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A&L leaders promote doctoral studies

Joseph McMahon | Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Notre Dame has launched several programs to help encourage students get on the path to a Ph.D. – a goal expressed by University President Father John Jenkins during his speech to the faculty last week in which he expressed concern over the percentage of undergraduates going on to earn advanced degrees.

“Each department is trying to make students aware earlier of the option of graduate school,” said Gretchen Reydams-Schils, associate dean for research, graduate studies, and centers at the College of Arts and Letters. “We are trying to get students, even freshmen, to think about Ph.Ds.”

In his speech, Jenkins said only five percent of Notre Dame undergraduates between 1995 and 2004 earned a Ph.D. The number is low in comparison to institutions like Harvard, Rice and Princeton – and very low compared to leading liberal arts schools like Harvey Mudd and Swarthmore – Jenkins said in his address to the faculty.

“Earning a Ph.D. is a road to leadership, and we must do a better job of sending our students to Ph.D. programs,” Jenkins said. “That five percent number must rise.”

Reydams-Schils said the first step toward increasing the number is creating interest among the undergraduates through connections with the University’s own graduate students.

“We want graduate students to act as intermediaries, to be role models for the undergraduates, to demonstrate that this option of graduate school is open,” Reydams-Schils said. “We are constantly trying to improve the quality of our graduate institutions. That being said, [graduate] students will be an additional mentoring resource, and they will never take the place of professors.”

Arts and Letters Assistant Dean Vicki Toumayan said a commitment from the faculty and graduate students to the undergraduates is line with the University’s mission and its sense of community.

“The academic departments should be supportive and identify and approach students, even freshmen, who are talented and may be interested in Ph.D. programs,” Toumayan said. “It is part of our Catholic mission to prepare students to become educators and professors. There is a service aspect.”

Toumayan said there are other reasons why the number cited by Jenkins is so low.

“The number is skewed because [after getting their bachelor’s degree] students will go do a service project, or go get a job, and then go back to graduate school, and they are not counted in that statistic,” Toumayan said. “In fact, most of the students that tell me they are interested in earning a Ph.D. tell me that they do not want to do so right after college, and they would not be included in that statistic.”

She said the college is currently trying to come up with a way of tracking these students to make their figures more accurate.

In addition to poor calculations, Notre Dame’s strong pre-professional programs deflate the number considerably, she said, because they push students directly into their professions and away from the Ph.D. option.

“When you compare Notre Dame to these other schools, you have to realize that the percentage [of undergraduates earning Ph.D.s] is going to be lower because of the College of Business, the engineering school, the pre-med program, and the pre-law program,” Associate Dean of Arts and Letters Stuart Greene said. “All these schools play into that calculation.”

Reydams-Schils was quick to point out the University’s concentrated efforts on increasing interest in Ph.D. is by no means trying to draw students away from these programs.

“We are just trying to show students that there are other options besides becoming a banker, lawyer and a scientist,” she said. “Those are all great and respectable professions but there is nothing wrong with being educated about different choices.”