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Higher Education

8 Ways Experts Are Reimagining Graduate STEM Education

By Henry Kronk
February 06, 2019

The winter edition of Issues in Science and Technology focuses on just one single issue: reimagining graduate STEM education. Former CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Alan I. Leshner, and Program Officer for the Board on Higher Education and Workforce at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), Layne Scherer, teamed up to provide their insight with “Critical Steps Toward Modernizing Graduate STEM Education.”

Leshner and Scherer are not new to the issue of graduate STEM education; the two edited the recent National Academies’ publication, Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century. In their article for Issues, the authors condense many of the conclusions arrived at in the report. The following represents a few key takeaways.

1) Graduate STEM Education Is Out of Touch with Reality

The best and brightest from the United States and around the world routinely study in U.S. universities to gain a wide range of skills and pursue diverse interests. But as the authors write, faculties tend to focus on one goal: furthering academic research. For many students, that is not their primary interest.

“The purpose of graduate education can no longer be exclusively, or even predominantly, to produce more academic researchers,” Scherer and Leshner write. “Graduates today are using their training to pursue a much wider range of careers than in the past, and the nation needs well-trained scientists in government, industry, and other settings. The fundamental skills needed in all these settings are basically the same—broad technical literacy as well as deep specialization in an area of interest, an understanding of the ethics and norms of the enterprise, and the ability to communicate findings both to colleagues and the broader public. However, in addition to these capabilities, students need to learn about or at least become familiar with the wider range of skills needed in the nonacademic settings where they want to work, so less retraining is needed when they get there.”

2) The Current System Reinforces Research

While the emphasis on research creates less-than-ideal outcomes, the powers that be reinforce the system. The professors who populate STEM faculties are generally career academics. This influences the way they have chosen to structure their careers and, in some respects, it limits the scope of their professional experience. 

It stands to reason, then, that “Criteria for promotion and tenure typically are too heavily weighted toward research productivity in the form of publications in prestigious journals and research grants received from federal agencies, with far too little emphasis given to the quality of graduate student teaching and mentoring.”

Switching up this model would ensure that reward is given where it’s due:

“Doing so would also provide a mechanism for more appropriately rewarding those faculty who have consistently dedicated significant attention to the development and growth of graduate students, at times at a cost to their own research productivity. This would be a radical change for many institutions, and it will come about only with clear commitment from every level of the university, including the president, provost, graduate dean, and other administrative leaders, and including all levels of the faculty, particularly department heads and promotion and tenure committees.”

3) State and Federal Grant Systems Also Prioritize Research

The system that naturally selects academic research has also played out at the state and federal level when it comes to distributing grants. 

“Grant review criteria—and, frequently, peer reviewer behavior whatever the stated criteria—typically emphasize the traditional research productivity measures, such as number of papers published, numbers of citations, and journal impact factor.”

4) An Ideal STEM Graduate Program would Involve Non-STEM Core Competencies

Technical knowledge is no doubt the bread and butter of STEM faculties across the United States, but that knowledge is useless if it can’t be put to work. Leshner and Scherer propose adding to graduate STEM curricula items like leadership, communication, enterprise, and more.

To arrive at these conclusions, the authors and numerous researchers participating in the National Academies’ report conducted extensive research. They held focus groups, performed surveys, and investigated STEM faculties across the United States to hear just how well they prepare graduates for their professional lives. 

an engineer bends over blueprints of a building

5) STEM Grads Need Better Mentors

During their research for the National Academies, Leshner and Scherer often heard how students who had come to work in the lab of their faculty mentor were routinely treated like hired hands. 

“Although some students reported positive experiences, many cited relationships ranging from benign negligence to well-intentioned yet ultimately unsupportive behavior to more problematic and frustrating behaviors. Too often students felt as if their mentors saw them as employees or research technicians, rather than as students they had a responsibility to serve. As harsh as such criticism may seem, it is not surprising, given that the academic incentive system is so heavily weighted toward research productivity and against quality mentorship.

“But better mentoring is not just a matter of incentives; it is also a question of skill, and fortunately effective student mentoring is a skill that can be taught. Of course, some people are naturally more empathetic and nurturing than others, but those traits are not enough. Mentors need to be willing and able to teach effectively and to advise their students on career paths and opportunities.”

6) Programs Need to Be More Inclusive

This is an old story. Again based of the interviews and focus groups the authors conducted, “many women and minority students report that they do not feel included in the same way as are men or non-minority students. Faculty and administrators need to develop, implement, and continually assess strategies, starting with admissions policies, that not only increase diversity and inclusion of graduate students but also assure retention of such students throughout the process of achieving an advanced STEM degree.”

7) Cultivating Change Across a Distributed System Is Difficult

Unfortunately, bringing about a transition in graduate STEM education will not be easy or happen quickly.  As emphasized in Leshner and Scherer’s report:

“There is no set of rules that prescribes exactly what graduate programs will look like. There is national accreditation, but also great diversity both across and within institutions. That variation is both a strength and a limitation. The diversity among programs allows for adaptation to the local context and unique characteristics of departments, disciplines, and their individual faculties. It is also a limitation in that “no one is in charge”: if there is a need for change, there is no body or organization that can dictate the nature of change across the system. Faculty do learn from their own graduate experiences and then from colleagues in other departments and institutions, but ultimately the lack of any controller makes it very difficult to move the system into new directions.”

8) But Change Is on the Way

The good news is that many universities have already begun taking steps suggested by Leshner and Scherer. Last summer, the National Science Foundation put out a “Dear Colleague” letter to announce a new program that would allow students to apply for grants to supplement their work while they explore career opportunities.

In addition, in December 2017, the Association of American Universities announced the PhD Education Initiative to ensure that diverse career pathways are “visible, viable, and valued” through shifts in the culture of graduate departments and to increase the transparency and use of PhD program data. The initiative also calls upon member institutions to share best practices in the field. Twenty-nine members of the Council of Graduate Schools have joined the Understanding PhD Career Pathways for Program Improvement effort and committed to collecting data from current students and alumni to understand their career trajectories. There is hope that the data will inform incoming graduate students about the professional development and career services opportunities available on each campus. Universities participating in the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science, an agreement between nine research universities and a cancer institute to improve transparency and trainee outcomes in the life sciences, have further committed to publishing data on life science PhD and postdoctoral programs.

Read the full article here. Check here for the National Academies’ Graduate STEM Education in the 21st Century report.

Featured Image: Ben Wicks, Unsplash.