Graduate study, including the master’s degree but more specifically the pursuit of a PhD, is an extremely focused educational experience that is designed to produce a professional trained in the research, creation, and critique of knowledge within a given field. Graduate study is an essential part of the modern knowledge economy. The processes of graduate study create scholars, research, and academic criticism through an increasingly technological, yet staunchly traditional study, apprenticeship, and sponsorship model.
The nineteenth century ideal of uniting advanced study and research training with the work of individual scholars engaged in scientific research was heavily based on the German model popular at that time. Over time and across national systems graduate education has shifted away from this model. Today, the form and content of graduate education are heavily influenced by the US model of prescribed curriculum, coupled with more formalized research training, culminating in a largely independent research project and the thesis or dissertation that demonstrates an original empirical or theoretical contribution to one’s field. Due to the particular constraints of national systems and cultures, the extent to which this model is observed in its purest form varies considerably from country to country.
The idea and development of the research university first began in Germany with what is known as the Humboldtian model of study. Central to this model was the pursuit of new knowledge through academic research. In the nineteenth century, research, teaching, and study were brought together in academic set tings where skilled veteran professors worked closely with students to focus on the creation and development of particular areas of knowledge. As the nineteenth century was drawing toward an end, German universities were by far considered the most advanced in the world and attracted students and scholars from many other countries. However, as a result of political and social tension, within the first four decades of the twentieth century this shifted. Thus, after World War II, the US emerged as the preeminent force in graduate education.
Graduate education in the US is historically a rather young endeavor. The first formal graduate program was at Yale University, where in 1861 three doctoral degrees were awarded to students of its Scientific School. Previous attempts to establish graduate education in the US had failed, despite outspoken proponents from among social and political leaders. When the Association of American Universities (AAU) was first organized in 1900, a central concern was the opinion of US graduate programs by institutions overseas. Today, this opinion can be measured not only by the quantity and quality of social networks and collaborations between US institutions and those abroad, but also by the high volume of doctorate degrees granted to students from other countries by US graduate programs.
In general, across national models, master’s programs are larger and more diverse, and doctoral programs are smaller and more concentrated. However, prominent in the organization and practice of graduate education is the structural requirement for a sequence of pre scribed courses and for research training experiences. A master’s degree (Master of Philosophy, Master of Education, Master of Arts, Master of Science) typically involves a combination of comprehensive coursework and a culminating project or examination. The project may be a thesis, a lengthy theoretical or empirical research project, or some other capstone activity show casing the skills gained through study. The completion of a master’s program for a student enrolled in full time study is typically anywhere from one to two academic years.
Even within the same national system, master’s programs are tremendously varied in terms of their type, purpose, and expectations. The primary function of many programs is the preparation for doctoral study. Others function solely to advance the student’s stock of knowledge in a particular field. Still others provide the student with a marketable skill or vocational qualification. This variation in part contributes to the fact that there is more debate surrounding the consistency of standards of master’s degrees than either the baccalaureate or doctorate.
When students begin doctoral studies, coursework and research tasks are often similar to those involved in the master’s degree. Earning a doctorate, however, involves the completion of a dissertation: an in depth, extensive, independent, and original research and writing project. The undertaking of independent and original research for the dissertation is the culminating experience of doctoral study. A graduate committee, advisor, and/or chair provide guidance and approval of the coursework and research activities of a PhD student. The primary advisor or chair closely guides, advises, and supports the student through the arduous process, including aspects of professional development and professionalism in the academy in addition to academic and research expectations.
Although the financing of graduate education is costly across all national systems, the US has the most diverse base of funding for graduate study. Unstable as it is, the organizational arrangement for the finance of graduate education in the US is the least tenuous in comparison to Japan, Germany, the UK, and France. Institutions in the US and the students who pursue graduate study at these institutions must tenaciously seek funds from a variety of sources. This is an arduous but feasible task, as institutional endowments, philanthropic foundations, and (since World War II) the national government are major sources of loans, grants, and fellowships to defer, totally or in part, the costs of graduate education.
In the other countries the source of funding is also unstable, but concomitantly more focused, as the French, Japanese, German, and British national ministries of education are responsible for managing the financing of graduate education in their respective national systems. In these countries the central location of funding constraints illuminates two primordial problems within the systems. The first is the extreme dependence of higher education institutions on their respective national governments. The second is the increasingly lucrative and organized research units that exist outside academia. As an extension of these two issues a paramount concern, especially in the UK, is the quality of graduate education.
