October 4, 2010

Doctoral programs assessed by National Research Council

The National Research Council last week released a study of research doctoral programs at 212 higher education institutions, including The Johns Hopkins University.

The NRC said that its study, the largest quantitative analysis of its kind ever conducted in the United States, is intended to offer a comprehensive comparison of doctoral programs across a wide array of characteristics, providing information that universities can use in their strategic planning for departments and programs. The study, it said, is not intended to produce a list of institutions in rank order, like those of colleges and universities found in the popular media.

Johns Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels said he welcomes the study as a tool in the dialogue on the critical importance of graduate education.

“As America’s first research university, Johns Hopkins has long been committed to strong and vibrant graduate education,” Daniels said. “We will take this opportunity to review the study to consider ways we can continue to strengthen our graduate programs.”

The study, which was originally scheduled for release several years ago, is the third by the NRC. The council previously released graduate and doctoral program studies in 1983 and 1995.

The methodology used for the current study is markedly different from that used in the two previous surveys. Rather than using a single rank for each graduate program, the NRC provided two ranges of ranks obtained by different methods. Instead of a rank order of programs from first through last place, it provides a range within which it is statistically likely that a program falls. For instance, the report might say that a university’s English program might be between the 15th and 25th best in the nation, while its mathematics program might lie between first and 20th. By providing ranges rather than a specific rank, the NRC is attempting to quantify the substantial uncertainty in ranking highly diverse programs.

Lloyd Minor, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins, said that the university takes the study seriously.

“Excellence is the hallmark of our institution. It is what we rely on when building our graduate education,” Minor said. “In the coming days and weeks we will be working with our faculty in a detailed analysis of the data to determine both where we are and what we can do to improve our programs.”

The current study was conducted using a massive set of data that was provided during the 2005–2006 academic year by participating public and private universities. Doctoral programs were assessed based on criteria such as research, grant and award activity; student support and outcomes; and diversity of academic environment. In all, the data set covered 20 variables for 5,000 programs in 62 fields at the 212 universities, according to NRC officials.

Specifically, the NRC used two methods for evaluating doctoral programs. The first asked faculty to rate the relative importance of 20 different characteristics in determining the quality of a program. The second sought to determine the relative importance by asking faculty to rate the quality representative programs in their field and then deriving the weights associated with the same 20 variables. The rankings in each of the surveyed fields were calculated 500 times in order to reflect, to the extent possible, all the sources of uncertainty, NRC officials said.

Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, said that U.S. graduate schools are a strategic national asset, and that the results of the study will help academic leaders and policymakers establish benchmarks for higher education both here and around the globe. “Doctoral education strengthens our country’s research base and develops the talent we need to remain competitive in the knowledge-based, global economy of the 21st century,” she said.

The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private nonprofit organization that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter granted in 1863. National Research Council officials said that the purpose of the report is to provide a comprehensive assessment of doctoral programs. The study data can also be used to rank the quality of programs according to characteristics assigned by various users.

Financial support for the study was provided by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the participating universities.

To learn more about the rankings, go to http://sites.nationalacademies.org.