The National Research Council (NRC), the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Science, has released its findings of an assessment of doctoral programs for more than 5,000 programs, in 62 fields of study, at 212 universities across the United States.

This is the third such study on graduate education conducted by the NRC since 1986.

“The purpose of this study is to provide a data base through which we can analyze academic fields within and across universities, and to promote continuous improvement,” said Karen P. DePauw, vice president and dean of graduate education at Virginia Tech.

“Overall, the study revealed that Virginia Tech’s graduate programs are academically solid -- many in the upper half of overall rankings. It further revealed our strong commitment to students, evident through financial assistance including health insurance premium coverage and other student support services," she added. "We will use the NRC data to measure our growth and our ongoing efforts to enhance doctoral education.

DePauw also noted that Virginia Tech’s “time to degree” data were very competitive with national data.

The National Research Council report utilized data from 2001 to 2006 submitted by universities nationwide who chose to participate by surveying faculty, administrators, and students in selected academic fields. Faculty members from participating universities provided data relative to their research activity such as publications, research grants, and honors and awards. In addition, data on student support and outcomes as well as the diversity of the academic environment were collected to provide a more comprehensive assessment of the program.

According to the National Research Council, the goal of this study is not to assign a single ranking to each disciplinary area, but to provide a range within which areas of study may be assessed. The assessment uses variables such as publications per faculty member, citations per publication, and student completion rates to create five distinct rankings, two overall rankings, and three that illuminate dimensions of doctoral programs.

Additional data were collected from faculty members regarding the relative importance of the various characteristics within each field of study. Statistical analyses of these data resulted in a set of weights for each characteristic. The value of the weights varied by field. These weights were then applied to each program’s data to provide a set of benchmarks for a particular program.

A second set of weights was developed by examining the characteristics of programs that were described as high quality by a randomly selected group of faculty within each field. These weights were used to develop a second set of benchmarks for each program.

The National Research Council noted that the rankings demonstrate how the data can be used to rank programs based on the importance of particular characteristics to various users. The rankings are given in broad ranges rather than as single numbers, to reflect some of the uncertainties inherent in any effort to rank programs by quality.

The underlying data provide key insights regarding how programs compare on particular characteristics and thus highlight opportunities for improvement.

The NRC study assessed 37 broad disciplinary groupings at Virginia Tech, which included the following: aerospace engineering, economics in agriculture and life sciences, animal and poultry sciences, fisheries and wildlife, biochemistry, biological systems engineering, chemical engineering, chemistry, civil engineering, computer science and applications, geosciences, electrical engineering, entomology, food science and technology, forest products, forestry, biomedical and veterinary sciences, biological sciences, materials science and engineering, mining engineering, mathematics, mechanical engineering, human nutrition foods and exercise, industrial and systems engineering, physics, crop and soil environmental sciences, horticulture, plant pathology physiology and weed science, psychology, public administration/public affairs, human development, sociology, and statistics.

In response to the strategic plan implemented under President Charles W. Steger, graduate enrollment has increased significantly since 2000 and currently stands at 6,950. To date, 403 doctoral degrees have been annually conferred in 2009-2010 as compared to 269 in 2000-2001. Since the NRC research data collection began in 2001, the Virginia Tech Graduate School has added seven new doctoral degree programs, eight master’s degree programs as well as opened the Graduate Life Center at Donaldson Brown, and significantly increased it support for graduate student stipends and health insurance.

Information on the NRC and its assessment of doctoral programs may be found online.

The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

Lynn Caldwell contributed to this story.