The Ph.D. is the highest degree in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, resulting from 4 to 7 or more years of intensive coursework and mentored research leading to a dissertation and scholarly publications. While no two Ph.D. experiences are identical, the Ph.D. programs typical of many STEM disciplines include 1 to 2 years of discipline-specific coursework; perhaps 1 or more years serving as a teaching assistant; the search for a dissertation advisor, which may or may not involve a formal system of rotating through several laboratories; comprehensive subject matter examinations; formulation and defense of a dissertation project; 3 to 7 years of mentored research supported by a combination of research assistantships and fellowships; writing the dissertation; and a final defense of the dissertation (O’Leary, 2016). This process is supervised almost exclusively by a primary research advisor or dissertation committee that generally sets guidelines for graduation, oversees the student’s development as a researcher, and socializes the student into his or her subfield.
This chapter articulates issues and concerns about STEM Ph.D. education in the United States and frames some potential solutions, beginning with the committee’s view of the core competencies that compose an ideal STEM Ph.D. education calibrated for the 21st century. Although the recommendations in this chapter call for other kinds of changes in the graduate education experience, they maintain the integrity of the Ph.D. and promote the possibilities for all students, independently of which institutions they attend, to have the opportunity to develop the core competencies. The discussion in this chapter also addresses issues related to career preparation and exploration for STEM Ph.D.’s and the structure of doctoral education, including the dissertation, curriculum, and coursework. The final section in the chapter serves as a companion to Chapter 3 and includes
more information specific to doctoral students on mentoring and advising, mechanisms for funding graduate students, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.
While STEM Ph.D. education needs to respond to the changing needs and interests of graduate students, evolving methods of scientific research, and workforce needs, it is essential to maintain the core educational elements that define a Ph.D. degree for each specific discipline. The education and training that students receive during their Ph.D. education should provide them with the ability to conduct original scientific research. The core education elements would establish the STEM Ph.D. educational mission, with alignment across the key components of the degree program: core disciplinary coursework, original research, and other intensive experiences in the classroom and laboratory or during fieldwork, workshops, conferences, and internships. That mission establishes a Ph.D. education as one that would stimulate curiosity; develop the intellectual capacity to recognize, formulate, and communicate complex problems; create an iterative approach toward solutions, drawing from discipline-appropriate quantitative, theoretical, or mixed-methods tools; make original discoveries that advance understanding; and communicate the impact of the research beyond their discipline.
Supported by input and ideas received in response to its Call for Community Input (see Appendix B), the committee suggests that the following are the core elements that should characterize all Ph.D. education. Acquiring the skills that these core elements provide will serve as fundamentals underpinning future success in whatever career paths students choose:
Develop Scientific and Technological Literacy and Conduct Original Research
- Develop deep specialized expertise in at least one STEM discipline.
- Acquire sufficient transdisciplinary1 literacy to suggest multiple conceptual and methodological approaches to a complex problem.
- Identify an important problem and articulate an original research question.
- Design a research strategy, including relevant quantitative, analytical, or theoretical approaches, to explore components of the problem and begin to address the question.
- Evaluate outcomes of each experiment or study component and select which outcomes to pursue and how to do so through an iterative process.
1 Transdisciplinarity transcends disciplinary approaches through more comprehensive frameworks, including the synthetic paradigms of general systems theory and sustainability (NRC, 2014). See Appendix A for full definitions.
- Adopt rigorous standards of investigation and acquire mastery of the quantitative, analytical, technical, and technological skills required to conduct successful research in the field of study.
- Learn and apply professional norms and practices of the scientific or engineering enterprise, the ethical responsibilities of scientists and engineers within the profession and in relationship to the rest of society, as well as ethical standards that will lead to principled character and conduct.
Develop Leadership, Communication, and Professional Competencies
- Develop the ability to work in collaborative and team settings involving colleagues with expertise in other disciplines and from diverse cultural and disciplinary backgrounds.
- Acquire the capacity to communicate, both orally and in written form, the significance and impact of a study or a body of work to all STEM professionals, other sectors that may utilize the results, and the public at large.
- Develop professional competencies, such as interpersonal communication, budgeting, project management, or pedagogical skills that are needed to plan and implement research projects.
RECOMMENDATION 5.1—Core Competencies for Ph.D. Education: Every STEM Ph.D. student should achieve the core scientific and professional Ph.D. competencies detailed in this report.
- Universities should verify that every graduate program that they offer provides for these competencies and that students demonstrate that they have achieved them before receiving their doctoral degrees.
- Universities should scrutinize their curricula and program requirements for features that lie outside of these core competencies and learning objectives and that may be adding time to degree without providing enough additional value to students, such as a first-author publication requirement, and eliminate those features or requirements.
