NRC Report Background Information

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What is the purpose of the study?

Every ten years or so, the National Research Council (NRC) conducts a study of national importance regarding the quality and characteristics of doctoral programs in the United States.

The NRC Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs is conducted in an effort to help universities improve the quality of their doctoral programs through benchmarking; providing potential students and the public with accessible, readily available information on doctoral programs nationwide, and enhancing the nation's overall research capacity. The National Research Council conducted similar assessments published in 1982 and 1995.

The previous studies gathered data that described doctoral programs – size, university resources, program faculty productivity, and student characteristics. This soon to be released assessment (referred to as the 2006 NRC Assessment to correspond with the time period of the data collection) expands the data collection to include data relating to Ph.D. student financing, teaching, and other aspects of student resources in 62 areas of study in U.S. universities.

Why is this study important?

Graduate education is the key driver of quality in U.S. higher education. This latest study speaks to the importance of doctoral education as a key component of our system of education as well as the graduate education community's efforts at continuous improvement. The results of this study come at a time of increased scrutiny of higher education and serve as a benchmark foundation for future assessment efforts in the ongoing work to improve doctoral education in America. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 1/6 of the fastest growing occupations for 2006-2010 require a master's or doctoral degree. The quality of doctoral education is key to developing U.S. expertise in a variety of fields and to enhancing U.S. competitiveness and innovation.

How is this study different from the previous ones?

This third study conducted by the NRC provides a massive amount of data to permit doctoral programs to compare themselves to other similar programs and, where possible, to improve their current practices. It also provides accessible data about doctoral program characteristics that are of interest to students considering doctoral study.

In past NRC assessments of doctoral programs, rankings have been provided for doctoral programs in specified fields. In 1982, rankings for each program in a field were presented in a list arranged alphabetically by university. In 1995, the rankings based on peer assessment of scholarly quality of program faculty were arranged in numerical order for each program within a field. This 2006 study utilizes a variety of new approaches to the rating and rankings of programs and draws on a richer base of data than was available in earlier studies.

The number of fields included was increased from 41 to 62 and a new category of “emerging fields” is included reflecting the growth of interdisciplinary programs across universities.

Additional quantitative measures were collected from institutions, programs and faculty to assist in characterizing programs and in understanding the correlates of reputation.

Also, a pilot student survey was conducted of advanced students in selected fields to obtain assessments of their educational experience, research productivity, program practices and institutional and program environment.

While reputational measures are included there is an emphasis in the report and database on program ratings which are presented in ranges.

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