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National Academies Urge Improvements to Graduate Education

Tuesday, May 29, 2018 - 17:47

This post is adapted from a National Academies press release:

Graduate STEM Education for the 21st CenturyA new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) recommends substantial changes to US graduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in order to meet the evolving needs of students, the scientific enterprise, and the nation. The report describes an ideal graduate education and identifies the core competencies that PhD and master's students should acquire.

Achieving this vision will require the graduate education system, whose incentive system is now heavily weighted toward rewarding faculty primarily for research output, to increase the value it places on best practices of teaching and mentorship, the report says. To promote this kind of culture change, federal and state funding agencies should align their grant award criteria to help ensure that students experience the type of graduate education that is recommended in the report. Once that happens, it will be much more likely that higher education institutions will include teaching and mentoring as important considerations in promotion and tenure decisions, said the committee that wrote the report.

The US graduate education system has served the nation extremely well, the report notes. But recent changes — dramatic innovations in research methods and technologies, changes in the nature and availability of work, changes in demographics, and expansion in the scope of jobs needing STEM expertise — raise questions about how well the current system is meeting 21st century needs. Recent surveys and studies suggest that many graduate programs do not adequately prepare students to translate their knowledge into impact in a range of careers.

"A central element of our strategy is to make the graduate education system more student focused while maintaining the central attributes that have made the system the gold standard for the world," said committee chair Alan Leshner, chief executive officer emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Implementing these recommendations would produce a graduate education system that better enables graduate students of all backgrounds to meet the highest standards of excellence in 21st century STEM fields and to use their knowledge across the full range of occupations essential to address societal and global needs."

The report identifies nearly a dozen characteristics of ideal graduate education. For example, students would be able to select their graduate program aided by fully transparent data about viable career pathways and successes of previous students in the department and institution. They would acquire broad technical literacy coupled with deep specialization in an area of interest. Students would be given multiple opportunities to communicate the results of their work and to consider ethical and societal issues associated with their work. They would also be encouraged to create their own project-based learning opportunities — ideally as a member of a team — as a way to develop transferable professional skills. Experiences where students "learn by doing," rather than simply through lectures and coursework, would be the norm.

The report also identifies a list of core competencies that should be acquired by all PhD students in STEM fields and a list of core competencies that should be developed by all master's degree programs as well. For example, all PhD programs should help students develop deep specialized expertise in at least one STEM discipline, and also acquire enough transdisciplinary literacy to suggest multiple conceptual and methodological approaches to a complex problem.

Bringing the report's vision of graduate STEM education to fruition will require shifting the current system, which focuses primarily on the needs of institutions of higher learning and those of the research enterprise itself, to one that is more student-centered, the report says. The current system heavily rewards faculty for research output in the form of publications and the number of future scientists produced. It must be realigned to increase the relative rewards for effective teaching, mentoring, and advising. Unless faculty behavior can be changed — and changing the incentive system is critical in that regard — the system will not change.

Achieving the report's recommended changes will require firm commitments from all stakeholders in the nation's STEM graduate education system. Federal and state funding agencies — and their policies and grant award criteria — will have a particularly important role to play since their funding and support policies are often cited as being critical to the context and climate in which academic institutions are situated, the report says.

Most of the changes recommended by the report, however, will need to be implemented by higher education institutions. Institutions should increase the priority of teaching and mentoring and reward faculty members for demonstrating high-quality teaching and inclusive mentoring for all graduate students, including recognition of faculty teaching in master's degree programs, the report says. Institutions should include teaching and mentoring performance as important considerations for reappointment, promotion, annual performance review, and tenure decisions. And to improve the quality and effectiveness of faculty teaching and mentoring, institutions should provide training for new faculty and should offer regular refresher courses for established faculty.

Graduate programs should collect and update information on master's and PhD-level educational outcomes and make it easily available to current and prospective students. Federal and state funding agencies should require institutions that receive support for graduate education to develop policies mandating that these data be collected and made widely available in order to qualify for traineeships, fellowships, and research assistantships.

Both PhD and master's students should be provided an understanding of and opportunities to explore the variety of career opportunities afforded by their STEM degrees. Faculty advisers should discuss with their students whether and how a degree will advance the students' long-term educational and career goals. Industry, nonprofit, government, and other employers should provide guidance and financial support for relevant course offerings and provide internships and other forms of professional experiences to students and recent graduates. Professional societies should collaborate with leaders in various sectors to create programs that help PhD recipients transition into a variety of careers.

The STEM education system also should develop capabilities to adjust dynamically to continuing changes in the nature of science and engineering activity and of STEM careers, the report says. For example, faculty and graduate departments should periodically review and modify curricula, dissertation requirements, and capstone projects to ensure timeliness and alignment with the ways relevant work is conducted.

In addition, the graduate STEM education enterprise should enable students of all backgrounds — including racial and ethnic background, stage of life, socio-economic status, gender identity, and other characteristics — to succeed, by implementing practices that create an equitable and inclusive institutional environment. Faculty and administrators should develop, adopt, and regularly evaluate strategies to increase diversity and improve equity, including comprehensive recruitment, holistic review in admissions, and interventions to prevent attrition in the late stages of progress toward a degree.

The report also calls for stronger support for graduate student mental health services. Institutions should provide resources to help students manage the stresses and pressures of graduate education and maximize their success. Institutions should take extra steps to provide and advertise accessible mental health services at no cost to graduate students.

For more information, see the NASEM press release.

Richard Tresch Fienberg
AAS Press Officer
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