Reimagining Doctoral Education at Duke

By Edward Balleisen
Professor of History and Public Policy
Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies

As many (though I’m sure not all) humanities faculty and doctoral students at Duke are aware, over the past 18 months a university-wide committee has been examining our approach to doctoral education. The Reimagining Doctoral Education (RIDE) Committee has now delivered a final report to Provost Sally Kornbluth. As co-chair of the RIDE Committee (along with Nicholas School Professor Susan Lozier), I thought readers of the Versatile Humanists blog might appreciate some highlights from the committee’s work.

Reimagining doctoral education at DukeIn several ways, the RIDE report looks to embed key features of Versatile Humanists at Duke across the university. It calls for sustaining, and selectively extending, opportunities for doctoral students beyond the core features of their degree programs (more on this theme below).

A second big focus concerns the need to build out more of a team-based approach to doctoral advising and mentoring. The RIDE committee has recommended better training of directors of graduate studies and their assistants, clearer articulation of the responsibilities of faculty advisers and doctoral students, more consistent faculty accountability, and support for peer-mentoring structures.

The committee further counsels that we do a better job of informing doctoral students about opportunities across the university and providing them with knowledgeable sounding boards as they explore those opportunities, refine career aspirations—whether inside or outside academia—and eventually seek out post-degree employment. Recognizing the value of supplemental mentoring like that provided for the last few years by Maria Wisdom, the RIDE report calls for extending Wisdom’s role beyond the conclusion of Duke’s Next Generation grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as the creation of similar positions for the quantitative/experimental social sciences and the natural sciences.

In addition, the report asks that every doctoral program undertake a “deep dive” in the next few years. This self-examination should

  • explicitly specify its objectives in light of comparative strengths, evolving intellectual trends, and the post-graduation experiences of its degree recipients;
  • examine how effectively curricular and co-curricular elements prepare students to achieve those goals, and what Duke opportunities outside the program might be better tapped;
  • consider how to accelerate progress with regard to diversity and inclusion in our doctoral programs, working to improve our admissions and recruitment processes, while deepening the commitment of our intellectual communities to inclusive excellence; and
  • identify curricular and other programmatic adjustments, where advisable.

Finally the RIDE report identifies the need to prioritize moving toward full-year funding for those doctoral students who presently do not have it, and to address the growing imperative of access to affordable housing and provision of wellness programs.

‘Plus’ and Minuses

In tackling the state of doctoral education across the entire campus, the committee faced some obvious challenges. Training in the humanities differs greatly from that in the more quantitatively or experimentally inclined social sciences, and even more so from approaches in the natural or applied sciences. Nonetheless, we came to a consensus that regardless of field, epistemology, or prevailing methodology, doctoral training in the 21st century has to incorporate more than just excellent preparation for disciplinary research.

If our Ph.D. recipients are going to be able to adapt to shifting intellectual currents and evolving careers and roles, we need to provide core disciplinary training “plus.” That “plus” involves a set of complementary skills and experiences that will vary from student to student, but that entail leveraging resources across Duke, not just the superb professors and talented peers in a given degree program.

For humanities students as a group, the most significant Duke “plusses” include:

  • the doctoral cohorts at interdisciplinary units like the Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI), the Kenan Institute for Ethics, and the Duke Center for International and Global Studies;
  • humanities labs, whether hosted at FHI or now in departments like English and History;
  • summer Story+ teams and year-long Bass Connections teams;
  • off-campus internships that amplify research capacities;
  • complementary offerings at The Graduate School, including professional development workshops and seed grants, and the excellent certificate program in college teaching, as well as the varied skills workshops offered by the Duke Libraries; and
  • short-courses now available through the Duke Doctoral Academy during the final two weeks of May (among the offerings targeted at humanities students: “Teaching with Archives;” “The Art of the Interview;” “Public Speaking;” “Digital Humanities: Working with Text;” and “Developing Digital Projects in the Humanities.”

At the same time, we need to foreground the intellectual, scholarly, and professional development of doctoral students, sensibly engage with the changing terrain of higher education and the imperatives of diversity and inclusion, and remain cognizant of the significant contributions that holders of Ph.D.s are making outside universities. Hence the stress on team-based advising and mentoring that empowers doctoral students to find their paths.

This perspective echoes the chief findings and recommendations of pretty much every major national report on doctoral education over the past 25 years. If you are interested in perusing prominent inquiries that have focused on humanistic disciplines, see the 2014 report from the Modern Language Association and the 2016 Mellon Foundation study.

The RIDE committee found that many of our doctoral students already are taking full advantage of parts of Duke beyond their immediate community. We also heard a great deal about fantastic faculty advisers and (mostly) excellent university infrastructure. Nonetheless, the committee documented considerable patchiness across and within programs, and identified plenty of room for improvement.

What’s Next

The work of the last 18 months depended greatly on the contributions of current and former doctoral students—not just through the insights of four graduate student members who served on the RIDE committee, but also the reflections of those individuals who attended one of several focus groups, and the much larger number of students and degree recipients who responded to committee surveys.

Implementation of the RIDE report similarly will require extensive engagement from those enrolled in our Ph.D. programs, alongside focus and creative effort from faculty, administration, and staff. As an initial step, we would welcome feedback on the committee’s findings and recommendations. Give the report a read and send along comments, questions, and observations to me (

In addition, I would encourage you to look out for your department’s doctoral deep dive, which must take place in the next few years. That self-study and the resulting decision-making process will need thoughtful input from everyone who breathes life into a given Ph.D. program—including, of course, doctoral students. And participation in such endeavors is a great way to get a better handle on how universities function, as well as to help shape the doctoral training of the next few decades.