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STEM graduate education reforms suggested

Report urges improvements to graduate education in STEM fields; incentive system in academia must shift to strengthen emphasis on teaching and mentoring.

Tim Lundeen 1

May 30, 2018

5 Min Read
STEM graduate education reforms suggested

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine (NASEM) recommends substantial changes to U.S. 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 doctoral and master’s students should acquire.

Achieving this vision will require the graduate education system -- the incentive system of which 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, NASEM said. Once that happens, it is much more likely that higher education institutions will include teaching and mentoring as important considerations in promotion and tenure decisions, according to the committee that wrote the report.

The U.S. graduate education system has served the nation extremely well, the report notes. However, 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, NASEM noted.

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, according to NASEM.

“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, NASEM said. 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 doctoral 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 doctoral 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, NASEM said.

Bringing the report’s vision of graduate STEM education to fruition will require a shift in 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, NASEM said.

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, which 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.

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, according to the report.

Doctoral and master’s students should be provided with an understanding of and opportunities to explore the variety of career opportunities afforded by their STEM degrees, NASEM said. 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 doctorate recipients transition into a variety of careers, the report says.

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.

The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Burroughs Welcome Fund, the Institute of Education Sciences and the Spencer Foundation.

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