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Doctoral Research Programs on Upswing

NRC assessment cites physics, geography, biomedical engineering, and philosophy

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Photo by Kalman Zabarsky. Graphic (below) by Diana Parziale

Boston University’s research doctoral programs have shown significant and widespread improvement over the past 15 years, according to an assessment released today by the National Research Council. 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 was 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.

(Read more below graphic)

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, “And last year, Tian Yu Cao delivered the opening keynote addresses at the First International Symposium on Structural Realism and the Philosophy of Quantum Physics in Wuhan, China.”

Other honors cited by Dahlstrom include Juliet Floyd’s senior fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Study, Lichtenberg-Kolleg, in Göttingen, Germany; Alfred Tauber’s 2008 Science Medal from the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Bologna; and Krzysztof Michalski’s directorship of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, which, along with his numerous publications, earned him the Officer’s Cross, L’Ordre National du Mérite from France.

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.”

Eisenberg says the biomedical engineering program was given a major boost in 2001, when ENG won a five-year, $14 million Leadership Development Award from the Whitaker Foundation to expand its biomedical engineering program. That award was matched by the University, for a total commitment of $32 million. Both the number of faculty and the number of PhD students, he says, have grown steadily, and his department now produces 15 to 20 PhDs a year.

“We’ve been hiring extraordinarily good people,” says Eisenberg. “In the past two years we’ve hired six new people. We are competitive in the market, and we are still building with junior hires.”

Robert Kaufmann, a CAS professor and chair of geography and environment, says PhD recipients from his department have joined the faculties of Yale, West Point, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One recent grad won a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award and another won a National Investigator Award from NASA.

“Our students do very quantitative social science related to the environment,” says Kaufmann. “They do very technical satellite remote sensing and very rigorous interdisciplinary work that often unites these two disparate disciplines.”

He 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.

Michael Lyons, a CAS professor and chair of psychology, which also scored well in the NRC assessment, says his department does an outstanding job of attracting external research support, with 77 percent of tenure track faculty currently holding grants.

“During the last three academic years, the number of grants has been 63, 68, and 74,” he says.

His department ranks sixth, excluding large state systems with multiple campuses, in federally funded research among universities, Lyons says. “Psychology has been on a steep trajectory of improvement, especially over the last decade or so,” he says. “That takes time to be reflected in public perceptions.”

Claudio Rebbi, a CAS professor and chair of physics, says his department has focused on hiring top candidates with superb research credentials and international recognition, together with a passion for teaching.

“All our faculty are actively engaged in well-funded research,” says Rebbi. “We encourage the formulation of grant proposals, and we very carefully screen the applicants to our graduate program, selecting those students who show excellent potential and can be a good match to our research programs.”

Deeana Klepper, a CAS associate professor and chair of religion, says the upward trend of her department has accelerated since the data for today’s report were collected.

“In the past five years, we’ve hired six assistant professors,” says Klepper. “We have developed a very strong cluster of faculty in Asian religions, and we have a very strong cluster in ancient Mediterranean religions. While no faculty had expertise in religion and gender in 1999, we now have three faculty who work on gender and religion: one who studies gender in Islam, one in Buddhism, and one in Christianity.”

Klepper says faculty have been impressively productive in both publishing and grant writing. In the past three years, they have published 13 books, edited 14, contributed 42 book chapters, and published 24 journal articles. Also in the past three years, they have won several important grants, including a Japan Foundation Summer Research Grant, an American Philosophical Society Sabbatical Fellowship, an American Philosophical Society Franklin Research Grant, an American Academy of Religion Research Award, a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, an ACLS Fellowship, and a Sackler Institute for Advanced Studies at Tel Aviv University Fellowship.


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.

In addition to providing university-specific evaluations, the NRC effort revealed trends in U.S. doctoral education. Since the last assessment was released in 1995, the number of students enrolled in doctoral engineering programs has increased 4 percent and the number in physical sciences has increased 9 percent. At the same time, the students enrolled in social sciences declined 5 percent and those enrolled in humanities declined 12 percent. The researchers found that the percentage of female students has increased 3.4 percent in the humanities and 9 percent in engineering. The percentage of PhDs awarded to students from underrepresented minority groups increased in all fields.

Learn more here.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.

5 Comments

5 Comments on Doctoral Research Programs on Upswing

  • Anonymous on 09.28.2010 at 9:42 am

    Go BU!

  • Quartile of WHAT? on 09.28.2010 at 4:28 pm

    A program cannot rank Nth out of ANY number of programs using ANY of the ratings. These are ranges. To say any different is irresponsible. BTW, (WAY TO) GO EMBARGO!

  • Comparison? on 09.28.2010 at 4:34 pm

    This NRC study is completely different from the one in 1995. How can an higher ed institution show a side-by-side comparison in good faith?

  • Anonymous on 09.30.2010 at 8:15 am

    no PhD students in Religion Dept.

    At Boston University there are no doctoral students in the Religion Department. Religion is taught to undergraduates only. Graduate students are in the Division of Religious & Theological Studies – a cooperative unit with faculty from Religion and from the School of Theology as well as other departments and schools in the University. To present the public profile of the study of religion at BU as a function of the Religion Department along as the Religion Dept. Chair does in this article is simply dishonest. Much of the great work being done in religious studies at BU is NOT being done by the Religion Dept. but by the School of Theology, Medical School, etc. In fact, one can get a PhD in DRTS in Theology without having worked with the religion department faculty at all.

  • Anonymous on 10.01.2010 at 5:46 pm

    Good job Boston….good job with paying attention to the embargo of the NRC…..

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