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Public Administration Scholarship and the Epidemic of Academic Fraud and Dishonesty Part 4 – Reforming Doctoral Education

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
January 26, 202

This column is the fourth in a series on the epidemic of academic fraud and dishonesty across the social sciences that encompasses public administration (the first column; the second column ; the third column). How universities train and employ the next generations of research faculty will have a significant influence on whether such fraud and dishonesty can be reduced to acceptable levels. Clearly, any such reforms must involve a very careful review of doctoral education with a focus on how that experience shapes the professional incentives faculty encounter which foster a willingness to commit research fraud.

In the interest of full disclosure, my own doctoral program took me nearly eight years to complete (fall 1985 to spring 1993). This included basically taking a year off from my dissertation research around the time I became ABD and the extra academic year required me to completely re-write my thesis after I failed my first defense. Amidst that traverse, three of my senior faculty and one key junior faculty member left for positions at other universities depriving me of the planned core for my thesis committee. Most crucially, during all these delays and unexpected imbroglios I was not in the regular workforce until six years into my program when I started a faculty position at Carnegie Mellon University in the fall of 1991.

If you run the financial numbers (and I have built a tool for that purpose), you can see that across the remainder of my working career I would not recover from the “hit” of foregoing regular employment for six years during my 20s if I elected to remain an academic. Of course, a key aspect of the calculation was that I earned a PhD in political science rather than fields that get much higher faculty salaries such as economics. In general, it is safe to say that earning a PhD is not a good financial decision for most who do it. The rewards come from the academic lifestyle providing you can survive in the tenure and promotion cycle. That financial reality generates the types of incentives that foster fraud in academic research.

There are at least two important reforms necessary to address these perverse incentives. One reform which has been the subject of much discussion is to greatly reduce the number of PhD students in the pipeline. As universities have cut tenure-track positions, staffed courses with adjuncts and otherwise changed their mix of human resources, doctoral programs have tended not to reduce their admissions to match likely employment for newly minted PhDs. This oversupply of highly trained labor has produced a toxic employment marketplace for people who know that they have sacrificed financially per the discussion above. Being in a toxic employment marketplace erodes core ethical values very quickly and paves the way for research fraud.

A second reform is to regulate PhD programs so that they limit their financial “hit” on students. When I advise anyone interested in earning a doctorate, my five rules for selecting a program are these:

  1. The program must be ranked in the top 20 in its field. As it stands, graduates of lower ranked programs are going to struggle to gain footing on the academic job market. If someone cannot gain entry into such a program, I advise them not to earn a PhD.
  2. The program must have a track record of graduating most students in five years. Anything longer than that is unacceptable in terms of the financial consequences.
  3. There must be multiple senior faculty whose research is of direct interest and those faculty must demonstrate they routinely include students in their research projects and publications. Doctoral students should leave the program with several quality publications and well-defined lines of research to complete quickly with established colleagues while the tenure clock ticks. The departure of one or two senior faculty from the university should not upend the degree program because it is nearly impossible to transfer from one program to another.
  4. The program must have an excellent placement history of moving graduates into their desired workplaces (academe or not).
  5. The program must guarantee five years of strong financial support to students who maintain progress toward completion. No doctoral student should have to take out loans to complete a program all costs included.

Again, for full disclosure, my own doctoral program violated all five of those rules. In doing so, many nails were installed in the coffin of my academic career even before I finished. It was terrifying and disturbing to realize as I was completing my PhD that most likely my academic career was effectively derailed before it ever really started. Many people thrust into that same situation will be tempted to commit research fraud rather than simply eating their losses. Let me tell you, I chose to eat and it was very bitter fruit.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and is adjunct faculty in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected]. More content is available here.

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