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Getting Smart About Higher Education Involves Doing Your Homework

Getting Smart About Higher Education Involves Doing Your Homework

So you’ve gotten the good news: “Overproduction” of Ph.D.s is, by and large, a myth. Many fields are experiencing painful shortages of Ph.D.s. Bioinformatics is one, notes Peter Syverson, vice president of research for the Council of Graduate Schools. “We’re not producing any Ph.D.s in bioinformatics because, every time someone takes two classes, they get hired” by industry, Syverson says.

Even in those fields where there is a perceived oversupply, “they’re (Ph.D.s) not being overproduced, they’re being underused,” argues Dr. Robert Weisbuch, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.
But not underused, apparently, to a significant degree. Unemployment among Ph.D.s has been estimated variously at less than 5 percent, less than 2 percent and less than 1 percent.
So this is good news, to be sure. But does that mean, for all you prospectives out there, that you can simply relax, put the process of choosing a discipline and a program on cruise control?
Absolutely not.
“It’s a complex question because what you’re, in effect, doing” — given the median time to degree of 7.3 years for all disciplines — “is making a decision about conditions that’ll be in effect in, say, 10 years,” says Dr. Lydia English, program officer for higher education for the Mellon Foundation and director of the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship program.
That’s an enormous time commitment, one that requires a lot more from the prospective than simply asking for a favorite professor’s opinion. But a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts has found that’s precisely what most graduate students do.
In a survey of 4,000 graduate students at their third year and above, students in 11 disciplines — philosophy, history, English, math, art history, sociology, ecology, geology, psychology, molecular biology and chemistry — reported choosing to pursue the doctorate at the urging of a favorite professor — or just because it seemed to be the next logical step. Far too many doctoral candidates felt
they enrolled in their programs with only the vaguest of notions of what graduate education entailed or what their professional futures might be.
Expert observers in the field of higher education agree: Students only rarely ask the questions that would allow them to determine whether a given field or school constitutes a good “match” for them.
Dr. Maresi Nerad, associate professor at the University of Washington and author of “Ph.D.s: Ten Years Later,” offers some valuable advice: “Do a lot of homework,” she says. “Go first on the Web. Start with National Opinion Research Council site and look at the results in the annual Survey of Earned Doctorates. Then compare that to the Peterson guides and then really look and begin asking the departments the hard questions.”

Nerad also suggests the following checklist:

  • l What is the department’s average time to degree? Not the official time to degree published in the graduate handbook, but the amount of time it actually takes students to navigate the program.
  • l What kind of financial support can you get  — and get in writing? Beware of funding gaps — graduate fellowships that last three years of a program that’s nominally five years, for example.
  • l What is the program’s attrition rate? If the department says it doesn’t keep this information, ask for the completion rate. If it doesn’t collect this information, worry.
  • l In the SED data, you’ll find information on the proportion of people of color to Whites, of men to women. This may give you some clues as to the climate of the program. You also may be interested in learning the average age of the students, particularly if you’re a nontraditional student.
  • l Also, investigate the number of women and faculty of color. Is the faculty all White and male? Are you OK with that?
  • l Does the department have a program that brings prospective graduate students to campus? Take advantage of it. It’s “really worthwhile,” Nerad says, to visit the campus, talk to advanced doctoral students, ask them the questions you’ve been asking the department and see if you get the same answers.
  • l Investigate the climate of the program. Is it harsh and competitive, warm and supportive, do students feel lost in the shuffle, do they receive good advising and mentoring? In short, do the students want to be there?
  • l There also are a series of questions that are very important for students who are married and/or parents. What’s available in the way of child care? How are the local schools? Is there campus housing available for married students? In the absence of such housing, are the local rents reasonable? What about housing prices for students who are able to buy? What about commuting, parking and/or public transportation for students who can’t live on or near campus?
  • l And last but certainly not least, what’s the cost and quality of the health insurance plan?
There are many more questions that one could add to this checklist. Weisbuch, for example, notes that students of color have a strong interest in taking the knowledge gained back to their communities. But the programs in which they find themselves are not set up to encourage that. The programs are often too abstract, socially removed, irrelevant to real-world concerns, he says. A prospective doctoral student looking toward a life of social engagement might want to add some of those types of questions to his or her checklist.
“The key thing,” Nerad says, “is that one needs to be realistic. Getting a Ph.D. takes a minimum of five years. You need to be clear about how do you finance that, how do you survive it.
“I was talking to a grad student in chemistry who told me that she was admitted to some really top programs and also to the University of Washington. She looked at the competitive programs but had eventually decided on Washington, and she said she was very glad to be here. ‘They do the research well here, but I can also have a life,'” the student said.  
— By Kendra Hamilton

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