highest degree we offer, the Ph.D., the degree that in essence defines a research university. I want to engage you in conversation here first, and I encourage you to post your comments below.

The next step will be to host an open forum for graduate faculty to take part in a face-to-face discussion about doctoral education. The open forum is scheduled for Friday, June 3, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. in University Hall 014. We’ll serve light refreshments to recognize the lunch hour and the end of the quarter. Please register.

While the U.S. has been the unquestioned world leader in doctoral education since the end of the Second World War, it cannot take this position for granted, as I mentioned in my first blog post. Other countries and regions of the world are investing heavily in graduate education and are improving their programs. Here in the U.S., important questions are being raised about the efficacy of doctoral education: for example, the high attrition rate (40% on average), the long time to degree (average 10 years or more in some disciplines), and the apparent overproduction of Ph.D.s in some fields relative to employment opportunities in the traditional academic/research career path. Given the high cost of doctoral education and the current economic pressures on funding, the graduate community must be prepared to advocate for and justify the importance of doctoral education to the country. We must also be able to demonstrate that we are effectively preparing doctoral students for the careers they will follow (The Path Forward Report: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States 2010).

Among the things I have learned as dean of the Graduate School is to appreciate the wide diversity of our 90+ doctoral programs. I also have come to realize that there is no single formula for educating Ph.D. students across the university. As I often say, in the letter ‘A’ alone at Ohio State we have 11 doctoral programs ranging from accounting, anthropology, and my own field of astronomy, to atmospheric sciences. It is clear that the approaches and requirements of these fields are very different.

The approach I have adopted to help Ohio State move forward is to identify the common themes and goals for doctoral education that are (or should be) common to our full range of doctoral programs while recognizing the differences among the disciplines. A general principle I use is to establish the expectation that each program will strive for excellence in terms of the national standards and practices of its field. This was a focus of the doctoral review that we undertook in 2008, which I consider to be a foundational part of this conversation.

At that time, I asked the colleges and programs to identify new or emerging opportunities for their doctoral programs and how they might gain a competitive edge. Very few colleges or programs responded to that opportunity, and I see that as a hindrance to our ability to move forward.

I believe that we have many excellent opportunities for Ohio State to play a leading national role in doctoral education by defining and implementing these new directions and approaches. The economic and political changes since 2008 have made it all the more important that we go beyond the normal, that we reexamine our historical practices and goals, and that we identify the important future directions for our different subjects. I sometimes hear that we academics just produce clones of ourselves. That, and the phrase ‘that’s the way we do it’ are simply not going to work anymore.

To begin the dialog, let’s start with some of the main questions facing us. Over the last year, here are the ones that have emerged for me from my work on campus and with the Council of Graduate Schools and the international graduate community.

  • What are the goals for doctoral education and doctoral programs at Ohio State for the 21st century?
    • What techniques and methodologies appropriate for 21st century work should our students learn?
    • How can we help them acquire the appropriate intellectual and research breadth to address important topics and problems for the 21st century?
    • What career paths do our PhD graduates follow?
  • How should we best prepare students for future academic careers?
  • How should we best prepare students for careers in government, business, non-profits, etc.?
  • How many doctoral students should we be enrolling, on a program-by-program basis?

To help start the discussion of these questions, I want to share a few of my own thoughts. My thinking is influenced by my work outside academia and as a faculty member, department chair, and dean of the Graduate School. I will be very interested in your responses and ideas on these and other topics.

First, for me, what distinguishes the Ph.D. from other degrees is that it prepares people to do independent research. It is about developing the creative ability to formulate new research questions and having the background knowledge and technical abilities to work on answering them. How broadly across our programs does this definition apply? What other definitions or goals do you and your programs have?

Second, although preparation for academic careers has been the norm for many fields, I believe that we, as faculty members, have to recognize that such careers may be quite different today compared to what they were previously, and we need to make sure that we’re training students to fill these roles successfully.

Third, on average, half of Ph.D.s work outside of academia (The Path Forward Report: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States 2010). We must first, as a graduate education community, recognize and accept this fact. Then, I think, we can quite feasibly change how we educate doctoral students in programs where they could make very important contributions to the private and public sectors.

And, doctoral programs will need to determine what are appropriate enrollments based on the realities of their field, not just their teaching or research needs. For Ph.D. programs, I think, quality trumps everything, including size. For example, while doctoral enrollments in some departments may have been driven historically by undergraduate teaching needs, the result has led to enrollments being too large relative to actual needs for careers in the field. Such enrollment patterns are no longer justifiable and other ways of meeting instructional needs must be developed (e.g., clinical faculty, etc.).

Next steps

As I mentioned at the beginning, the first step from the Graduate School side is the open forum for graduate faculty on Friday, June 3, 11:30-1 p.m. in University Hall 014.

I believe that the subsequent steps should occur at the college, department, and program level, where the questions I have posed here should be used as starting points for assessing and planning the future directions of the individual doctoral programs. I have discussed this with the provost and the college deans at our last Council of Deans meeting.

