PhD Excellence Initiative to enhance education of next generation of scholars

Published October 2, 2019

Graham Hammill.

Graham Hammill is vice provost for educational affairs and dean of the Graduate School.

What is the university’s PhD Excellence Initiative?

Under the leadership of the academic deans and the provost, UB launched the PhD Excellence Initiative, which is a multi-year program designed to enhance the education of the next generation of scholars and researchers through program reviews and creation of academic plans to ensure stronger outcomes.

The deans recommended a set of priorities establishing high-level goals around scholarship, teaching and career outcomes to improve our PhD programs and attract the very best graduate students to UB. Specifically, the PhD Excellence Initiative is focused on continuing to recruit the best PhD students to UB, enhancing diversity and inclusion in PhD programs, aligning program-level PhD curriculum with intended program outcomes, enhancing PhD degree completion and time to degree, and balancing teaching and scholarship for PhD students, as relevant to discipline.

Why is the university launching the PhD Excellence Initiative?

Over at least the past 10 years, there has been a national conversation about key challenges that PhD programs face across a range of disciplines. There is a concern that PhD programs take too long to complete and that too few students actually finish their programs. There is also concern that PhD programs are not preparing students well enough for the range of careers and professions they pursue, both inside and outside the university. In addition, in order to enhance the diversity of researchers, scholars and university faculty around the nation, we need to ensure that the next generation of researchers and scholars come from diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Just this year, the Association of American Universities (AAU) announced a new initiative to improve PhD education along these lines.

As an AAU university and a top-ranked public research university, UB is committed to addressing these challenges in our own PhD programs. Through the academic planning process that is at the heart of the PhD Excellence Initiative, faculty at the program level are being asked to develop strategies for improving time-to-degree and completion, ensuring the education our PhD students receive focuses on student success and significantly increasing the recruitment and retention of underrepresented minority PhD students.

This summer, UB’s deans unanimously decided to establish a floor of $20,000 for academic-year stipends for all full-time, funded PhD students on 10-month academic TA/RA/GA appointments, starting in fall 2019. This is great news for PhD education at our university. With this new floor, UB’s average stipend levels are now among the top five of public AAU institutions.

UB’s PhD Excellence Initiative, which focuses on academic planning, will ensure that our academic programs are among the very best. As a major research institution and a member of the AAU, UB has the opportunity to lead the discussion about the future of the PhD.

What has been implemented already to enhance PhD programs?

At UB, we have long been committed to delivering degree programs at all levels to ensure that they are meeting students’ needs and preparing them for future success. And there are a number of programs across campus that address the central goals on the PhD Excellence Initiative. For example, the Institute for Strategic Enhancement of Educational Diversity (iSEED) in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences has a history of successfully building a culturally and intellectually diverse and academically inclusive community of graduate students. The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning at UB (CIRTL@UB) has done good work providing PhD students with enhanced teacher training. The Graduate School has significantly revised processes for the allocation of Presidential and Schomberg Fellowships to improve recruitment and reward academic units that engage in best practices in educating and mentoring underrepresented graduate students. And there are many other efforts taking place at the program level across campus.

The PhD Excellence Initiative builds on these and many other efforts, giving programs the opportunity to learn from one another, and giving deans the opportunity to scale efforts that have been particularly successful.

How is the initiative being implemented?

As with any academic review and planning process, faculty input is essential. This is especially important for PhD programs, which are highly specialized to current disciplinary scholarship and research. To ensure strong faculty input and to account for the diversity of PhD programs across the campus, academic deans will be asking faculty to undergo program reviews, and will be working with their faculties to create unit-level plans based on these reviews. These plans will address, as is appropriate for each discipline, enhancing diversity and inclusion in PhD programs, ensuring a student-centered curriculum with professional development opportunities and teaching preparation; enhancing time-to-degree, degree completion rates and career outcomes; balancing teaching and scholarship, as appropriate; and ensuring the sustainability of competitive stipend levels over time.

At the same time, the Graduate School Executive Committee (GSEC) will review and recommend university-level policy and practices to improve time-to-degree and completion rates, and to reinforce the role of teaching in PhD programs, as appropriate, helping to ensure that TAs receive appropriate teacher training. The GSEC serves as the principal body of the Graduate School charged with providing general oversight of all graduate degree programs to ensure their standards, academic integrity and continuing relevance.  

The Graduate School will work with deans on a process to ensure that UB’s stipend floor remains competitive over time so that we will continue to recruit the best PhD students to the university.

How are UB’s PhD students benefitting from the PhD Excellence Initiative?

Since this initiative centers on PhD students, our students should see many long-term benefits. This process should result in programs that prepare students for the specific opportunities and challenges they will encounter as 21st-century scholars, researchers, teachers and professionals. It should result in exceptional, student-centered programs designed to align with the intended outcomes of the program, that enable students to complete their degrees in a timely manner, and that provide support to ensure student retention.

It is also important to emphasize that all students will benefit from being part of a more diverse and inclusive community of scholars.

This initiative is predicated on the academic deans’ commitment to provide students with funding packages that are nationally competitive and will remain competitive over time.  Beginning in October 2019, about 1,016 UB PhD students will see their stipends rise to the $20,000 floor, which places UB in the top five of public AAU institutions.

How is the PhD Excellence Initiative being funded?

The PhD Excellence Initiative is funded through enrollment growth revenue, Academic Excellence Fee revenue and through unit funds resulting from the deans’ reprioritization of their respective budgets.

The provost is providing bridge funds to allow stipends to be raised immediately in the 2019-20 academic year.

The deans are invited to request further funding from the university through the Annual Resource Planning Process (ARPP), the annual budget process by which the university invests in strategic priorities. Investment decisions will be based on unit-level plans to achieve the central goals of this initiative.


I think increasing the stipends to a $20,000 floor and working to increase the diversity in our programs are good approaches. Also, involving students in teaching opportunities is a fine idea.

But I hesitate on the initiatives to "increase the percentage of students who complete their degree" or to "shorten the time to degree." Depending on the program, these initiatives could significantly weaken the PhD degree. Many students who fail the qualifying exam, fail the coursework or later drop out were not really suited to do a PhD. They may not have realized this upon admission, but it later becomes clear that this course of study is not the right one for them. Forcing programs to pass these students will simply weaken the PhD program overall.

Also, forcing a shortening of the PhD degree does not seem like a good idea. Modern science — and likely other disciplines — is complex and requires years of research to complete a project successfully. And sometimes there are experimental challenges that need to be overcome.

Graduating a PhD student prior to when they have completed a PhD-worthy project simply weakens the whole program and makes the PhD degree itself worth less.

I think those in charge of this program should think carefully about how best to improve our PhD programs, without inadvertently undercutting their quality.

Lee Ann Sinha