Due to the particular constraints of national systems and cultures, the extent to which the model present in the US is observed in its purest form varies considerably. The US model is by far the largest and most complex system for graduate level training. The German, British, French, and Japanese systems have smaller enrollments, more homogeneous institutions, and less elaborate structural arrangements for student progression through their graduate programs in comparison with the US model.
The systems of both the UK and Japan have struggled with an insufficient critical mass. The highly selective nature of the systems results in relatively small populations of advanced graduate students and the nature of research study and training results in even smaller numbers of earned doctoral degrees. Intense fiscal constraints on the advanced educational sector, particularly in comparison to industry research development and training, exacerbates the problem.
The German and French systems have had difficulty providing opportunities for hands on research training to the advanced students in their systems. Particularly in the case of Germany, there has been, since the closing of the twentieth century, an issue with preserving the unity of research, teaching, and study. Segments of the national system have abandoned this Humboldtian ideal, while others struggle to maintain it. At the center of this struggle is finding the organizational and funding patterns that will keep the commitments of this model intact.
In the UK, although there has been increased enrollment in graduate programs, on the whole, graduate studies remain a small and marginalized sector of education within the nation’s system. In the Japanese system, large enrollment numbers in the overall university sector mask the challenges the graduate sector faces regarding size. Although 60 percent of Japanese universities have graduate programs, only 7 percent of university graduates advance to master’s programs and the total graduate student population – including doctoral students – accounts for a mere 4 percent of the total university population (United States Library of Congress 1995). The German system suffers from unevenness across fields in its graduate sector. Although overall enrollment may appear sufficient and stable, the dispropor tionate distribution of enrollments across sec tors in graduate education is problematic for the entire system of advanced study in Germany due to the effects this has on faculty and fiscal capacity.
Due to its social and historical context, the US has virtually eluded contemporary issues concerning sufficient size and critical mass. However, in part due to huge demand and in part as a result of historical structural discrimination, the noteworthy issues facing the US graduate education sector have centered on educational equity in relation to race and gen der. Over the last 20 years the number of US racial-ethnic minority doctorate recipients has grown as a result of the social movements impacting higher education access during the 1960s and 1970s. Overall, the gains in doctorates awarded to Asian Americans and Latinos have been far greater than the gains experienced for Native Americans and African Americans. In the last 25 years the number of women doctorate recipients has increased in the social sciences, humanities, physical sciences, and life sciences. Women were the recipients of 45 per cent of all the doctorates granted in 2003; 25 years previously they represented only 27 per cent of the doctorate recipients in the US (Hoffer et al. 2004).
Despite advances in technology in engineering, physics, and medicine, and the advent of new methods of data analysis in the social sciences, the process of earning graduate degrees mirrors a quaint form of apprenticeship and sponsorship in most national systems. This is true despite differing social, political, and fiscal contexts. The significance placed on the various aspects of graduate education – research, study, and teaching – varies across contexts. Differences across systems are strongly influenced by the diffusion or centrality of fiscal contributors to the nation’s education sector. As all systems experience fiscal constraints, the research arena in Germany, Japan, France, the UK, and the US is becoming increasingly segmented as private and industry sector actors involve themselves in research more intensely.
- Clark, B. R. (Ed.) (1993) The Research Foundations of Graduate Education: Germany, Britain, France, United States, Japan. University of California Press: Berkley.
- Glazer, J. (1986) The Master’s Degree: Tradition, Diversity, Innovation. ASHE-ERIC monograph no. 6. Association for the Study of Higher Education, Washington, DC.
- Goodchild, L. F. & Wechsler, H. S. (Eds.) (1997) ASHE Reader on the History of Higher Education, 2nd edn. Ginn Press, Needham, MA.
- Hoffer, T. B. et al. (2004) Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report 2003. National Opinion Research Center, Chicago.
- Thelin, J. R. (2004) A History ofAmerican Higher Education. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
- United States Library of Congress (1995) Country Studies: Japan. Federal Research Division of the US Library of Congress, US Department of the Army, Washington, DC.