By John Zhu
Look on the Graduate School website, and you will find more than 260 pages of program-specific statistics and infographics on admissions, enrollment, degree completion, and alumni career paths.
Yet that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Much more data still sit in spreadsheets, their insights shrouded by dense rows and columns.
Enter Ph.D. student Sarah Nolan and undergraduates Evan Dragich and Katie Tan.
As part of a 10-week Data+ project over the summer, the three students created a prototype dashboard that turned a massive amount of data into visualizations for each Duke Ph.D. program, offering easy-to-digest insights into the Ph.D. experience and the career trajectories of Duke Ph.D. graduates.
Nolan, a sixth-year doctoral student in public policy, said she was drawn to the Data+ project in part because of its intersection with her own research, which looks at pathways and experiences in higher education.
“But also, I am a Duke graduate student, so it was uniquely interesting,” she said. “I’ve been wanting to get a feel for what life is like for Ph.D. students in general across the university, not just in my own program, so this has been very helpful for that.”
A Need for Data
The project was the brainchild of Ed Balleisen, Duke’s vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, and Francisco Ramos, former assistant dean for assessment and evaluation at The Graduate School.
In 2017-2018, Balleisen co-led the Reimagining Doctoral Education (RiDE) initiative, a comprehensive examination of Ph.D. education at Duke. One of the recommendations from the RiDE report was for all Ph.D. programs to reexamine their curricula and other aspects of Ph.D. training and align them with national best practices.
Also, in 2019, Duke became part of the pilot cohort for an Association of American Universities initiative to use data to guide changes in departmental culture and behavior to better prepare Ph.D. students for a diverse range of careers within and beyond academia.
Such efforts to enhance Duke’s Ph.D. training require data on student experience and career outcomes. The Graduate School has been gathering that data for years through surveys of graduating students and alumni—efforts that were overseen by Ramos.
A lot of that information was already published on The Graduate School’s website, but even more were still waiting to be turned into something more user-friendly.
For that, Balleisen and Ramos looked to Data+, a program that was conceived and run by the Rhodes Information Initiative at Duke and which was a key partner of the Bass Connections program that Balleisen oversees. Through Data+, undergraduate and graduate students work in small teams on projects that help them gain exposure to data science.
“There was an opportunity that Cisco and I realized—to tap this Data+ program to move forward on making better use of this data that The Graduate School has been collecting so assiduously,” Balleisen said.
Nolan, Dragich, and Tan produced a dashboard that offers visual deep dives into data on each Ph.D. program, spanning a myriad of topics such as program climate, mentoring and advising, financial support, and professional development. (See the team's presentation about the project)
The Graduate School is now working with the team and Balleisen to explore how best to incorporate the dashboard into its Ph.D.-related efforts. That work is being led by Courtnea Rainey, a Duke Ph.D. graduate who became the school’s new assistant dean for assessment and evaluation after Ramos departed for an opportunity at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
“The dashboard prototype, workflow documentation, and beta-testing feedback produced by the Data+ team are important contributions to future work at The Graduate School,” Rainey said. “The team did a lot of impressive work in a relatively short amount of time.”
“Whole Other Side of Duke”
The project not only helped to meet Duke’s data needs, but also offered a fruitful experience for the three students who drove it.
For instance, Tan, a sophomore economics major, learned to code and discovered that she enjoyed writing the documentation for the project. Dragich, a junior majoring in psychology and statistics, went into the project with significant programming knowledge, but gained valuable experience in creating work for a “client” instead of for class.
As the graduate student mentor on the team, Nolan got the opportunity to manage a project and work with undergraduates. Her primary role, she said, was to provide guidance for Tan and Dragich, help the team stay focused on its priorities, and balance stakeholder requests with the project’s core goals.
“It’s been interesting,” Nolan said. “It hasn’t been so much hands-on coding work as it has been giving Katie and Evan the starting resources and guidance and connecting them to experts who know more than me on certain topics. … And it’s also been about connecting Evan and Katie and our project to the broader Duke community—reaching out to DGSs, leaders of school Ph.D. programs, and giving Evan and Katie a crash course on all these acronyms and structures and structures within structures.”
That introduction to the Ph.D. side of Duke, Tan and Dragich said, has been one of their most valuable takeaways.
“What this has shown me is that there’s just this whole other side of Duke that you never interact with as an undergrad,” Dragich said. “I just love getting to give back to Duke and learn more about the campus I inhabit.”
Tan said the experience also helped fill in some of the void created by the pandemic.
“I was a freshman last year, and during the pandemic, I wasn’t able to learn as much about Duke as possible,” she said. “This project has allowed me to learn a lot more about Duke than I thought originally. I’m very grateful that I’ve been introduced to this side of Duke that I would not have been introduced to had I not been on this team.
“We also got really lucky in that all three of us were based in Durham this summer. It’s been really nice meeting up in person. … Being in person has really allowed us to become closer as a team and work more effectively.”