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Faculty Senate explores the future of the doctoral degree

At Thursday's Faculty Senate meeting, a panel discussed new initiatives designed to prepare PhD candidates for today's job market, including a program that would expose them to careers as high school teachers. 

L.A. Cicero Josiah Ober, professor of classics, James Plummer, dean of the School of Engineering, Debra Satz, senior associate dean for the humanities and arts, and Russell Berman, professor of comparative literature and German studies.

At its meeting on Thursday, the Faculty Senate heard a panel of faculty discuss the future of the PhD degree. Among the panelists are, from left, Josiah Ober, professor of political science and of classics; James Plummer, dean of the School of Engineering; Debra Satz, senior associate dean for the humanities and arts; and Russell Berman, professor of comparative literature and of German studies.

Next year, Stanford is launching a course – to be taught by Pam Grossman, professor of education, and Jennifer Summit, professor of English – that will introduce humanities PhD candidates to the concept of teaching high school as a career, Debra Satz, senior associate dean for the humanities and arts, told the Faculty Senate yesterday.

"The course will involve curriculum issues," said Satz, a professor of philosophy. "It also will have them visit certain high schools and learn about high school teaching." Satz said the Haas Center for Public Service will develop placements for the students, "so they get experience working with young people to see if they're really good doing this. The School of Humanities and Sciences is agreeing to fund all our students who finish their humanities PhDs and get admitted to the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP)."

Satz said the pilot program was a response to a "hunger" among humanities PhD students for discussion of career paths outside academia. Earlier this year, 40 graduate students attended a focus group Satz organized about teaching high school.

"But a lot of students said, whatever you do, whatever programs you develop, please don't have it noted on my transcript, because I don't want my adviser to know that I'm thinking about this," she said. "They actually need to get the message from the faculty that we value these career paths."

Satz was one of six faculty members who took part in a panel discussion at Thursday's senate meeting about the future of the PhD degree.

Russell Berman, a professor of comparative literature and of German studies who moderated the discussion, said doctoral education is under considerable pressure nationally and at Stanford for multiple reasons – not all of them negative.

"I think we have yet to figure out how the technological revolution in higher education is going to impact doctoral education," he said. "There is the extraordinary transformation taking place in the discussion about undergraduate education focused on student learning. We have to begin to think through what that means for doctoral education. In addition, there is the problem with the job market, and that's a major concern for our graduate students and should be a major concern for us as well."

Berman asked the panel, which also included professors of biochemistry, biology, classics and electrical engineering, to address several points, including the growing recognition that a doctoral degree opens many doors outside of academia; the question of whether students are being appropriately prepared for the career options that they will face; and whether programs provide appropriately broadened professional development opportunities. Berman also pointed to the need for hard data on the unexpected career paths Stanford PhD students have chosen.

"We want to know where our students are 10 years out and where they are 15 years out," Berman said. "And we want to know to what extent are they building on the skill sets they developed in graduate education when they're doing many different things in society."

Bob Simoni, professor of biology, said the Biology Department gets great students and trains them really well. They get jobs when they finish and many become leaders in their fields.

"By those criteria, which I think are actually the most critical ones, we're quite successful at what we do," he said.

But Simoni noted that the more complicated issue is determining the optimal length of time to complete the doctoral degree.

The Department of Biology has begun to focus on trying to optimize the time students spend getting their degree through a variety of changes.

"So the trick is, in our judgment, to get them into their thesis project – that's most often a laboratory – as soon as possible," he said.

Simoni said that getting doctoral candidates to their thesis projects earlier means "moving up some of the other stuff," such as lab rotations, to try to decide where to do a thesis project, teaching and coursework – all integral parts of their training.

"But we moved that to earlier in their time here," he said. "And the hope is now, by the end of the second quarter here, they will have chosen a thesis lab and gotten in and started on their thesis work."

Simoni said the department also has moved up the time of the qualifying exam.

The full minutes of the May 16 meeting, including presentations by James Plummer, dean of the School of Engineering and professor of electrical engineering; Josiah Ober, professor of political science and of classics; and Daniel Herschlag, professor of biochemistry, will be available on the Faculty Senate website next week. The minutes also will include the question-and-answer session that followed the panel.

The next senate meeting will be held May 30.