Published: Sept. 28, 2010

A number of the University of Colorado at Boulder's doctoral programs, including those in geography, aerospace engineering sciences, integrative physiology, and astrophysical and planetary sciences, were highly rated in a report released today by the National Research Council, or NRC.

These long-awaited findings from the NRC's national study of doctoral programs at more than 200 universities are based on a more comprehensive assessment of doctoral programs than popular ranking systems currently available can offer and are widely viewed as useful indicators of excellence. The last NRC assessment of doctoral programs was released in September 1995. The NRC functions under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, and carries out most of the studies done in their names.

The data-based assessment of research-doctorate programs in the United States reported comparative data on more than 5,000 Ph.D. programs in 59 fields or disciplines. The 33 CU-Boulder programs in the study were assessed in 32 fields or disciplines, such as history, mechanical engineering, and physics. Programs in business and education were not included in the study, nor were programs of relatively small size.

NRC reported what it calls "illustrative" ranges of rankings on overall program quality and on three dimensions of doctoral education-research activity, student support and outcomes, and gender and ethnic diversity of the academic environment. The NRC approach takes into account many factors.

The rankings are based on 20 indicators ranging from number of students in 2005, to faculty publications from 2001-2006, to graduation rates, to faculty honors and awards, combined using a lengthy and complex statistical analysis process. Each program was compared to others in its field. The number of programs in fields assessed at CU-Boulder ranged from 27 (in theatre) to 236 (in psychology).

Two CU-Boulder programs received overall rankings as high as second in their fields. These were geography (ranked in the top 4 percent of 49 programs) and aerospace engineering sciences (in the top 6 percent of 31 programs). Other geography programs ranked at this level include those at UCLA, UC-Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Other aerospace engineering sciences programs ranked at this level include those at Stanford, MIT and the California Institute of Technology.

Two other CU-Boulder programs – integrative physiology and astrophysical and planetary sciences – received overall rankings as high as fourth in their fields. Other programs ranked in the top five or top 5 percent were psychology, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, and physics.

Nearly two-thirds, or 20 of CU-Boulder's 33 programs in the study, received overall rankings as high as the top 20 or the top 20 percent in their field. CU-Boulder had eight programs in the top five or top 5 percent, six programs in the top 10 or top 10 percent, and six programs in the top 20 or top 20 percent. These 20 programs span every NRC broad field represented at CU-Boulder – life and physical sciences, humanities, engineering, and social sciences.

CU-Boulder programs with overall rankings as high as the top 20 or top 20% in their field (N = 20 total)

Program Best overall rank Best overall percentile rank N programs ranked in field
Programs ranked as high as the top 5 or top 5% in their field (N=8)
Geography 2 4% 49
Aerospace Engineering Sciences 2 6% 31
Integrative Physiology 4 6% 63
Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences 4 12% 34
Psychology 6 3% 236
Mechanical Engineering 6 5% 127
Civil Engineering 7 5% 130
Physics 8 5% 160
Programs ranked as high as the top 10 or top 10% in their field (N=6)
Applied Mathematics 6 18% 33
Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences 7 14% 50
Chemical Engineering 8 8% 106
Spanish 8 13% 60
Chemistry and Biochemistry (rank in field Chemistry) 12 7% 178
Geology 13 9% 140
Programs ranked as high as the top 20 or top 20% in their field (N=6)
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 11 12% 94
Theatre 12 44% 27
Linguistics 13 25% 52
Neuroscience (joint PhD program) 15 16% 94
Philosophy 15 17% 90
Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (ranked in field Cell and Developmental Biology) 21 17% 122

The 20 programs with overall rankings as high as the top 20 or top 20 percent also received high rankings on three additional measures -- research activity, student support and outcomes, and diversity of the academic environment. Nine more CU-Boulder programs received rankings as high as the top 20 on one or more of these three measures: Six in student support and outcomes (cognitive science, French, comparative literature, sociology, anthropology, and political science), three in research activity (anthropology, French, and communication), and one, English, in diversity of the academic environment. These findings reinforce NRC's contention that there are many useful ways to combine the indicators to yield rankings.

CU officials reacted positively to the concentration of high rankings CU-Boulder achieved in the latest NRC study.

"This is an affirmation of the great work of our faculty in both forging influential research and training a new generation of cutting-edge researchers," said CU-Boulder Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano. "The NRC results also drive home a point we have made many times: That we have created in Colorado one of the great universities in the nation for both graduate and undergraduate education, one of the most productive comprehensive research universities in the world, and one of the most influential."

Vice Chancellor for Research Stein Sture echoed DiStefano, saying, "The NRC report gives us a terrific springboard for fulfilling one of the primary goals of the Flagship 2030 Strategic Plan -- to further improve graduate education at CU-Boulder -- and to do so from a base firmly established in recognized excellence."

John Stevenson, CU-Boulder's interim dean of the Graduate School, said, "The NRC report confirms our strong conviction that we have many doctoral programs that are among the best in the nation. I am especially gratified to see that our excellence across the disciplines is reflected in the report. And because the report contains such a wealth of data about programs nationwide, it provides us with an opportunity to look in depth at how we provide doctoral education and make our programs even better."

The CU-Boulder Graduate School, departments and programs will carefully review the data and report issued by NRC to determine how they can be used in CU's ongoing efforts to enhance doctoral education.

The methods used to calculate rankings in the September 1995 study were significantly different from and not comparable to those used in the 2010 study. In the 1995 assessment, five CU-Boulder programs were ranked in the top 20 or top 20 percent in their fields.

More information about the NRC report and study may be found at the organization's website at . More detailed information about CU-Boulder's rankings and its participation in the study may be found at, which will be augmented in the coming weeks.