Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Most Interesting of Experiments...

It's no secret that the attrition rate among Ph.D. candidates is huge. Given the amount of resources devoted to these programs, such a shortfall may be comparable to the problem of graduation rates for undergraduates for the welfare of universities. The question and the source of the proposed experiment is to figure out the cause of the higher failure rate in Ph.D. programs. This would be technically daunting to investigate. There are many factors that contribute to the success of a Ph.D. candidacy over a long period of time. There is no exit interview associated with failed candidates nor any attempt at assessment. Many reasons for failure to complete are of a personal nature and could not be released.

Yet, I suspect that possible answers to the question are well-known. The candidate is not smart enough would be one. The second one is that he or she lacks the determination to finish. A third would be external circumstances which can interfere. That's pretty much it for the most likely reasons. The fact is that most experienced faculty who have worked with Ph.D. candidates probably have a pretty firm sense of the most common causes of failure. If only this information could be communicated!

What if the underlying problem was not any of the above but was one of information management? Most Ph.D. projects, especially in the humanities and social sciences, involve processing and managing a great deal of information running into the hundreds of references. Working with them is not at all a trivial task and there is minimal guidance for this from faculty who expect the candidates to figure it out for themselves as has been done since time immemorial. Enter EndNote, bibliographic software designed to manage references as well as format them. By way of analogy, word-processing is a type of management software, yet the difference between it and a typewriter is enormous for the writing process. What if the same were true of the relationship between bibliographic managers and the ad hoc research methods assembled by individuals? The library could be at the forefront of high-level research that is the very summit of what universities produce.

Ambitious as this sounds, it is not even new. The program has essentially been done and reported on by Manchester Metropolitan University:

Harrison, Mary, Stephanie Summerton, and Karen Peters. "Endnote Training for Academic Staff and Students: The Experience of the Manchester Metropolitan University Library." New Review of Academic Librarianship 11 1 (2005): 31-40.

Is there a reason for the UC system not to investigate this?