January 30, 2008

Agriculture college adds doctoral degree

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — This coming fall, the College of Agricultural Sciences at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will become one of only two such colleges in the state to offer a doctorate.

"It doesn't compete with doctoral programs at the University of Illinois, it complements them," said Dean Gary L. Minish.

"It's an interdisciplinary degree, which is timely when it comes to research and graduate training because so much in academia, industry and government requires an interdisciplinary approach now. This degree is right for the times, and I think it will improve our stature and bring us the kinds of students we haven't had before.

"I think it will also help with our undergraduate program. It will be easier for us to hire and keep the best faculty, to bring in new ideas and to improve our teaching systems."

The 60-credit hour program, offered through the college rather than its individual departments, combines a core curriculum of 14 to 17 hours, required of all students, with 20 hours of structured courses in one of six specialty areas: plant and soil sciences; forestry; agricultural systems; animal science; food and nutrition; and agribusiness economics.

"It is flexible, to better fit the diverse areas of the college and our faculty expertise, "said John E. Preece, professor of plant, soil and agricultural systems and interim director of the graduate program.

"The core allows us to meet needs of our students in both the biological and social sciences. It has three courses, including one in experimental design, because the Ph.D. is a research degree, and research requires statistics, whether you're measuring reproductive efficiency in horses or economic growth factors."

The core also contains coursework in research and teaching communications, in which students learn how to prepare grant proposals, write journal articles and work with students.

Target enrollment for the first year is five students with 20 enrolled by the fifth year and a graduation rate of about 10 candidates annually from that point on. Plans call for admitting the first students in the fall semester.

"We're starting work now, and I am cautiously optimistic that we can make that," Minish said.

"We have the nuts and bolts. We do have to package it, but in this day and age, we can put information on our Web site (http://coas.siu.edu) and get it out electronically.

"I don't think we will have a lot of problems recruiting. Graduate programs are faculty driven. It's totally different from the undergraduate programs, where students come for the department. Graduate students are looking for particular expertise — they pick the faculty. They're really the recruiters."

In addition to those who plan on academic careers, Minish also expects the program to draw students already employed in various agriculture-related industries and government agencies. These students may approach their studies a little differently, but the college still will offer them an in-depth and high-quality doctoral degree program.

"They may be able to do some of their work online and maybe some of their research in their employers' labs," Minish said.

"We have the flexibility to accommodate them, but it's still going to take them time (to complete their degrees), because this is an in-depth, quality program."

Minish said faculty members, who helped put the program together, were enthusiastic now that the effort was finally coming to fruition.

"I've heard nothing but excitement from the faculty," Minish said. "They have waited a long time for this to happen."