A Plan to Reimagine Doctoral Education at Duke

Targeted investments to offer wider educational opportunities and advising and a 'deep dive' of doctoral programs

After a decade of successful initiatives to support undergraduate education, Duke faculty and administrators unveiled a plan last week to bring a similar focus to doctoral education.

Developed by the Provost’s Committee on Reimagining Doctoral Education (RIDE) and presented to Academic Council, the blueprint is an outgrowth of Together Duke, the 2017 academic strategic plan. The RIDE Committee included faculty from every school and worked for eighteen months, investigating the status of doctoral training at Duke, as well as national studies by disciplinary societies, foundations, and National Academies. As charged by Provost Sally Kornbluth, the committee considered how to ensure that doctoral education at Duke is adequately preparing Ph.D. students to meet the intellectual challenges of the 21st century. (The report can be read here.)

The plan recommends targeted investments over the next five years to expand educational opportunities and skills training  for doctoral students, strengthen university partnerships to ensure accountability for excellence in doctoral  education, and support a “deep dive” by academic units to review their doctoral curricula and practices.

“We’ve been talking about how to improve doctoral education nationally for 25 years, said Ed Balleisen, professor of history and vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, “but progress has been slow.  We are already a leader in many facets of doctoral education, such as preparing our students for university teaching.

“If Duke can provide the right complements to core training in research expertise, we can attract even stronger applicants for the Ph.D., while improving our capacity to undertake path-breaking research and offer superb undergraduate instruction.”

Balleisen co-chaired the committee that wrote the report, along with Nicholas School Professor of ocean science, Susan Lozier, who led the development of Together Duke.

One message of the report was that  graduate education at Duke has many strengths, including intellectual firepower among the faculty, superb infrastructure, and low barriers to interdisciplinary work.  But, as Lozier stressed, the committee also found “patchy awareness of resources outside individual programs, inconsistent quality in advising and mentoring, and uneven financial support.”  

Overall, doctoral students need more coverage of summer funding; greater opportunities for  off-campus internships that amplify research training; stronger mentoring and advising; and heightened training in communications and other “soft skills” necessary for success within and outside academia.

“If Duke can provide the right complements to core training in research expertise, we can attract even stronger applicants for the Ph.D., while improving our capacity to undertake path-breaking research and offer superb undergraduate instruction.”
-- Ed Balleisen

The report sets out interconnected goals at three different levels:

Make the Most of Duke.  While Duke has created many innovative extra-departmental  programs for doctoral students, mentoring and advising isn’t always in place to allow them to take advantage of these programs. 

Lozier noted that too many students feel isolated within their program. And students in some programs report faculty opposition to  developing complementary skills to disciplinary training.

To ensure the most conducive environment for excellence in doctoral training, the report also calls for more attention to diversity and inclusion in graduate programs and greater attention to the financial needs and mental wellbeing of graduate students.

Strengthen University Partnerships. The report calls for the university to underscore the centrality of excellent graduate education to Duke’s core missions and to raise the profile of doctoral training in fund-raising and other university activities. As part of this, it set a key goal of moving all Duke doctoral students toward 12‐month funding. 

In addition, the report recommended heightened accountability for faculty advising of graduate students; better communication channels for graduate students to report behavior that “impedes the progress of a graduate student or diminishes their membership in the academic community;” and better training for Directors of Graduate Studies and their assistants.

Advance the Ph.D.  The report also asks all programs to review their doctoral programs to review their specific missions, ensure that their curricula  fit the goals of the unit, and examine how they can best meet the intellectual needs of students amid a society that looks to higher education for expertise on complex, global issues. The report calls for competitive seed grants to help programs address issues identified by unit self-studies.

Balleisen said all programs will be expected to complete this “deep dive” in the next four years, and that the template for this self-examination will also shape future external program reviews.

In other council news, Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the Department of African and Africa-American Studies, and Kerry Haynie, associate professor of political science and public policy studies, are the candidates for chair of the Academic Council.

The two professors have long records of university service and have served terms on the council and the council’s Executive Committee.  The voting will be done electronically and the winner will be announced at the council’s February meeting.