Updating the Ph.D. Process

To stay competitive nationally, the University is enhancing support for grad students and proposing other changes

Hunter College professor Robert Dottin, director of the Center for Study of Gene Structure and Function, confers with graduate student Albana Thomaraj; the college plans to offer joint doctorates in science with the Graduate School.

To keep the University competitive with the country’s top-ranking institutions of higher learning, doctoral programs in science are undergoing a major restructuring for the first time since the Graduate School and University Center was founded in the early 1960s.

Initiatives include significant new support for doctoral students and expansion of doctoral degree-granting authority, starting with two senior colleges. These efforts are in addition to the ongoing campaign to recruit new science faculty and the $1 billion capital program for new state-of-the-art science and research facilities as part of the sustained University-wide focus known as “The Decade of Science at the City University of New York,” which began in 2005.

The new administrative reforms for the doctoral program come as universities across the U.S. see commitment to science as the way to stay competitive nationally or to enhance their standing. Strong science programs are needed not just because they advance knowledge, but also because of intensifying global competition, workforce development, local and regional economic interests and the availability of financial sponsorship.

“We are giving our faculty across this University the tools they need to attract really first-rate students,” said Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, who noted that the commitment included 90 scholarships totaling nearly $1 million “for the most promising students to come and study for a Ph.D. at this University.”

In this first phase, these packages will be offered to doctoral candidates in biology, chemistry, biochemistry and physics. The scholarships offer a comprehensive package of support: full tuition for five years, a $24,000 yearly stipend and health insurance. The University, through the Graduate Center, will pay tuition and health insurance for five years and the stipend for the first year. The colleges are expected to fund the stipend for years two through five—at $96,000 per student.

Doctoral-granting authority is also being expanded. Pending approval of the state Board of Regents, Hunter and City Colleges will each offer joint doctoral degrees with the Graduate School in biology, chemistry, biochemistry and physics. A Ph.D. in public health will be offered jointly by the Graduate School and Hunter College. City College, which is home to the University’s only School of Engineering, will be the sole Ph.D. degree-granting college for engineering.

Joint degrees accord senior colleges recognition for their commitment and achievement in doctoral science, which will help them attract more external funding, according to Graduate School and University Center president William Kelly. “The senior colleges have built the labs, hired faculty and used their resources to support doctoral students,” he noted. “But they have received no formal credit because of the way the system was set up in the 1960s.” Among other advantages, the new arrangement will make it possible for senior colleges to apply for federal grants available only to doctorate-granting institutions, he said.

The changes follow a report made by a blue-ribbon panel of external scientists and educators commissioned by the Chancellor. A follow-up internal task force made additional recommendations based on the external panel’s report. Both studied the University’s doctoral programs to determine whether the unique “consortial model” has worked as well for the sciences as it does for humanities and social sciences. The task force, which completed its work late last year, decided that it didn’t.

“The consortium operates brilliantly in the humanities,” said Kelly. “It works well in the social sciences, but if CUNY wishes to take a step forward in the bench sciences, it needs to recast the way it manages doctoral education.”

Nationally, the University’s doctoral programs in philosophy, classics, music, and art history, among others in the humanities and social sciences, have ranked in the top 10. History, political science, anthropology and comparative literature programs have landed in the top 20.

For now, joint degrees will be granted by Hunter and City Colleges, which together educate 50 percent of doctoral science students. “These are institutions that dwarf all of the other campuses with respect to the amount of sponsored programs in science and engineering,” the Chancellor said at a Brooklyn public hearing in February. But he believes that as other colleges strengthen their science commitment, they will also be able to award joint doctoral degrees. The presidents of both Brooklyn and Queens Colleges have indicated they want to bolster science and research programs. “I trust they will, and over a reasonable period of time I would suspect that we will see both Brooklyn and Queens coming into the fold as well,” the Chancellor said.

Kelly believes sharing the costs will help the colleges focus on how far they want to go with doctoral science education. “Colleges are being encouraged to make judgments about their mission,” he said.

“If doctoral education in the sciences is one of the college’s priorities, it can, through its investment strategies, move toward doctorate-granting status, precisely as Hunter and City have done.”