WASHINGTON – It’s expected that prospective graduate school students perform due diligence in researching the Ph.D. programs to which they apply. With the economic recession having helped boost higher education enrollments, the competition for slots in graduation programs throughout the U.S. has been increasing.
Last week, hundreds of advisers in the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program learned they will need to impress upon their students the necessity for thorough understanding of their graduate school options.
This is so because a change in the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) requires students who participate in the McNair program to begin graduate work the fall semester after they earn their bachelor’s degree. The change takes effect this summer.
This requirement, combined with the economic downturn, will make Ph.D. program selection all the more important, Dr. Kathryn Kailikole, director of the Louis Stokes Institute at the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), told student advisers during COE’s annual meeting.
Questions that their students should ask during informational interviews at schools they are considering include “What are the resources of the department?” and “What kinds of grants does the department bring in?” Kailikole said.
McNair program advisers from campuses across the country met in Washington to discuss strategies to address the HEOA change. One of several U.S. Education Department TRIO programs designed to support underrepresented students in pursuit of higher education success, the McNair program prepares qualified “first-generation” students or those who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds for academic work toward earning advanced degrees.
In addition to the new requirement, the overall increase in the number of graduate school applicants as students opt for advanced degrees while riding out the recession will require students to spend more time researching the financial resources a university and its academic departments can offer to finance their graduate work, Nathan Bell, director of research and policy analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools, told McNair program advisers.
“One of the side effects of the recession has been the amount of support institutions are able to provide to students,” Bell said. State and federal shortfalls also may affect the number of students who can participate in a school’s graduate programs as well as the dollar amount the department offers.
Before agreeing to enroll in a program, Bell said students should have a specific conversation with the department about financing and ask for help identifying resources that may be available.
Bell and Kailikole said one of the biggest mistakes McNair scholars and other minority students make is applying to only one or two academic programs. Funding resources can vary dramatically across universities, they said. Students also make the mistake of applying only to fellowships targeted to minority students when they often have the credentials to apply for general graduate fellowships.
“[The dollar amount of] fellowships to low income and minority students are often lower than general fellowships,” Kailikole said.
Students about to enter graduate study also should plan life during the program and their endgame.
“It’s important to discuss how much time to take off,” Kailikole said. “Sometimes work experience makes the research better.”
Bell says students should aim to complete their degree within seven to eight years. About 57 percent of students who start a doctoral program complete it within 10 years, according to data compiled by the Council on Graduate Schools’ Ph.D. Completion Project.
“It should not be taking 10 years to get a degree,” Bell said. The length of time is trending down, although in the humanities it can take a student 12 to 14 years to complete the program, he said.
As they research to find a good match fiscally, students also should study the culture of the university and the culture of the department and inquire about campus-based support services, such as graduate student associations.
Students also should research what they will do after earning their advanced degrees.
“It helps if you start to address that early on,” Kailikole said, adding that, in addition to academic environments, there are career opportunities in government, at research institutions, and in private industry for professionals with advanced degrees. Some doctoral programs are requiring published articles instead of a dissertation.
“That starts to prepare a graduate student for the type of work in their career,” she said.