- Graduate departments should publicly post how their programs reflect the core competencies for doctoral students, including the milestones and metrics the departments and individual faculty use in evaluation and assessment.
- Federal and state funding agencies should adapt funding criteria for institutions to ensure that all doctoral students they support—regardless of mechanism of support—are in programs that ensure that they develop, measure, and report these scientific and professional competencies.
- Students should create an independent development plan that includes these competencies as a core feature of their own learning and career
goals and that utilizes the resources provided by their university and relevant professional societies.
- Students should provide feedback to the graduate faculty and deans about how they could help students better develop these competencies.
For those individuals wanting a tenure track academic job or a position directing a research group in industry, a Ph.D. is a prerequisite and, in many fields, may be followed by one or more postdoctoral positions. Although historically most students enrolled in STEM Ph.D. programs came with the expectation of pursuing a tenure track faculty position, data from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) show fulfillment of that expectation has declined. In 2015, only 17.7 percent of STEM Ph.D.’s across all STEM fields had secured tenure track positions within 5 years of graduating, down from 25.9 percent as recently as 2008 and 27.0 percent in 1993 (NSB, 2018, Table 3-162). The shift in tenure status appears across all age groups as well. In a comparison of tenure status of STEM doctorate holders between 1995 and 2015, the percentage of individuals with tenured positions declined in every age category except the 35-39 group, while those in tenure track positions declined to a lesser degree (Table 5-1). The greatest differences occur in the numbers of STEM doctorate holders in the 50- to 54- and 55- to 59-year-old age groups with an “other” status, which includes individuals at institutions where no tenure is offered or there is no tenure for the position held. This trend parallels the decline in the percentage of doctorate holders with tenured status in the 50-54 and 50-59 age categories with tenure status.
While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the job market for postsecondary educators will grow by some 17.4 percent from 2010 to 2020, most of these positions are expected to be part-time or adjunct, rather than tenure track, appointments (BLS, 2013). NSF data show the shifts in proportions of STEM-trained Ph.D.’s working in academia from 1973 to 2015, noting the decrease in full-time faculty and the increase in other full-time positions, which includes research associates, adjunct appointments, instructors (from 1997 to 2015), lecturers, and administrative positions (Figure 5-1).
The job market in academia was better in some fields than in others. Moreover, the different disciplines have long had different traditions and histories of their students pursuing academic careers versus those in other industries. A BLS analysis (Xue and Larson, 2015) found that although the overall number of STEM Ph.D.’s has been climbing steadily, the number of tenure track positions has remained nearly constant in most fields. The biomedical sciences and
2 See https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsb20181/assets/901/tables/tt03-16.xlsx (accessed February 27, 2018).
|Age||1995 (%)||2015 (%)|
|Tenured||Tenure Track||Others||Tenured||Tenure Track||Others|
|Total all ages||52.6||16.7||30.7||46.6||14.7||38.7|
|Younger than 30a||s||25.0||75.0||s||26.9||76.9|
NOTES: Academic employment is limited to U.S. doctorate holders employed at 2- or 4-year colleges or universities, medical schools, and university research institutes. Percentages may not add to 100% because of rounding. Others include science and engineering doctorate holders at institutions where no tenure is offered or there is no tenure for the position held.
as = suppressed for reasons of confidentiality and/or reliability.
SOURCE: NSB, 2018, Table 5-12, available at https://nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsb20181/assets/968/tables/tt05-12.pdf (accessed March 24, 2018).
computer science are two exceptions, having seen increases over time resulting from increased investment in biomedical positions following the doubling of the National Institues of Health budget and the increased enrollment in computer science. Despite the stable number of faculty positions overall, each faculty member turns out more Ph.D.’s over the course of a career than the replacement number (Xue and Larson, 2015). The authors of that analysis concluded that there was an oversupply of Ph.D.’s desiring academic careers relative to the paucity of tenure track faculty positions (Bowen and Rudenstein, 1992; Golde and Dore, 2001).
NCSES data also show that of the 992,000 STEM Ph.D.’s in the United States in 2015, 48.3 percent had jobs in business or industry, 43.2 percent had jobs in education, and 8.5 percent were in government (Table 5-2).3 In contrast to the overall trends, only 24 percent of engineering Ph.D.’s held positions in education while 69.9 percent were employed in business or industry, with 63.9 percent employed by for-profit businesses. Looking within employment subcategories, those with degrees in the social and related sciences show the highest percentage in the category of self-employed, unincorporated businesses (11.5 percent), nonprofit businesses (10.1 percent), and 2-year and precollege institutions (6.8 percent).
