Doctoral Research Programs on Upswing
NRC assessment cites physics, geography, biomedical engineering, and philosophy| From Commonwealth | By Art Jahnke
A National Research Council report found significant improvements in 11 of the 24 BU programs that were assessed in both the current study and a 1995 study. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
Boston University’s doctoral research programs have shown significant and widespread improvement over the past 15 years, according to an assessment released in September by the National Research Council (NRC). The new report does not rank programs, but measures the quality of specific aspects of them, such as faculty research productivity, institutional support for students, and the diversity of faculty and students. It shows significant advancement in 11 of 24 BU programs that were assessed in both the current study and a previous study, published in 1995. In the current study, 39 BU doctoral programs were examined. Programs that showed comprehensive advancement include physics, philosophy, psychology, electrical engineering, and mathematics. Biomedical engineering, geography, economics, and religion were also highly placed.
“Our doctoral research programs are very important to the success of Boston University,” says President Robert A. Brown. “We are pleased with the increased recognition of the quality of our programs. In the last two decades, the University has risen rapidly in the ranks of major private research universities, as the results of the NRC study verify. We have continued to focus on increasing the quality of our faculty and the impact of our programs. As a result, I think our programs today are even better than indicated in the NRC study, which is based on data that are five years old.”
The NRC functions under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, a private, nonprofit institution that provides advice intended to promote the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge in matters involving science, engineering, technology, and health.
The data used by the NRC were collected in 2005 and 2006 from more than 5,000 doctoral programs in 62 fields at 212 universities in the United States. The group warns that a true comparison cannot be made between this year’s results and those in the earlier study, because the criteria used by the NRC have changed. Previous assessments, published in 1982 and 1995, were based primarily on reputational factors, and this latest report is designed to be more data-based.
The NRC’s complex system for assessment offers five sets of rankings of programs in each field, based on data on 20 characteristics. The report offers ranges of rankings on three dimensions of doctoral education: research activity, based on publications, citations, and other honors, and the percent of faculty with research grants; student support and outcomes, based on the percent of students funded in the first year, the percent of students completing degrees in a given time period, and expected placement in academic positions; and diversity of the academic environment, based on the percent of faculty and students from underrepresented minority groups, the percent of faculty and students who are female, and the percent of students who are international.
Daniel Dahlstrom, a College of Arts & Sciences professor and chair of philosophy, whose doctoral program placed well in the study, says his faculty’s continued excellence is evident in their many publications and awards. “Charles Griswold’s book Forgiveness, published three years ago, continues to be the centerpiece of conferences across the globe,” says Dahlstrom.
Solomon Eisenberg, a College of Engineering professor and chair of biomedical engineering, says his department’s funding has increased from just over $14 million in 2001 to $28 million this year; 77 percent of the funding comes from the National Institutes of Health. “We’ve had a big bump,” says Eisenberg. “One way to think about it is dollars per faculty member. We have 33 people on the faculty.”
Robert Kaufmann, a CAS professor and chair of geography and environment, says one PhD candidate was the first scientist to use satellite sensing technology to prove that parts of the planet were greening earlier each spring and another used the technology to document changing land use in China, as people were drawn to urban centers.
Because the NRC was working with data that are five years old, the new assessment does not address changes in academic programs that have been made since 2005. In that time, 14 deans have been appointed, more than 400 new faculty members have been hired, and the University has seen a 33 percent increase in research funding.