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Siegel takes top national chair

Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Graduate Education Lewis Siegel, acclaimed in academic circles for his willingness to confront the issue of Ph.D. attrition head-on at Duke, will go national with his efforts this winter as he becomes chair of the board of the Council of Graduate Schools, the major umbrella organization for graduate schools in the United States.

Attrition has been one of Siegel's pet projects causes in recent years, and the CGS's roster of 450 schools provides a unique opportunity for large-scale data collection. Siegel and CGS may prove to be a potent partnership in combating attrition, which has ranked as a major challenge to graduate educators for decades.

"[Lewis] Siegel's leadership on this has been hugely important," said CGS President Debra Stewart. "He is really one of our experts on the issue of attrition and completion."

While at the University, Siegel has made transparency his overarching strategy in dealing with attrition. For the past two years, he opened all pertinent attrition statistics to the public and last year he initiated a series of roundtable discussions designed to highlight best practices in combating attrition.

Siegel also encouraged departments to be frank about the realities and challenges of a graduate education during the admissions process. Oftentimes, he said, a department would hesitate to invite a prospective student for a campus visit for fear that it might not be a positive experience and the student would either pick another school or opt out of graduate education altogether.

"A lot of people, anecdotally, find graduate school very much not what they expected it to be," Siegel said. "We encouraged departments to not just sell their programs but to show the warts, too." CGS has simultaneously begun its own work on attrition, gathering extensive data from its member schools. It also recently hosted a conference of graduate school deans, individual researchers, data stewards from national organizations and students on attrition. A report of the findings from the conference will be released within the next few weeks.

Other organizations have researched attrition before, but not at this scale.

"A much smaller group, the American Association of Universities, has talked about this issue... but they don't have access to the data and they don't represent the constituencies of all types of graduate schools," said Linda Dysktra, dean of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School. "[CGS is in a good position to look at attrition] because they represent pretty much a full range of graduate schools across the country."

Peter Salovey, dean of the graduate school at Yale University, said he thought one possible use of a large-scale CGS analysis would be to establish a uniform standard for calculating retention and attrition. Often, inconsistencies in calculating the time it takes to obtain a degree makes comparisons across schools less useful, he said.

Attrition, or premature departing from a degree program, costs universities financially and can damage a program's reputation when it is excessive. It has been explained as stemming from a myriad of causes, including problems in mentoring, career advising, admissions and the vague nature of graduate education.

"Students who have been here a year still don't know what's required of them because nobody volunteers anything in graduate education," Siegel said.

In spite of the negative aspects of attrition, it is seen by some experts as a necessary and even positive aspect of graduate education. With national data soon to be at Siegel's fingertips, his peers have little doubt about his ability to seek concrete solutions to the issue of attrition.

"Frankly, he is a very good problem solver and this is a very complex problem," Stewart said. "The most effective kind of national leadership comes from individuals who are willing to advance issues on their own campuses first."

Dysktra agreed that Siegel's boldness in addressing attrition at Duke would be an asset. "Lew's the perfect person to look at it," she said. "He'll do a superb job."

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