The Graduate School has launched a major initiative to identify and implement the most effective practices that help students complete their PhD degrees.
During his first year as dean of the Graduate School, Thomas Pollard made improving outcomes in Yale’s graduate programs his top priority. “I wanted to understand the elements that contribute to successful programs and to encourage the use of these good practices more widely,” he said.
Although graduate programs differ dramatically in size, selectivity, academic requirements, and other attributes, these programs share a common goal of enabling students to complete their dissertations in a timely way and embark on satisfying careers. Data collected and analyzed over the course of last year show that some departments are consistently more successful than others in achieving these outcomes.
One of the most striking differences among programs is the percentage of students who graduate with a PhD. In the most successful programs, 90% earn doctorates; in the least successful, barely 40% complete their dissertations. In programs with high rates of completion, students tend to finish their degrees more quickly – in six years or less – than in programs with low completion rates.
The study confirmed that academic programs throughout the Graduate School use a variety of excellent approaches to help their students, but that many departments do not take advantage consistently of some of these best practices. According to “Improving Graduate Education at Yale University,” the report based on the study, “Programs with good outcomes use many more of the best practices than programs with poor outcomes. Therefore, even taking into account differences in degree requirements and the poor employment prospects in some fields, the data suggest that implementation of better practices will improve outcomes in any program. […] We cannot escape the fact that programs with good outcomes use good mentoring practices more intensely than programs with poor outcomes.”
Beginning this year, all programs will be expected to adopt mentoring practices that were found to produce good results. These include “provision of high quality information about program requirements and expectations, early independent research, careful monitoring of student progress prior to qualifying exams, scheduling qualifying exams or other assessments to allow for early decisions about readiness for dissertation research, annual thesis committee meetings with written feedback to the student, regular formal meetings for students to discuss their ongoing research with faculty and fellow students, regular informal contact between faculty and students to build cohesive academic communities and annual opportunities for students to present their work,” according to the report.
In addition to these practices, the study identified other ways to improve graduate education. These include providing office space for students, supporting postdoctoral fellowships in the humanities, and partnering with alumni to create internships outside the academy to expose interested students to a range of career opportunities.
Dean Pollard is in the process of meeting individually with chairs and directors of graduate studies from each department to discuss the data gathered for the report and what actions departments will take in light of the report. This month the Graduate School will host division-specific meetings for directors of graduate studies to facilitate the sharing of successful practices among similar doctoral programs.