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ND’s Ph.D. ranks improve

Melissa Flanagan | Thursday, October 7, 2010

The National Research Council (NRC) recently ranked doctorate programs throughout the nation and evaluated Notre Dame’s programs more positively than it had in the past.

Notre Dame’s doctorate programs were ranked higher than in NRC’s last evaluation in 1995, said Gregory Sterling, dean of the Graduate School.

“If you ask me, are we where we would ultimately like to be? No,” Sterling said. “But we’re better than we were. There are some great stories to be told.”

The NRC ranking addressed 5,000 programs at 212 universities. The data was based on the 2005-06 academic year, Sterling said.

“It is the most extensive effort to collect data on doctorate programs to date,” Sterling said.

The methodology behind the rankings is complex because each program was not simply numbered in rank. Rather, two ranking systems were used — the R-system, or regression-based ranking, and the S-system, or survey-based ranking.

The R-system polled faculty on their opinions of doctorate programs and measured how well the programs performed against a set of 21 variables. This ranking is closely related to the reputation of a program, Sterling said.

The S-system asked faculty to rank the 21 variables based on their importance. NRC then gave a weight to each variable and compared its importance to how the program actually performed on the variable, he said.

For both the S-system and the R-system, doctorate programs were ranked, not in a numeric order, but on a continuum based on the highest rank a program received and the lowest rank it received.

“Since the NRC refused to give an absolute ranking, the real value is in the data they provided,” Sterling said. “It allows us for the first time to compare our programs to other programs using specific data.”

Compared to the 1995 ranking, Sterling said Notre Dame did extremely well.

“In 1995, we only had two programs in the upper quartile,” Sterling said. “This time, using the highest ranking we had 11 programs in the upper quartile for the R-rank and nine for the S-rank. If you use the lower ranking, we had three for the R-rank and four for the S-rank.”

The humanities did especially well, Sterling said. English, history, philosophy and theology were ranked in the upper quartile for both R and S.

In the science department, mathematics and biology were also both ranked in the upper quartile for R and S, said Sterling.

Chemical engineering was in the upper quartile for R and the second quartile for S. Civil engineering was in the upper quartile for both R and S, Sterling said.

Sterling said the study is already being used by phd.org, a website that many prospective doctorate students will use to help them determine where to attend.

“I think, on the whole, the numbers will help us,” said Sterling. “Although we do have some programs where I think that the way things were set up will not reflect some of our strengths.”

One such department is the social sciences. Notre Dame faculty in political science and sociology publish books much more extensively than their peers, Sterling said.

But in NRC’s evaluation, only articles were counted when determining how many faculty publications a program had, and the programs’ ratings suffered as a result, he said.

Another factor is that the program measured data from 2005-06 and some programs have advanced markedly over the last few years. For example, the psychology department has hired a significant number of new faculty, Sterling said.

Nevertheless, he said the evaluation report is valuable.

“It is the most data-driven assessment of Ph.D. programs ever completed,” Sterling said. “It will be challenged, but it will prove useful in terms of providing comparative information.”

Sterling said the University should be happy with how its doctorate programs were ranked, but not satisfied.

“I would say on the whole we should feel good about the results,” he said, “but understand that we still have a challenge in front of us.”