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University promotes Ph.D. programs

Brian McKenzie | Monday, October 15, 2007

Prompted by the fact that only five to six percent of Notre Dame undergraduates pursue doctorates after graduation, the University is taking steps to encourage more students to take advantage of research opportunities.

The ratio, measured by the Office of Institutional Research, is lower than those at Notre Dame’s peer institutions.

At his Sept. 11 faculty address, University President Father John Jenkins noted that between 10 and 15 percent of students at Notre Dame’s peer institutions continue to Ph.D. status.

“One very important avenue to intellectual leadership is to earn a Ph.D. – the terminal degree in most fields,” he said.

Studies have shown that, compared to students at peer institutions, Notre Dame students are less likely to eventually obtain a Ph.D., said Dennis Jacobs, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Studies.

Notre Dame students are also less likely to say in polls taken during senior and freshmen year that they wanted to pursue Ph.D.s., Jacobs said.

“Somehow we are attracting a different profile of student to Notre Dame,” he said.

Jacobs said 20 percent of undergraduates went on to earn a professional masters, 13 percent a law degree and seven percent a health-related advanced degrees.

Jacobs said two main characteristics distinguished students that went on to earn doctorates from students that earned other postgraduate degrees. Notre Dame’s future Ph.D. students were three times as likely to have participated in undergraduate research than students who obtained other advanced degrees.

Also, faculty members, rather than friends or family, usually played the biggest role in influencing the student to pursue a Ph.D.

As a result, Notre Dame has fostered opportunities to research alongside a faculty mentor. Keir Lieber, a professor in political science, said new options for undergraduates to research and serve as research assistants would encourage more students to consider grad school. The Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and competitive grants from the Nanovic and Kellogg Institutes offer those opportunities, Jacobs said.

Notre Dame students are capable to go on to get their Ph.D., but the numbers do not show it yet, said Roberta Jordan, assistant director for the Office of Undergraduate Fellowships.

“ND students are very qualified, very competitive, sometimes more so than they believe,” Jordan said.

She is concerned, however, that Notre Dame students are at a disadvantage for competitive awards such as Fulbright Program grants, an international educational program sponsored by the federal government for graduate students and professionals.

“Notre Dame students are presented with these research opportunities much later [than students] at other universities,” she said. “[Competing] undergraduate students might have three or four such opportunities when ours have one or two.”

Learning methodologies and approaches were particularly important to understanding the “orientation for inquiry” in fields such as the social and biological sciences, Jacobs said. He stressed, however, that “research” encompassed a “wide variety of scholarly and creative endeavors, rather than just working in a lab.”

Paul McDowell, an associate professional specialist in French, recognized the importance of learning research skills to prepare students for higher education.

“When I hear from students at graduate school, topic one is usually the amount of research skills that they are expected to acquire,” he said.

“Notre Dame is doing a good job offering, at least to those that are interested, the opportunity to acquire those skills. In my 16 years teaching here, I’ve definitely seen an increase – if not a dramatic one – in students mulling over grad school.”

Noriko Hanabusa, an associate professional specialist in Japanese, predicted that more students would pursue postgraduate opportunities in Japanese because a move towards an honors program in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures would encourage students to “become really successful researchers.” She also said increasing numbers of students studying in Japan would improve their ability to pursue graduate degrees in Japanese.