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UB Doctoral Programs Do Well in NRC Rankings

By Lois Baker

Release Date: September 29, 2010

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences has released its long-awaited new assessment of research-doctoral programs in U.S. universities, the first review since 1993.

The NRC applied an entirely new methodology to arrive at the current document, which avoids comparison with the earlier rankings. The current ratings are based on a complex formula that incorporates data in 19-to-20 parameters, depending on the discipline, which participating universities assembled during late fall 2006 through spring 2007.

In a departure from past practice, the NRC did not publish single definitive rankings for each program, stating that the committee felt strongly that assigning a single number to each program and ranking them in that order would misrepresent the varieties of ways that programs achieve quality, as well as the varieties of attributes that potential students seek in a doctoral program.

Instead, the document offers a range of potential rankings, using two different systems for weighting the parameters, called "S" and "R."

The "S," or survey-based, rankings are based on a survey that asked faculty to rate the importance of the different program characteristics in determining the quality of a program. The "R," or regression-based, rankings are based on an indirect way of determining the importance that faculty attach to various characteristics.

Of the 34 UB doctoral programs evaluated, eight were given ranges that extended into the top quartile of the "R" system -- pharmacology, chemical engineering, civil engineering, American studies, comparative literature, computer science and engineering, communication and geography.

Six programs -- pharmaceutical sciences, pharmacology, chemical engineering, industrial engineering, computer science and engineering and American studies -- were given ranges that extended into the top quartile in the "S" system. A total of 28 UB programs received ranges that extended into the top 50 percentile in the "R" ranking system, while 21 programs received ranges that extended into the top 50 percentile in the "S" system.

The complete assessment report is available online at http://www.nap.edu/rdp.

John Ho, PhD., vice provost for graduate education, dean of the graduate school and the leader of UB's assessment team, said he appreciated this thorough review by the NRC.

"This is a valuable working document, one of many ways we can gain insight into our academic quality. Program chairs, faculty and deans can do their own analyses of the data, looking at how their programs compare on selected variables of interest with our peer institutions.

"We will draw on this information to help us understand where to build on strength and where to improve." He noted that many changes already have been made in the four years since the data was compiled.

Satish Tripathi, PhD, UB provost, said he was pleased with UB's overall performance in the NRC report. He thanked the assessment team for its hard work in assembling the data, which he says will be useful for years to come.

"UB has many excellent doctoral programs, a testimony to the hard work of our faculty. Assembling this data has been a useful exercise in examining our doctoral program as a whole, and can be used as a road map in the future to enhance our entire repertoire of academic programs."

To be included in the study, a field or a discipline had to have produced at least 500 PhDs in the five years prior to 2004-2005, and had to be offered in at least 25 universities. An individual program had to have produced at least five PhDs in the five years prior to 2005-2006 to be included in the assessment.

The assessment covers more than 5,000 doctoral programs at 212 institutions in 62 fields within the physical sciences and mathematics, agricultural and life sciences, health sciences, engineering, social sciences, and arts and humanities.

The final document is based on data collected through five questionnaires: an institutional questionnaire on institution-wide practices and a list of doctoral programs; a program questionnaire on students, faculty, characteristics of the program, a list of doctoral faculty and names of their advanced doctoral students in five fields.

Also, a faculty questionnaire, which asked about educational and work history, grants, publications, characteristics important to the quality of a doctoral program and whether they would be willing to answer a survey rating programs in their field; and a student questionnaire, that asked advanced students in English, chemical engineering, economics, physics and neuroscience about their educational background, research experiences while in the program, program practices and post-graduation plans.

The final questionnaire was sent to a stratified sample of faculty who had indicated they were willing to rate other programs in their field, as part of the "R" ranking methodology.

In addition to the overall measure provided by the assessment for each program at each institution, dimensional measures were constructed in three areas: research activity of program faculty, student treatment and outcomes, and diversity of the academic environment.

The authors of the NRC report note that the study and its methodology are meant to set in motion a dynamic process that leads to further discussion and insights, and are not to be considered a "final verdict" on the quality of doctoral programs as they existed in 2006.

The data is expected to be of interest to policymakers, researchers, university administrators and faculty, as well as to students who are considering doctoral study.