NRC Rethinking Methods of Assessing PhD Programs

Robert B. Townsend | Feb 1, 2004

A special committee of the National Research Council (NRC) has recommended substantially revising the methods of collecting, processing, and presenting the information collected and distributed in its periodic assessments of doctoral programs. Although the NRC assessments of doctoral programs in a wide range of fields (including history) are undertaken only once each decade, they are given enormous weight and are often used as an important measure in allocating funds within particular universities.

While the NRC's surveys are given much more credence than the more frequent rankings by U.S. News and World Report, its last report, Research Doctorate Programs in the United States: Continuity and Change (1995), received a great deal of criticism for its use of similar reputational survey data. In advance of its next survey the NRC assembled a 14-member blue-ribbon committee to examine the methodologies of assessment and to offer recommendations. The results of the committee's review, published in December 2003, offer a critical assessment of NRC rankings and call attention to many of the key factors that determine scholarly quality in a PhD program.1

The report acknowledges the problems in offering reputational rankings, fearing that it encourages "the pursuit of strategies that will 'raise a program in the rankings' rather than encourage an investigation of the determinants of high-quality scholarship and how that should be preserved or improved." While the committee does recommend retaining some rankings of program reputation, it also recommends much greater care in the way the rankings are developed and presented.

Perhaps more important, the committee also recommended significantly increasing the number of quantitative indicators of program quality such as median time to degree, support for the development of teaching skills, and student outcomes. The committee also recommended expanding the number and variety of data collected for the assessment of PhD programs, including, for example, the perceptions of graduates of the programs, and ratings from PhDs working outside of higher education.

Many of the issues discussed and factors stressed in the NRC committee's review are quite similar to issues raised in the new AHA report, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century, but the next NRC assessment could potentially have a more tangible and possibly adverse impact upon history PhD programs. As we have noted in other reports, history PhDs tend to take significantly longer than candidates in most other fields to complete their degree.2 And as many have pointed out, quite a few history PhDs are winding up in jobs that are quite different from the positions for which they were originally trained. The additional data that the NRC proposes to collect could thus hold history up to an invidious comparison with other disciplines. The NRC committee did move to address other concerns about the data collected on history PhD programs.3 Because history was lumped in with the social sciences, the 1995 NRC survey assessed the productivity of history faculty on the basis of several misleading quantitative measures. A significant measure of faculty productivity in the social sciences is based on journal citations; this criterion fails, however, to take into account the much larger significance accorded to monographs in our field. The committee addressed such concerns by shifting history to the broad rubric of the humanities.

The NRC committee's report does not set a precise timeline for conducting the next survey, as the committee's recommendations and various funding issues have to be settled before the large-scale assessment is undertaken. However, the next assessment is expected to occur within the next few years. As the report notes, the new technologies of the World Wide Web (at least "new" relative to the last survey) should significantly improve the collection and dissemination of data when that time comes.



1. Jeremiah P. Ostriker and Charlotte V. Kuh, eds., Assessing Research-Doctorate Programs: A Methodology Study (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2003), available for sale at

2. For example, see Robert B. Townsend, "History Jobs Take a Tumble, but the Number of PhDs also Falls," Perspectives (December 2003), 7–11 or online at

3. For a discussion of some of the issues involved, see Robert B. Townsend, "Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs-Testimony Delivered to NRC Committee," Perspectives (September 2002), available online at

Tags: Graduate Education


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