Several studies have documented that students’ career goals often change dur-
|Field||Total Number||Education (%)||Business or industry (%)||Government (%)|
|4-Year Institutions||2-Year and Precollege Institutions||For-Profit Businesses||Self-Employed, Unincorporated Businesses||Nonprofit Businesses||Federal Government||State or Local Government|
|All STEM Fields||992,000||39.6||3.6||36.2||5.2||6.9||6.5||2.0|
|Computer sciences and mathematics||87,000||43.7||2.3||43.7||1.1||1.1||6.9||s*|
|Biological, agricultural, and environmental life sciences||272,000||45.2||2.9||29.4||2.9||8.5||7.7||2.9|
|Physical and related sciences||171,000||40.9||3.5||38.6||2.3||5.8||8.2||0.6|
|Social and related sciences||278,000||42.8||6.8||20.9||11.5||10.1||5.0||2.9|
NOTES: All science and engineering highest degree holders include professional degree holders not reported separately. The 2-year and precollege institutions include 2-year colleges and community colleges or technical institutes. The 4-year institutions include 4-year colleges or universities, medical schools, and university-affiliated research institutes. The education sector includes public and private institutions. Detail may not add to total because of rounding. Numbers are rounded to the nearest 1,000. Percentages are based on rounded numbers.
s* = suppressed for reasons of confidentiality and/or reliability.
SOURCE: NSB, 2018, Table 3-5.
ing their doctoral studies (Fuhrmann et al., 2011; Gibbs et al., 2014; Sauermann and Roach, 2012). While the general assumption has been that this attitudinal change among STEM graduate students has resulted from the realization that academic positions are in short supply or that funding for academic research is becoming more difficult to obtain (Alberts et al., 2014; Cyranoski et al., 2011; Schillebeeckx et al., 2013), a 2017 study found that this decline has more to do with students’ changing perceptions of what an academic research career entails vis-à-vis their own abilities and interests as researchers (Roach and Sauermann, 2017). Whatever the impetus, the majority of STEM Ph.D.’s now pursue careers outside of academic research. Since most STEM Ph.D. students no longer enter academic research positions, there is an imperative that the STEM research and education community act on the recommendations of this and many previous reports on the future of graduate education, which date back at least as far as the 1995 National Academies report Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers (NAS/NAE/IOM, 1995).
Numerous reports in the literature have emphasized a lack of preparation for today’s workforce, both within and outside of academia, particularly regarding communication skills, the ability to work effectively in teams, business acumen, and leadership competencies (AAU, 1998; Golde and Dore, 2001; Nerad et al., 2006; Nyquist, 2002; Taylor, 2006; Wendler et al., 2012). Moreover, students who submitted entries to NSF’s Innovation in Graduate Education Challenge,4 which was initiated to capture the graduate student voice and solicit student ideas about how to improve graduate education, identified a lack of exposure to transferable professional skills as one of the main problems they wanted to see addressed. Transferable professional skills included science communication, entrepreneur-ism, leadership, management, outreach, and the ability to work as part of an interdisciplinary team. Students also cited the desire to get more information about and exposure to nonacademic careers.
Even when universities offer opportunities for graduate students to broaden their exposure to such skills or alternative careers, those offerings may not be well publicized and may be of varying effectiveness. In addition, such offerings may be underutilized by students because they are not aware of them, out of concern that their advisors may not support participation, or because their schedules do not allow for it (Denecke et al., 2017). Another underlying reason why these opportunities may be underutilized is that students are not encouraged to develop competencies beyond their own research field, even though leadership, collaboration, project management, and other skills would also help them to be more effective and efficient researchers.
Students may not know how to explore opportunities to broaden their exposure to professional skills because of the mismatch between when students seek
4 See https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/gradchallenge/about.html (accessed January 23, 2018).
career information and when it is provided to them (Gibbs and Griffin, 2013). In addition, students may not have support from their primary research advisor to explore what have historically been career paths outside of academia (Janke and Colbeck, 2008; Laursen et al., 2012). Depending on the field of study, the stigma associated with nonacademic careers can be an issue that many students say needs to be addressed (Gibbs et al., 2015; Pinheiro et al., 2017). Faculty often do not have the expertise to provide students with guidance regarding nonacademic careers, because they have not had first-hand experience in those positions and do not readily receive training in broader career advising. As described in Chapter 6, providing the ideal graduate education involves changing the culture of academia to encourage faculty, administrators, career counselors, and other staff who support graduate education by providing them the time, training, and other resources needed to refer and support students within their career goals.
