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Network envisions global standards for doctoral education

June 15, 2009

An international network of higher education leaders and stakeholders, including Arizona State University Professor Bianca Bernstein, is calling upon policymakers to strengthen doctoral education worldwide and prepare more diverse and innovative researchers and leaders who will help solve the world’s great challenges.

More specifically, their detailed recommendations call for sharing expertise and capacity between more and less developed educational systems through innovative, nonprofit networks; creating standardized classification systems for doctoral programs across disciplines; and encouraging educational systems to allow risk-taking in doctoral research that can lead to major discovery.

These recommendations, derived from the third international workshop entitled “Forces and Forms of Change in Doctoral Education Worldwide,” revolve around key issues in doctoral education such as equitable distribution of intellectual capital, diversity, intellectual risk-taking and interdisciplinarity. The gathering was hosted by the International Centre for Higher Education Research at the University of Kassel in Germany.

Bernstein’s participation in these biennial workshops is particularly relevant to ASU as the university focuses more on international education issues, innovations and forward-thinking under the vision of the New American University set forth by ASU President Michael Crow. It also is pertinent to the renewed vision of the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education, which is focused on multidisciplinary research and advanced academic study in education.

“ASU has the opportunity, with greater focus and support, to become another hub of research and development for graduate education amid equity issues across borders,” said Bernstein, a professor of higher education and policy studies and counseling psychology. “We already have a number of scholars who do that work at ASU.”

At the heart of these discussions is how to stimulate action affecting the cross-national flow of highly educated professionals; move toward a more equal distribution of high-quality doctoral education around the world; and enhance many facets of economic, educational and social cooperation.

“Working together, network members created a kind of roadmap toward our collective desired future for doctoral education worldwide,” explained University of Washington Professor Maresi Nerad, founding director of the Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education in Seattle.  “Professor Bernstein contributed substantially to the discussion and to the chapter on diversity.  She particularly contributed information and consideration on women's participation in U.S. science education and conceptually contributed to the general discussion on race and ethnicity in the context of the United States.”

Bernstein, a former dean of ASU’s Graduate College and director of the graduate education division at the National Science Foundation, is an expert in graduate education reform and preparation of future educators.  She contributed to discussions about today’s most challenging issues in doctoral education: accountability, internationalization, interdisciplinary collaboration, the underrepresentation of women and ethnic minorities, and the increase of dual career PhDs in the workforce.

“My interest has always been to ask if there are characteristics and outcomes of doctoral programs that go beyond what traditional disciplines offer,” she said. “The Europeans call it transferable skills, which refers to the range of things people with a PhD would know that are important to functioning in almost every professional environment. It’s meta-disciplinary: Communication, teamwork, leadership, ethics, career management and self-care.”

In 2005, the first Forces and Forms workshop in Seattle examined how—and how well—graduate education is responding to global trends. In 2007, the participants met at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Bernstein chaired the task force “What is a PhD?”

“Our form of education is vastly different from other educational models around the world. Our doctoral programs have several phases of coursework and then research,” Bernstein noted. “Although it is beginning to change, students in many other countries work under one supervisor as an apprentice researcher, often under idiosyncratic and informal expectations.  There may or may not be courses or other students or faculty available for learning or collaboration.”  These differences have substantial implications for the level and type of preparation students receive and the mobility of students across borders.

She added that pursuing a doctoral degree is perceived differently in the U.S. than it is in other countries.

“The public often believes undergraduate education is more of a public good and graduate education is a private good. But other countries don’t even have the luxury of that argument. They need people to provide the intellectual capital, to provide the leadership, to stay or return there to develop infrastructure. Our model allows more people to find their place and satisfying careers in our country, yet we are doing less well than some countries in diversifying our educated workforce at the graduate level.”

The Forces and Forms workshops have resulted in publication of the book Towards a Global PhD? Forces and Forms in Doctoral Education, and a second book now under publisher review, "Globalization in Doctoral Education," for which Bernstein was the lead author of a chapter questioning outcomes in doctoral education. A third book entitled Innovation and Internationalization in Doctoral Education is forthcoming, with Bernstein leading the consideration of gender diversity in doctoral programs.