Pathways for Improving Doctoral Education – Using Data in the Pre- and Post-COVID Era


The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic altered the perception of the management challenges facing universities, globally. It has changed the market for domestic and international students, required institutions to move rapidly to online and remote teaching, and brought into question the funding model for many universities, particularly with the specter of reduced tuition income and state funding under the assumption of a global recession.
But is also true that the pandemic, and its impact on higher education, varies by nation, and even by the collective pan-regional response – e.g., Europe vs nations along the Pacific Rim. It is hard to assess its full implications: will it be a temporary, year-or-more long process of coping, or does it mark a significant shift to a new normal?
The safe bet is something in-between: online and hybrid courses will become a more significant component of universities curriculums and degree programs; international research collaborations, already highly dependent on remote communication and coordination of activities, will become more so; universities will build into their operations planning for any future pandemics or other forms of disruption, like the impact of climate change; student markets may be altered, with international student mobility declining for a period but then increasing once students find other locations to travel to which they feel are safer and that more affordable quality education.
In this chapter, we focus on the student experience, and specifically the graduate student experience and their perceptions of what improvements are needed to provide a quality education that also recognizes the contemporary world of work and citizenship. In the United States and Europe, faculty positions are extremely limited; most doctoral degree recipients find jobs and careers outside of academia.

Based on survey data generated by the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium, we can look at graduate student’s responses both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their responses provide guideposts for university leaders to assess ways to improve their teaching and research activities. We can also explore the differences between American/Canadian universities and a selected group of European universities.

Here, and in other previous publications, we argue that universities need to significantly redirect and improve their institutional research capability to help boost their management capacity (Aubrey and Chirikov 2020). Thus far, the COVID-19 pandemic is all-absorbing, requiring university leaders and academic staff to deal with major transitions in teaching to online formats, probable declines in revenue, hiring freezes and lay-offs and attempts to plan for what lies ahead. Few have formal or even very limited policies for gathering institutional data to use for institutional self-improvement. If they have systematically gathered data, it is often to meet the accountability regimes of ministries or respond to and develop strategies related to
global and national rankings of institutions – almost always focused on research output. That must change if institution want to effectively deal with their own
specific needs and develop a stronger culture of institutional improvement powered by data and analysis.
We have entered a world of ‘big data’, and it is essential that universities leverage and use data to improve institutional activities, practices and investment, and do so responsibly. And in this effort, university leaders need to understand that data and analysis should be widely shared and used.
Student survey data is not an end in itself, and there are significant limits and potential biases in the responses of students. But a coherent and systematic use of survey data, preferably longitudinal and with comparative institutional data, provides a significant window into the effectiveness of teaching and learning, and even the research productivity and mentorship competency of a university. Again, in the following we explore comparative data between US and European universities related largely to graduate education and specifically to students in doctoral
programs, in part because of the limited data that we have at the master’s and professional level in Europe. We focus on two data sets: First, the results of SERU’s graduate survey (gradSERU) administered at 10 universities between 2017 and 2019, which includes seven North American research universities and three north European research-intensive universities (in Sweden, Netherlands and Germany); second, data and analysis from a COVID-19 specific SERU survey administered in the summer and fall of 2020 in the US.

Publication date: 
June 14, 2021
Publication type: 
SERU Reports