US academies call for reshaping of postgraduate STEM education

End stigma against students who don't want to pursue careers in academia, says report

June 6, 2018
Under the microscope

US postgraduate education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is, in many ways, the “gold standard” for the world. But it can and must better prepare graduates for a changing science landscape and multiple careers. It should also be more transparent in terms of where graduates end up working.

So says a major new report on the future of graduate STEM education from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The report was drafted by the Committee on Revitalizing Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century, chaired by Alan Leshner, chief executive emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“We believe that students have a right to know what the outcomes have been for students who went before them,” Professor Leshner said during a news conference on the report in Washington. Moreover, he said, programmes should use outcomes data they gather to shape the postgraduate experience for current and future students.

The Association of American Universities in September called on all member institutions to offer current and prospective graduate students information about student demographics, average time to finish a degree, financial support and career paths and outcomes both inside and outside academia. A small minority of institutions already make such information accessible, but AAU said it wanted a broader – if still voluntary – commitment to transparency.

AAU’s president, Mary Sue Coleman, served on the National Academies’ report committee. She said that now is the right time to push forward with those expectations. The report also suggests that federal and state funding agencies act as enforcers by requiring the institutions they support to collect and make such data easily available.

As for adopting the report’s recommendations over all, committee member Keith Yamamoto, vice-chancellor for science policy and strategy at the University of California, San Francisco, said that “cultural change is difficult”. But all it takes is a few institutions around the country to decide that “this is an important thing to be doing” for others to feel the “need to respond in some way”, he said. In other words, peer pressure.

The National Academies last charged the committee with examining graduate STEM education in 1995. This time, the committee worked for 18 months to examine data and hold focus groups and discussions with everyone from students to policymakers. The resultant report is exceptionally action oriented and student focused – it urges programmes to place a greater emphasis on mental health support for postgraduate students, for example. Perhaps most crucially, the report proposes core competencies that should be at the centre of any graduate degree program in STEM.

The report recommends more attention to master’s degree training, not just doctoral training, and discusses core competencies at both levels. But Professor Yamamoto described common competencies as relatively simple. The idea, he said, is that scientific fields are merging. So students need to develop “deep, specialised expertise, coupled with transdisciplinary literacy” – at least enough to know other disciplinary approaches and where to find help if they need it.

Students need to be able to identify “important problems" and shape “rigorous research strategies”, breaking down the problems down into experiments, Professor Yamamoto said – and know how to “select which results to pursue and which to leave by the wayside”.

Beyond data transparency and developing core competencies, the report says that, in an ideal postgraduate STEM education system, students would have multiple opportunities to understand and learn about ethical issues associated with their work and its implications for society.

The report also emphasises diversity and inclusion, arguing that scientific excellence depends on them. Ideally, the report says, students from all backgrounds “would fully participate and achieve their greatest potential during their educational experience through transparent institutional action to enhance diversity and promote inclusive and equitable learning environments”. The committee adopts a broad definition of diversity, but also urges continued efforts at supporting underrepresented minorities.

Students would encounter a variety of perspectives about what science is, and about the relationships between science, engineering and society, the report says. They’d have multiple, varied opportunities to “communicate the results of their work and understand the broader impacts of their research”. And they’d be encouraged to create their own project-based learning opportunities, especially as a member of a team, to develop “transferable skills” such as communication, collaboration, management and entrepreneurship.

“Experiences where students ‘learn by doing,’ rather than simply learn by lecturing and coursework, would be the norm,” the report says. In addition, rather than getting one-size-fits-all career preparation, students who wish to become academics should be given the time and resources to teach across a variety of contexts, including at community colleges. Those who wish to end up in industry or government, meanwhile, should be allowed to train or intern there – and businesses should be encouraged to subsidise this training in some way, such as by paying a PhD student intern’s stipend.

According to the report, “faculty advisers would encourage students to explore career options broadly and would not stigmatise those who favour non-academic careers”. Committee member Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, underscored that point during the news conference, saying that institutions that wish to adopt the report’s recommendations can start by not making students who don’t want or find tenure-track faculty jobs feel “guilty”.

Kenneth Gibbs Jr, another committee member who is a programme director for the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, said he’s proof that scientists don’t have to be professors to be fulfilled.

“We exist. We’re happy. This can work,” he said.

Dr Ortega, and the report itself, emphasised that these changes can only come about with changes to academia’s incentive system. If a scholar’s value is only or primarily determined by numbers of peer-reviewed publications, Dr Ortega said, there’s little hope for change. Realigning incentives would involve rewarding effective teaching, mentoring and advising, along with scholarship that results in some kind of tangible change, she said.

This is an edited version of a story which first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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