As science transforms at a quickening pace, graduate students are left facing decades-old structural problems that seem to disproportionately favor everyone but them. Credit: Shutterstock

Graduate STEM education: What’s wrong? What’s next?

By Jodie Lunger

As science transforms at a quickening pace, graduate students are left facing decades-old structural problems that seem to disproportionately favor everyone but them. Credit: Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — Equitable and inclusive environments, exposure to leading-edge science, career exploration opportunities, trained mentors and advisors and communication skills training are key ingredients for a building a new, well-needed approach to graduate STEM education, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

These changes would enhance students’ experiences and their chances of success by improving on an outdated education system that is overwhelmingly focused on research activity and funding, authors say.

“There is a disconnect that exists between what students actually need and the typical graduate programs,” said Alan Leshner, chair of the committee that produced the report, during a Feb. 19 talk at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting. “Academia has become a research-producing, rather than education-focused or student-focused enterprise. … We need to refocus graduate education on the students and on their needs.”

In contrast to past reports on the state of graduate education, this one proposed what an ideal graduate program would look like, recommended steps that could be taken by all stakeholders — universities, colleges, faculty and administrators, scientific and educational organizers, employers, advocacy groups, students and the public — and confronted the growing need for fundamental culture change.

The 17-member Committee on Revitalizing Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century had representation from a wide array of research institutions, governmental bodies and policy advocacy groups.

Their recommendations for change start with increased transparency in the form of data provided by academic institutions that would allow prospective students to review the career paths and success of alumni. Tackling increasing stress and mental health issues among graduate students is also a priority. Strategies include outlining comprehensive policies for reporting bullying and sexual harassment, incorporating mental health awareness training for students and faculty, and encouraging students to engage with their communities through activities outside of the academic environment.

Diversity in STEM, designated a national priority by the National Academy of Sciences, is another area in which improvement is needed. The report points to demographic data showing that more children of color than white children are born today in the U.S., and that women are entering the workforce at an increasing rate. The suite of recommendations for addressing this issue include the use of evidence-based models by academic institutions to develop inclusion strategies such as actively recruiting populations underrepresented in academia and adopting holistic admissions review processes. The report also called for federal and state agencies, professional societies and non-governmental organizations that rank academic institutions to include diversity metrics in their rating scales.

Opportunities for career exploration and professional development are also a gap to be filled, especially given increasing numbers of Ph.D. students coupled with a stagnant number of academic positions. Teamwork skills are seen as particularly important, given the growing need for large cross-disciplinary collaborations to tackle scientific problems. Graduate departments could partner with professional societies and nonprofit organizations to provide training on how to work effectively as part of a team, the committee said.

Despite an awareness of these core issues and needs, institutions, graduate education programs and faculty generally are up against systemic barriers, said Leshner, past CEO of AAAS.

“The entire incentive system works against change. … Salary, and promotion and tenure policies favor research productivity and don’t, in fact, give a whole lot of credit to quality graduate teaching and graduate mentoring.”

The graduate education revitalization committee therefore recommends shifting incentives from disproportionately favoring research productivity to including meaningful rewards for effective mentoring, teaching and advising. That would require federal and state funding agencies to adjust award criteria to better support such activities. This type of change also demands more resources and training for faculty to learn how to mentor students in STEM.

The National Institutes of Health has started to address this issue through creation of the National Research Mentoring Network for mentors and their trainees in the biomedical sciences. The program offers evidence-based and culturally aware mentoring practices, professional development and networking opportunities and other resources to increase diversity and support positive change in science culture.

Whereas the committee report covered many aspects of graduate education, questions remain about how students will best be exposed to a wide range of career paths, how long it should take for students to obtain their degree, how best to model student research projects, and more.

Fundamental change will likely take a long time. Still, the current recommendations are a nudge forward that, with willing partners, could signal an evolution on the horizon, Leshner said.

“I do believe that there’s a growing understanding of the need for change in these kinds of directions.”

Jodie Lunger is a senior at The University of Toronto studying pharmacology. She is a contributor to her school newspaper, The Varsity. Follow her on twitter @ScienceJodie.

Mar. 1, 2019