In fall of 2016, the Academic Affairs Board (AAB) of ASHA interviewed 73 of the 76 directors of PhD programs in communication sciences and disorders (CSD) in the United States. The AAB report,Programs in Communication Science and Disorders: Innovative Models and Practices [PDF], is available on the ASHA website. Some of the key positive findings were as follows: (a) most programs report a high rate of completion; (b) students in most PhD programs engage in a number of interdisciplinary experiences and courses; and (c) the majority of students seek academic positions upon graduation.
In this article, we report on three issues that were prevalent across our interviews: program strengths, mentorship, and challenges to PhD education. We also summarize some of the future directions identified in the report.
The most frequently mentioned strength reported by program directors is the ability to offer interdisciplinary experiences to students, including research opportunities, coursework taken with students from other disciplines, and speaker series featuring interdisciplinary presentations. Many program directors also pointed to curricular innovations such as training students for academic life in areas such as pedagogy, supervision, leadership ethics, technology, scholarly writing, work–life balance, and grant writing. Several programs highlighted the fact that they provide specialty tracks in areas including neuroscience, specific disorders or populations, or methodologies such as biostatistics. The AAB noted that only about half of the respondents indicated that they offered a course on grant writing, and only 33% of the programs required such a course.
The importance of matching students to appropriate mentors was clear in our interviews. Most program directors indicated that mentors play a major role in successful recruitment and retention of PhD students. Respondents reported that personal contact with mentors is key to getting applicants to apply to PhD programs in the first place. Then, when making application decisions, many PhD program directors indicated that the most important factor was the ability to assign a mentor that matched an applicant’s interests. Further, student attrition was linked to lack of fit with mentors, highlighting the importance of clear communication with students before and throughout the PhD program. Another significant aspect of mentorship was the role of mentors in encouraging students to seek academic or post PhD positions, both by advising them to pursue academic careers and, more subtly, by presenting positive models of successful careers in academia. Thus, the mentor–mentee relationship appears to be at the heart of many aspects of successful PhD training.
Challenges to PhD Education
Insufficient funding was the number one concern for all aspects of PhD education. Other challenges expressed by program directors included the following concerns: (a) their programs lacked critical mass (small numbers of students and/or faculty); (b) applicant pools were too small; and (c) a variety of logistical challenges were present, such as managing consortia or dealing with ways to bridge master’s-to-PhD degree programs.
Tne important challenge mentioned by many program directors was related to financial constraints that limited recruiting, with 35% of respondents reporting difficulties regarding the availability and sustainability of PhD student funding. In some programs, mentors are not allowed to accept PhD students unless they can fund their own students through external grants. This constraint highlights a particularly grave concern in an era of shrinking funding resources available to PhD programs. If our discipline is relying heavily on external funding to support our training needs, then this raises questions about appropriate model(s) for PhD training.
Another concern noted by program directors was the lack of clarity about the role of teaching in PhD education. Some program directors noted that teaching was viewed as a distraction from their central job of research training, whereas others highlighted their pedagogy courses and teaching experiences as a signature strength of their programs. Given that teaching is central to the vast majority of tenure track positions, a deliberate approach to training PhD students as teachers should be an important aspect of all PhD programs.
PhD education in CSD faces a number of challenges. So, what initiatives are most important for programs and the field? Clear themes emerged from our conversations with program directors:
- Mentors must communicate early and often with prospective students.
- Programs must develop clear-cut mechanisms for feedback to students.
- An appropriate match involves more than mutual/overlapping research interests; it also depends on available/preferable channels of communication.
Taking the time to discern both what students bring to the table and clarifying student expectations for their PhD education are critical, both during the recruitment process and as students work toward completing their degree. Establishing such connections will increase student motivation and ensure timely support when needed. A programmatic approach to consistency and quality in training for the multiple roles of academic life, across all aspects of the profession, including teaching, research, and service, likely would improve PhD training in CSD. The AAB report recommends that programs consider how their requirements prepare students to be successful and work to rectify imbalances if not all of the critical aspects are addressed sufficiently.
PhD education is the cornerstone of the future of our discipline, in terms of its central role in both developing the research basis of our profession and preparing those who will train future clinicians. Thus, a national focus on the quality of PhD education is important. The AAB report mentioned earlier in this article, PhD Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders: Innovative Models and Practices [PDF], urges programs to examine their own practices closely and to consider this report’s recommendations in their future development. Programs also are encouraged to use specific ASHA resources to address some of the challenges faced by PhD programs. Examples of such ASHA resources include the following:
- Students Preparing for Academic-Research Careers (SPARC)
- Lessons for Success (LfS)
- Mentoring Academic-Research Careers (MARC)
- Audiology/Hearing Science Research Travel Award (ARTA)
These programs provide additional opportunities for potential and current PhD student mentoring and peer networking.