As with the doctoral review, this is a partnership effort between the colleges and the Graduate School. The Graduate School can’t, and shouldn’t, set the direction for each program and college. Graduate education is embedded in the overall teaching and research missions of the colleges; furthermore, the colleges have the bulk of the resources under our budget system. The role of the Graduate School is to help identify the right questions, facilitate the conversation, and manage the process and outcome at the university level.

This subject is gaining a lot of visibility, and to the right, you will find links to related articles that I’ve come across or that have been recommended to me. Have a look, and please participate in the discussion by posting your comments below. I look forward to hearing from you.


Patrick S. Osmer is vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the Graduate School at Ohio State. He is also currently serving as chair of the board of directors for the Council of Graduate Schools. Osmer was chair of the Ohio State astronomy department from 1993-2006.


Showing comments 1 to 10 of 3365 | Next | Last
Brian McSpadden Gardener
Conflicting Rewards and Directives
Tue May 24, 2011, 17:54:40
Graduate education in the life and agricultural sciences has been evolving rapidly since the 1990s. I recall efforts that some of my graduate advisors were undertaking on behalf of the NSF at that time, and things seem to be changing slowly at the institutional level. In the mean time, the reality for faculty and students is qualitatively different in many ways already.

The IT revolution has transformed research and publicaiton in numerous ways, not the least of which is a greater emphasis on quantity and objective (though not always meaningful) measures of quality. In academia we seem to be spending proportionally more of our time writing more proposals and papers, because that is what is needed to ensure adequate funding to do research. Furthermore, funding for graduate students is more and more tied to one to three year grants and fellowships, requiring greater administration and diversification of effort by the student in order to complete their degree. There are more pressures to decrease time to degree at the same time there is less available time to teach and mentor Ph.D. students properly. And, So, if the institution rewards faculty for student completion in 4 years there is pressure to pass less qualified but hard working students; I really this should be avoided.
Elizabeth R. Barker
Future of Doctoral Education
Sun May 29, 2011, 13:40:27
This is a subject that has been the subject of considerable discussion at the College of Nursing. In our profession, there is an imperative for both the development of science by providing a solid foundation for independent research (the goal of the PhD)and doctorally prepared graduates whose goal is to take that science and integrate it into professional practice and improve patient outcomes (the goal of the Doctor of Nursing Practice). The synergistic contribution of BOTH doctoral programs is essential for the development and implementation of the evidence base in Nursing and indeed many other professions.
The Doctor of Nursing Practice is a rigorous doctoral degree that has been carefully planned and implemented at the College of Nursing. It exceeded the requirements of its first national accreditation.It can serve as an exemplar for the University for a newer model of doctoral education, one that includes both the development of new science through independent research and doctorally prepared scholars who are expert at testing the evidence for its application to practice. As a modern University, I believe that we must look towards the models that keep us in touch with the needs of our professions and the populations we serve.
Amy E. Rettig
Doctoral Education
Tue May 31, 2011, 08:54:48
As a person looking to attend a Doctoral program within the next two years, I look for the opportunity to be mentored well, flexibility in the program, and applicability to my professional career.

When I visit the Doctoral open houses or speak with professors at The Ohio State University, I am dissuaded from pursuing a PhD. Reasons have included: the PhD is for scientists only that do not want to practice; the role of the PhD is for a future in academia; and there is no way to get a PhD and work outside of school. I find this very limiting, short-sighted, and stuck. The "Path Foraward..." document you refer to reinforces my thought. The 21st century is a new time with different needs and we may need to do things differently to meet those needs.

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to your post.
Ruth Sesco
international classes
Wed June 01, 2011, 13:56:13
Where can we go after attaining national standards? How about to the international level? Provide good high-quality scholarship but improve the metrics of engagement; new metrics will change how success can be measured...not just coursework outcomes but new refinements, some subtle and others far reaching.

This evolves through the interweaving of subject content with international relationships as well as the input from instructors/mentors. It would require the university to embrace a series of finite but ultimately far-reaching steps to create the right synergies and feed on them. Just sharing international videoconference classes can provide a more robust curriculum.

China and India are producing engineering and science graduates at astonishing rates. The greatest intellectual progress can be ours if we blend into a concerted international push for breakthrough solutions to global problems. A world-class graduate program would be more attractive to prospective students and bring the smartest people to our doorstep. It would also expand our country's soft power and influence in the world.

OIA offers Course Module Seed grants to develop internationally collaborative classes. They work especially well with the smaller grad classes and can port existing projects and research into new world-wide opportunities. We need to actively pursue this. (Much thanks for allowing me to post).
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Cole James
Re: Doctoral education at Ohio State
Wed May 16, 2012, 14:22:57
I am in the first year of my PhD program and this so motivational. I appreciate the information and perspective.
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The disposable academic,” The Economist, 18 Dec 2010

Our Universities: How Bad? How Good?” Peter Brooks, The New York Review of Books, 24 March 2011

New President of the Association of American Universities Sees Possible Trouble in Too Many Doctoral Programs,” Paul Basken, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 24 March 2011 

We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities,” Peter Conn, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 April 2010 

Let’s get practical ,” George M. Whitesides & John Deutch, Nature, 5 January 2011 

The Path Forward Report: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States (2010)

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