Setting the Bar – Why The Univ. of Massachusetts Number 1 Rank for a Food Science PhD Program Matters to All of Us

Did you know that one of the conclusions of one of the most comprehensive attempts by The National Research Council (NRC) to find a way to compare all PhD programs across the U.S. found that The Univ. of Massachusetts Food Science program was one of the best – IN ANY DISCIPLINE*! Wow. But what does that mean to me, a graduate of UCD's Food Science program or my husband who graduated from Cornell Food Science? Are we angry that our “home team” wasn't given that recognition, or should this be a cause of celebration and forward focus? I think the latter.

When I heard about the recognition for UMass's program, I first thought of people I associate with the department. Jack Francis, Fergus Clydesdale, Spencer Sullivan, Ken Lee, Noel Anderson, Aurora Salau – to name a few from the long list. These are people who engage in their work and in our field. They have for their entire professional careers. Well – is this result of who they are or where they were trained? Probably both, but let's explore a bit about UMass's ranking and the NRC rankings program is relevant to all of us.

A few facts about UMass's standings:

As defined by NRC project, the quality of doctoral programs is a multidimensional concept and assessing that quality requires highlighting some of the more significant factors underlying it. The critical dimensions that NRC found relevant were: 1) the research activity of program faculty; 2) student support and outcomes; 3) diversity of the academic environment, and, taking these measures into account; 4) two summary measures that provide ranges of rankings of the estimated overall quality of programs which included the above 3 dimensions with appropriate analysis to provide a quantitative assessment (this makes for 5 relevant ranking categories.

What is exciting is that UMass Food Science received the sole number 1 ranking in 2 of 5 dimensions. Those of us who know a little about statistics and analysis understand that a finding like this is rarely by chance but rather more purpose driven. From 2 of the tables from the research article you will see that through both the quantitative analysis and the important measure of research activity demonstrate superiority of UMass. In the vernacular – UMass kicked butt against the rest of our food science graduate programs.

Why does this matter? We now have a true benchmark program to measure other Food Science programs and goals against. As in art—UMass can stand as our Mona Lisa. Yes, there are many other paintings out there, but discussions always come back to that smallest painting in the Louvre with the slight smile of the woman painted by the man from Verona. What is it about this doctoral program on the east coast where some of the people don't talk like us and they like the cold weather and being close to places where Nor’easters occur? Those of us who have food science running through our veins and want education programs in our field to be vital need to embrace this independent acknowledgment of the UMass ranking and explore how we can support their program and how we can all become more like them. Why does academic research activity matter? How do we support that? Support AND outcomes of students is highly relevant. If we only research what is interesting rather than relevant AND interesting, the outcomes of the graduates will lead to the successes we wished for them. Putting aside personal or academic competition, it would be wise for us to truly study how UMass puts the program together, what it is like to be a doctoral student in their program and why an outside group can compare that program across many disciplines and come out with these results. I would like to see a half day session at the next IFT annual meeting organized to help us all understand these results and how we apply them to both academic and corporate programs. Knowing how high the bar is might allow us to reframe how we look at ourselves, our programs, businesses, and metrics.

Two Graphics from the NRC Study

The S (or survey-based) rankings are based on a survey that asked faculty to rate the importance of the 20 different program characteristics in determining the quality of a program. Based on their answers, each characteristic was assigned a weight; these weights varied by field. The weights were then applied to the data for each program in the field, resulting in a range of rankings for each program.

inline image

Research activity. These rankings reflect program characteristics such as publications, citations, the percent of faculty holding research grants, and recognition through honors and awards. Faculty in science and engineering fields placed the greatest weight on grants per faculty member. Faculty in the humanities and social sciences generally placed the greatest weight on publications. Both groups valued honors and awards.

inline image

Benchmarks and metrics help us make sense of multiple moving elements in a complex world. The world of education and doctoral programs—with their lack of immediacy and demonstrated “next quarter results”—poses large issues for us as a U.S. community and as a group of individuals interested in science that matters to humans. It is wonderful to be able to celebrate a member of our community and the distinction this ranking has created for the field of Food Science. Go Minutemen!

Source materials are and the PDF of “A Revised Guide to the Methodology of the Data-Based Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States” (2010) available from

--Jacqueline Beckley, B.S., R.D., MBA, is a Professional Member of IFT and an IFT Fellow, is President and Chief Innovator for The Understanding & Insight Group LLC, 3 Rosewood Lane, Suite 103, Denville, NJ 07834. E-mail:


  • One of the goals of the ranking program by NRC is to be able to compare doctoral programs around the United States and across a wide range of fields and institutions.