The State of Doctoral Education in Communication

If it’s autumn, it’s time to talk about the state of doctoral education in Communication.

Graduate in gownsNew cohorts of graduate students are beginning their programs of study in graduate programs across the country. Prospective graduate students are looking at programs, talking to advisers and mentors, and figuring out what’s the best plan for their future. More and more students are pondering a future in graduate school–even in the arts and humanities, where enrollment in doctoral programs in 2012 increased by 7.7%. Faculty members and administrators are determining hiring plans and assessing the state of individual doctoral programs in their yearly process of self-study and internal assessment. In short, it’s a good time to think about doctoral education in Communication.

NCA examines and provides information about doctoral education in Communication via its Doctoral Education Committee (DEC). These dedicated volunteers work to enhance NCA programming that promotes doctoral education in Communication, including oversight of the annual NCA Doctoral Honors Seminar and the Miller Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award. At the DEC’s urging, NCA has prepared the Doctoral Program Guide that provides information about 76 doctoral programs in Communication. Along with the program information, the Guide also includes NCA’s latest report, “Assessing Doctoral Program Quality in Communication.”

Among the most frequently asked questions we receive at NCA concerns the 2004 NCA Reputational Study that ranked doctoral programs in several research specialties and along three different criteria. We are often asked if we’re going to replicate the study or offer another ranking system for doctoral education. All of these requests prompted serious thought and discussion in the National Office and among the DEC. We also researched the historical and current attempts to rank or rate doctoral programs, particularly in Communication, and the “Assessing Doctoral Program Quality in Communication” report is the result of that research.

DPG ImageInstead of sponsoring or conducting another reputational study, DEC and the NCA staff decided a better approach would be to provide current and relevant information about doctoral education in Communication. Hence, the Doctoral Program Guide. There are many concerns with both of the main methods for ranking/rating doctoral programs–reputational studies and productivity studies. Reputational studies are inherently difficult to conceptualize and execute. Response rates to such studies are often low and the measurement instruments can be complicated and onerous for the respondent. Who is sampled for reputational analyses and what factors contribute to a program’s reputation are persistent issues for reputational studies. Timeliness is also a concern, as program reputations change quickly, faculty members change affiliations, and program offerings vary from time to time.

Productivity studies of research output are also complicated. What research is counted, what databases are used, what citations are measured—these are all issues that such studies must grapple with as they proceed to assess doctoral program quality. On a related note, because Communication is a multi-methodological, pluralistic discipline, its scholars conduct and disseminate their research differently and those differences may well involve publication patterns and frequencies as well as citation practices.

In the end, as we say in the “Assessing Doctoral Program Quality in Communication” report, “Consumers of rankings and ratings of doctoral programs in Communication would be well-advised to consider such limitations and to adapt their expectations about such quality measures accordingly. Whether prospective or current graduate students, faculty members or unit administrators, anyone who attends to assessments of doctoral programs in Communication, or any discipline, should seek out and consult as much information as possible, recognizing that no single assessment or measurement of graduate program quality is definitive and that, in the case of doctoral program quality, more information and more data is better than less.”

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