University of Cincinnati's Innovative Approach to PhD Education

August 2009

Nancy Creaghead

In 2004, ASHA, via its then Focused Initiative on the PhD Shortage, established a grant competition for innovative models of PhD education in communication sciences and disorders (CSD). The faculty at the University of Cincinnati (UC) were willing to take the challenge and were awarded the $50,000 grant. We initiated three pilot projects to examine ways to provide access to a PhD program: We partnered with undergraduate programs to recruit minority students into a master of arts (MA)-to-PhD program, and we partnered with a master's program to recruit students directly into the PhD program by beginning a research relationship with them during their MA program. This article will describe our experiences with the third strategy—providing aspects of the PhD program through distance learning.

We developed a model for a distance learning program that included the following:

  • The distance students took the UC core doctoral seminar courses (Research Planning, Design and Development, Research Execution, Research Presentation and Publication, Grant Writing, Pedagogy, and Supervision) with the on-campus students through synchronous live interactive audio/video.
  • The students took other UC courses in their departmental major (and perhaps minor) area through distance learning either synchronously or in a modified distance learning format.
  • The students participated in independent study with their advisor or another faculty member through distance learning that included a multitude of communication methods, including e-mail, phone, chats, and live interactive video.
  • A requirement of enrollment in the program is the availability of a nearby university that offers doctoral education in other fields. Doctoral level courses in one or both minor areas (depending on the minors) must be taken at that university because our CSD program cannot ensure that courses in other departments at UC are available through distance learning. Likewise, the doctoral level statistics courses must be able to be taken at the other university. This obviously requires the development of a collaborative relationship with selected faculty and administrators at the other university. At least one doctoral committee member must be a faculty member at that university.
  • The dissertation is completed in the student's local area with the dissertation committee chair and two other full-time UC faculty members, as well as at least one committee member in the local area.

We were fortunate to find two excellent potential students who were in a situation that fit these criteria and in an area that had a very high level of need given its isolation from available PhD programs in our field-Hawaii! (And no, we have not been traveling there.) It is very helpful, but not absolutely necessary, for the program to have a CSD master's program because of the supportive role that faculty who understand our discipline, profession, and need for PhD students can play. One of these students is specializing in voice, and the other is in child language. One of the students also participated in a U.S. Department of Education Doctoral Leadership grant through UC. Both have completed their course work through the combination of methods listed above and have taken their comprehensive examination. One student is completing her dissertation, and the other is completing her dissertation proposal. Both have worked during the entire time of their program.

Because of the success of this initial pilot project that was partially funded by ASHA, we have had the confidence to extend our outreach to another island, Puerto Rico. When we were approached by a former undergraduate student in our program about the need for PhD faculty in Puerto Rico, we were willing to develop a program similar to the one in Hawaii. The necessary pieces seemed to be in place. As it turned out, we had two students from Puerto Rico, but both decided to come to UC for the majority of their program. One student took all course work at UC but did participate in CSD classes from Puerto Rico after her return there. She even participated as a UC course instructor through live interactive video from Puerto Rico. The other student has had the option to complete all or part of the program in Puerto Rico, but she also has arranged to remain in Cincinnati for all of her course work and also plans to stay next year to complete her dissertation. Although these two students ultimately stayed on the UC campus for all or most of their work, it was the knowledge that options were available to them that gave them the courage to enter the PhD program in such a far-off place.

We are now trying to help a new applicant in New Jersey find the local resources needed to supplement what we can offer at UC and design a program that will enable her to complete the PhD. The New Jersey candidate is also investigating the available of course work from an online university. Her model may look different from the others that have been described, as we are trying to meet the individual needs of each student while at the same time maintaining our standards.

The principles that we have established in determining whether to accept a student into an alternative program are as follows:

  • The student must be able to complete all of the requirements for our program as they are stated in the PhD handbook.
  • The student must be able to participate in every experience we require, including teaching, supervision, and co-mentoring undergraduate or graduate (MA or doctor of audiology) research.
  • The student must have the resources and support both on-site and through UC to design and complete a high-quality dissertation.
  • The student must be willing to go the extra mile to stretch and meet expectations.

This is not an easy option, but it can make the PhD possible for some students who will become researchers and teachers and fill a position in one of our graduate programs. 

About the Author

Nancy Creaghead is a professor and dead of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Cincinnati.

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