Our Colleague, Dr. Mark Friend, very aptly points out in his article "Ph.D. Program in Occupational Safety" that we (i.e. the safety community) have a substantial challenge facing us in terms of the number of terminally (particularly Ph.D.) trained individuals being prepared for careers in safety. He notes that "The field of occupational safety is in danger of disappearing, or at least losing its identity, as top programs from around the country continue to rely on educators from allied (or even tangential) disciplines."
Dr. Friends' concerns are substantiated by the findings of a recent study by the National Institute of Medicine (National Academy Press 2000), which noted that only nine doctoral programs in safety were offered in the United States as of 1997. The report encouraged the use of distance learning and other alternatives to traditional education and training programs. The study also cited data indicating that while professional safety certification (CSP) appears to be rising, the proportion of those reporting themselves as Registered Professional Engineers (PE) appears to be declining substantially.
The solution Dr. Friend proposes to this problem is a Ph.D. program that is available completely on-line. Such an approach would eliminate geographic restrictions and tap into the existing pool of trained safety professionals who, for various reasons, cannot leave their current positions to fulfill the on-campus residency requirements integral to most Ph.D. programs. In response to this suggestion, the Academics Practice Specialty Group has formed a working committee to investigate the feasibility of this option. We (the authors) fully endorse this inquiry and intend to contribute to its investigation in any way that we can.
As safety engineering professionals, we are faced with a unique challenge regarding on-line training, particularly at the doctoral level. Specifically, most science based, and particularly engineering, doctoral processes involve substantial use of laboratory and data processing facilities as part of the required research training. This "laboratory component" also involves heavy personal interaction and mentoring with research faculty, who assist candidates through all phases of their research. Accordingly, most engineering doctoral programs mandate some level of on-campus residency as part of their overall requirements.
Our Occupational Safety and Ergonomics Program (OS&E) at Auburn University is, we believe, typical of engineering based safety programs. A sequenced two-semester residency is required for all doctoral students. Our program, however, is probably somewhat unusual in that Auburn has a long (over 20 year) history of distance education through our Engineering Graduate Outreach Program (GOP). Further, included in our stream of graduates are individuals who have completed most or part of their coursework via the GOP route. Most GOP graduates have been at the masters' level, although several of our doctoral graduates completed the majority of their coursework via the GOP and were on-campus only for a minimal time, including the required residency period.