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Duke Will Help Lead Initiative to Improve PhD Education

The AAU's Ph.D. Education Initiative will connect closely to several of Duke's existing areas of emphasis, including data transparency, preparing students for a broad range of careers, and re-examining its Ph.D. programs' mission, curriculum, and culture.

Duke will be in the vanguard of an effort by top research universities to better prepare Ph.D. students for the shifting job market, in part by making data on Ph.D. programs and their graduates more widely available and better integrating that data into doctoral training.

The Association of American Universities (AAU) chose Duke as one of eight participants in the pilot cohort for the Ph.D. Education Initiative. The initiative aims to increase the transparency of data about Ph.D. programs and their graduates’ career paths, and to use that data to change departmental culture and behavior to better prepare students for a diverse range of careers within and beyond academia.

That goal aligns with the strong commitment to data transparency at Duke, which has been publishing detailed data about its Ph.D. programs and graduates since the early 2000s, said Paula D. McClain, dean of The Graduate School and one of the co-leaders on the AAU project for Duke.

“A Ph.D. education gives you skills that are valuable in many professional paths, and we must help our students take advantage of that full spectrum of opportunities,” McClain said. “A key part of doing that is to collect and share good data about our programs and the careers that our graduates pursue, and using that data to refine how we prepare our students.”

At Duke, the AAU pilot phase will be carried out in two departments—Statistical Science and Art, Art History & Visual Studies. In the coming year, those departments will examine their Ph.D. programs and explore ways to strengthen them through changes to their curriculum, student advising structure, and alumni engagement, with an emphasis on preparation for diverse career paths.

Those efforts will connect closely to Duke’s recent focus on enhancing Ph.D. training, said Ed Balleisen, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies and co-chair of Duke’s Re-imagining Doctoral Education (RiDE) Committee. The report from the RiDE Committee, which grew out of the Provost’s academic strategic plan, calls for greater faculty accountability for quality advising, wide access for doctoral students to opportunities beyond their degree programs, and reappraisals of the mission, curriculum, and climate of individual Ph.D. programs. 

“The process envisaged by the AAU initiative very nicely overlaps with the programmatic self-examination recommended by the RiDE report,” said Balleisen, Duke’s other co-leader on the AAU initiative. “We are thrilled about the opportunity to partner with the AAU, and with Stats and AAHVS as they examine how best to deliver excellent, student-centered doctoral training.”

Data will play a key role in that process, and the departments will receive staff support from the Provost’s Office, The Graduate School, and the Office of Institutional Research.  

“This initiative offers an opportunity to empower our departments to make effective use of data as they think about how to ensure Ph.D. students have a great experience at Duke and leave here positioned for success no matter which path they pursue,” McClain said.

About a third of Duke Ph.D. graduates from the past 15 years are in careers outside academia. The university has created a number of new resources in recent years to help graduate students prepare for a broad range of careers, such as robust professional development programming, an initiative to broaden training opportunities for humanities students, and funding to help students develop skills and connections outside their core disciplines.

Founded in 1900, the AAU consists of 62 leading research universities in the United States and Canada. Its member institutions award nearly half of all U.S. doctoral degrees.