Northeastern’s redrawn doctorate seeks to turbocharge diversity

University hopes to build more diverse faculty by enriching PhD process with skills typically acquired in prolonged postdoc slog

August 12, 2022
Hazel Sive, professor of biology and dean of Northeastern’s College of Science
Source: Whitehead Institute

A US university is bolstering its PhD training in the sciences by adding the skills and experiences typical of a postdoctoral experience, calling it key to badly needed gains in faculty diversity.

The initiative – beginning this autumn at Northeastern University after a pilot version in the summer – includes greater exposure to fields and subfields outside the student’s thesis topic, and specific instruction in managing co-workers, picking research topics, and running a laboratory.

The idea marks the university’s response to growing frustration across US higher education that the postdoc period, having stretched over time into a years-long endeavour, is discouraging far too many doctoral graduates – especially women and those from ethnic minority groups – from pursuing academic careers.

The change has been spearheaded by Hazel Sive, professor of biology and dean of Northeastern’s College of Science. Along with overhauling Northeastern’s own internal approach to doctoral education, Professor Sive has started hiring doctoral graduates directly into faculty positions in the sciences with little or no time spent in postdoctoral training.

Professor Sive said higher education had to stop making its professional pathways so much more complicated than those of the corporate world, and trust its ability to identify and nurture young talent.

“There are universities who are aware that it’s good to bring people in at a lower level, for sure,” she told Times Higher Education. “But I would say it’s not the norm right now.”

A chief result of that failure, she and others have lamented, is the sclerotic rate at which the ranks of US faculty are diversifying. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company just last month issued an analysis estimating that equity is advancing so slowly in US higher education that it will take 70 years for student populations to be representative of the wider communities they serve. Among faculty, though, the pace will take 300 years, it said.

The chief representative body for US academics, the American Association of University Professors, acknowledged that candidates for faculty positions in the sciences generally need some level of training beyond the standard content of a doctoral degree, but that the typical duration often appears too long.

“It becomes a long-term situation, and people want to have a regular job, and they’re trapped in these postdoc situations,” said Glenn Colby, a senior researcher at AAUP specialising in diversity in education.

Professor Sive began introducing her ideas to reform the doctoral experience shortly after her arrival at Northeastern in June 2020, following 28 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She said she spent those years watching universities make various attempts to improve faculty diversity – such as cluster hiring, in which several members of a minority group are brought in together, with the goal of a supportive environment – only to see them keep falling short.

That is because diversity is ultimately a pipeline issue that is not solved by gathering the small number of scholars who endure the hiring process, Professor Sive said.

“Cohort hiring is lovely, and it can be very nice to be part of a cohort,” she said. “But it doesn’t answer anything – it sort of re-sorts people.”

It’s too early, Professor Sive said, to see how universities might fill their labour needs if they have fewer postdoctoral workers available to their labs. “These things are evolutionary,” she said. “We’ll see what plays out.”


Print headline: Northeastern’s redrawn PhD seeks to turbocharge diversity

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Reader's comments (1)

To make the university and it's degree programs more relevant to the society, it is critical that: a. All such programs include a three month workplace practicum for which student's receive at least the equivalent amount of credits using one credit as being equivalent to twelve working hours; b. Students must base their research thesis on any workplace issue that they became interested in while on the practicum; c. These practicum should replace all end of semester written examinations; d. Employees who are consistently performing well in their workplace should be brought into postgraduate master's degree programs and credits being given to their workplace experiences. They should still be expected to do their master's theses on a chosen workplace issue. e. All universities should be expected to do problem solving research, that is, their researchers should be encouraged to develop and implement research projects that are focussed on resolving a societal issue that a government, community, institution, school has been trying to resolve. This should be sorority requirement for finding from any agency. It should also be a major requirement/criterion to be considered in world university ranking exercise. Indeed if funding and ranking are tied to this initiative/innovation universities are more likely to incorporate this in their strategic plans and subsequent implementation.