National Research Council releases long-awaited assessment of PhD programs

October 6, 2010
The Ford School PhD program scores highly among the nation's doctoral programs in Public Policy and Public Administration, according to the recently released National Research Council (NRC) rankings of PhD programs.

Observers have raised questions about the age of the data used by the NRC as well as about the complex methodology used to generate single rankings for any of the schools, and Ford School Associate Dean Alan Deardorff seconds those cautions.

The rankings were based on data from 2005-2006, at which time the Ford School PhD program was only four years old and had graduated only five (5) students. In that context, says Associate Dean Alan Deardorff, "we were pleased that our general ranking placed us between #6 and #10 among the 54 PhD programs in both public policy and public administration," based on a survey of weights applied to program indicators.

The school's ranking was highest when based more narrowly just on research activity of faculty, as well as on indicators of diversity, while the program ranked less well on the dimension of student support and outcomes. Deardorff points out that the latter seem to have been strongly affected by the fact that most of the students ever in the program at that date had yet to complete it. "We've graduated an additional 25 students in the years since the data were collected, with another 50 still actively in the program," Deardorff said, "so we're confident that, if this ranking exercise is repeated by the NRC in a future year, our results would be even better."

The three departments with which Ford School PhD students pursue their joint degrees performed well in the rankings as well. The rankings based indirectly on opinion surveys of departments show the University of Michigan programs in Political Science and Sociology to be securely within the top ten, while that in Economics is close to that.

The NRC study is perhaps most useful for providing detailed data on the various PhD programs, Deardorff notes. For example, looking only at PhD programs in public policy at peer schools reveals that the Ford School graduated fewer PhDs in 2002-6 than the other programs, not surprisingly given that the program's first students started only in 2001. In contrast, the school was reported to have more total faculty in 2006 than all but one of the peer programs, no doubt because our joint PhD students draw on faculty from the three U-M social science departments as well as from the Ford School.

Deardorff cautions about taking the newly-announced rankings as definitive measures of program quality. "It is easy to criticize details of how these data were collected and how the rankings were done," he says, "a fact that contributed to the four-year delay that separated the data collection from this report of results." Nonetheless, he notes with pride that the Ford School's distinctive joint PhD program, already in the first few years of its existence, ranked comfortably among the best public policy PhD programs in the country.

Access the full National Research Council report here.