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Grad students pitch in to make NRC rankings reflect their experience

| 22 August 2007

In the multi-stage and complex process of collecting input for its upcoming assessment of American graduate education, the National Research Council sent voluntary confidential questionnaires to more than 16,000 selected advanced-to-candidacy doctoral students at institutions across the U.S. The NRC takes the overall qualitative pulse of research universities every decade or so, but this is the first time the products themselves, graduate students, have been given their say.

The debut interactive questionnaire was tested on students in five fields: English, economics, chemical engineering, and neuroscience/ neurobiology. To add their perspective, the students had a bit of work to do: the detailed online questions ran to the equivalent of 15 printed pages. 

Groups of questions covered time to degree (to get a picture of the way students progress through their programs), what master's and other degrees and certificates students earn along the way, what opportunities they've had for research publication (authoring or coauthoring) and presentation, and the level and type and source of financial support they've had. 

Other questions asked about students' career goals and how supportive faculty have been toward those aspirations, especially when outside of academia. Are there ways to gain career skills including teaching, but also written and oral communication, teamwork, independent research, project management, and ethics? Is there mentoring? Are you getting timely and helpful feedback? Are fellow students supportive of one another? Library, labs, housing, child care, health services: excellent, good, fair, poor? And there was a place for additional comments about the doctoral program's characteristics or quality.

Individual answers were not given to faculty or administrators at the respondents' institutions. A statistical read-out of completion rates has been passed back along the pipeline by the NRC, however.

The participation of Berkeley's doctoral candidates has been exemplary, according to Graduate Dean Andrew Szeri and the team facilitating the campus response. The numbers speak for themselves: While the overall response rate from students nationally is 72 percent, the response from Berkeley is 94.6 percent of those who gave their permission for release of their e-mail addresses to the NRC. In the five categories surveyed here, all had at least 90 percent participation. Berkeley's best was chemical engineering, perfection itself with 100 percent.

The NRC's full report, based on data from more than 200 universities and more than 100,000 faculty, is planned for release in December 2007.