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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Ph.D. Policy

January-February 2006

When she became dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) last July, it was something of a homecoming for Theda Skocpol, Thomas professor of government and sociology: she is a card-carrying alumna, Ph.D. ’75. Based on her experiences as student, faculty member, and now dean, Skocpol judges the graduate school “unparalleled in the services it offers students,” both in admissions to its 55 doctoral programs and, of late, in financial aid. (With recent enhancements guaranteeing humanities and social-science students four years of support plus a fifth year of funding to write dissertations, Harvard is again “very competitive with the top graduate schools,” she says.)

What GSAS lacks, she says, is “top-level faculty involvement.” Such engagement has been conspicuously provided for undergraduate education in the past 15 years through the ministrations of the Educational Policy Committee (EPC), chartered within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), which regularly reviews each College concentration: requirements, course sequence, teaching. Of late, the faculty’s review of the curriculum has also had wide impact (see "An Unconstrained Curriculum").

Theda Skocpol
Photograph by Martha Stewart

Skocpol set about remedying that deficiency promptly. As her first order of business, she announced at the first faculty meeting of the year, on September 27, the formation of a Graduate Policy Committee (GPC) charged with three missions: advising the GSAS and FAS deans on matters of graduate educational policy and allocation of resources affecting all Ph.D. programs; conducting regular reviews of each graduate program; and coordinating with the faculty as a whole on general policy matters—for example, reviews of proposed new doctoral programs. This scope of activities, she emphasized, embraces issues such as the time it takes students to earn their degrees and their own training to become teachers. Matters of curricular content would remain the responsibility of each program and its visiting committee.

In a subsequent conversation, Skocpol outlined the reasons for focusing on Ph.D. education today. Citing rapid growth at the frontiers of knowledge, she noted that more than a quarter of Harvard’s 3,500-plus Ph.D. students are now in interfaculty programs, many with the Medical School (see www.gsas.harvard.edu/ for a complete list). That gives GSAS a particularly complex stewardship—given the breadth and variety of doctoral courses of study—as well as a unique role to play in integrating Harvard’s schools in pursuit of intellectual goals.

Skocpol’s data showed, further, that the interfaculty programs are growing rapidly, with enrollments up 47 percent from academic year 1997 through 2004. (In the same period, humanities Ph.D. enrollment rose 6 percent, social-sciences enrollment declined more than 6 percent, and enrollment in the smaller life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering and applied sciences programs rose 16 percent, 33 percent, and 78 percent, respectively.) The faculty has an obvious interest in coordinating the relative shifts in student populations with growth in its own ranks.

Skocpol noted the opportunity for broad analysis of each of the traditional divisions and their individual programs. Understanding their admissions selectiveness and yield, time to degree, placement, and other factors might reveal practices that could inform and improve Ph.D. education overall. In data distributed to the faculty at its November 8 meeting, for example, Skocpol pointed out that the average time to degree in the humanities and social sciences has been rising, to 8.1 years and 6.9 years, respectively; and in natural sciences, declining to 5.9 years.

She also displayed the years devoted to each Ph.D. degree earned for students admitted to FAS doctoral programs from 1992 to 1994, with individual departmental identities obscured. The least effective programs took more than twice as long as the most successful ones. Her indicators of possible problems included analysis of factors such as each program’s admissions selectivity and yield from among the most attractive applicants. Private discussions with each department have begun to spur self-analysis and efforts to perform better. For example, Skocpol said, programs whose students all take their general exams together at a set, expected time, move them on to dissertations faster than those where each candidate pursues an individual timetable. Her handout to the faculty drove the point home with a Mike Twohy cartoon of two aging students at a soda shop, captioned: “If I string grad school out another five years, I can go straight into assisted living.”

Finally, Skocpol observed that the College curriculum review “will change the pattern of demand for graduate students.” Rather than just serving as teaching fellows in the sections accompanying large lecture courses, graduate students will likely become involved in preparing research-based course materials and apprenticing alongside faculty members in seminars. The GPC will be “very important” in thinking through how graduate students learn to teach, she says.

Enough faculty members share these concerns to have made it possible for Skocpol to populate the committee quickly. In addition to four decanal members, its initial complement of 10 professors includes FAS representatives from classics, music, physics, environmental engineering, and other disciplines, and a medical school professor of microbiology and molecular genetics.

The GPC is aware, Skocpol said, that “You can always count on faculty caring about their Ph.D. students and programs.” What professors have not been able to do easily or consistently, however, is to look beyond their immediate programs at ways to advance and improve Ph.D. education in general. For the nearly one-fifth of Harvard students pursuing Ph.D.s, that may be about to change.