A central issue relating to career preparation facing STEM Ph.D. programs is how to most appropriately provide students with exposure to these additional skills. Some may worry that these additional experiences will dilute discipline-specific coursework or the core elements of the Ph.D., adding extra burden to already stressed students and administrative budgets or increasing the time to degree. Although more research is needed to determine how professional development activities impact graduate student outcomes, existing evidence suggests that participation in thoughtfully designed professional development experiences do not detract from core elements of the Ph.D. There are graduate programs that have successfully incorporated opportunity-broadening experiences, such as those at 17 institutions funded by the National Institutes of Health’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program.5 This program, which started in 2013 and will not fund any new grants, is designed specifically to develop innovative approaches to facilitate career exploration by Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows that might be considered, adopted, or adapted by other institutions.
Virtually every stakeholder group from which the committee received input mentioned the need for increased transparency about the metrics for Ph.D. programs, including data on student demographics, time to degree, student life, financial support, and career paths and outcomes within and outside of academia. Much of this concern has to do with providing students with an honest appraisal of the career opportunities awaiting them, particularly regarding careers in academia as discussed above. As mentioned in Chapter 2, institutions have not historically provided sufficient data about how alumni have used their graduate education experiences and accomplishments in the workforce for students to understand the career pathways available to them.
5 See http://www.nihbest.org/about-best/17-research-sites/ (accessed January 23, 2018).
RECOMMENDATION 5.2—Career Exploration and Preparation for Ph.D. Students: Students should be provided an understanding of and opportunities to explore the variety of career opportunities and pathways afforded by STEM Ph.D. degrees.
- Faculty who serve as undergraduate and master’s advisors should discuss with their students whether and how a Ph.D. degree will advance the students’ long-term educational and career goals.
- Institutions should integrate professional development opportunities, including relevant course offerings and internships, into doctoral curriculum design.
- Institutions, through their career counselors and career centers, should assist students in gaining an understanding of and opportunities to explore career options afforded by STEM Ph.D. degrees.
- Students should seek information about potential career paths, talk to employers and mentors in areas of interest, and choose a doctoral program optimal for gaining the knowledge and competencies needed to pursue their career interests.
- Every student and his or her faculty advisor should prepare an individual development plan.
- Industry, nonprofit, government, and other employers should provide guidance and financial support for relevant course offerings at institutions and provide internships and other forms of professional experiences to students and recent graduates.
- Federal and state agencies and private foundations that support graduate education should require STEM graduate programs to include career exploration curricular offerings and require STEM doctoral students to create and to update annually individual development plans in consultation with faculty advisors to map educational goals, career exploration, and professional development.
- Professional societies should collaborate with leaders in various sectors to create programs that help Ph.D. recipients transition into a variety of careers.
One challenge raised frequently by graduate students is finding the balance between the completion of required coursework and degree requirements with other growth opportunities (Lovitts, 2004). In particular, students report that high expectations of faculty about acquisition of deeply technical, disciplinary-specific information limits their growth in other dimensions (Gardner, 2009). In a 2004 study, students felt that they were discouraged from seeking courses
in other disciplines or nonacademic professional skills through coursework or internships (Fagan and Suedkamp Wells, 2004). More recently, in the case of chemistry, many U.S. graduate programs have begun to incorporate courses that impart highly valued, nonacademic professional skills, such as professional communication, leadership, and management skills, into their core curricula (Loshbaugh et al., 2011).
In the committee’s judgment, one essential element of any Ph.D. program is student access to a variety of research groups to allow them to grow their network of colleagues, to experience different types of research methods and working styles, and to determine whether their department or program is large enough, and to give them a chance to “shop around” for a research topic and advisor(s) most suited to their intellectual interests. In large departments in laboratory-based fields, this could mean rotations through several laboratories lasting from several weeks to a semester. For non-laboratory-based disciplines, departments would develop similar approaches to serve the same purpose of exposing students to a range of options for advisors and mentors.
A common refrain related to the dilemma posed by finding a way to include additional skills and opportunities not directly related to the core Ph.D. research project is the fear of increased time to degree. The 1995 National Academies’ report noted that one concern linked to increased time to degree is that the potential financial and opportunity costs would deter prospective applicants (NAS/NAE/IOM, 1995). The release of that report coincided with the highest recorded median time to degree for STEM Ph.D.’s at 7.7 years for all fields, having increased from 7.2 years in 1985. By 2015, time to degree has steadily declined to an average of 6.8 years across all STEM fields. At the disciplinary level, the median times to degree in 2015 were lower than in 1985, except for computer sciences, which increased from 7.4 to 7.6 years, and engineering, which retained the median of 6.7 years (NSB, 2018, Table 2-30). Other notable decreases from 1985 to 2015 include the social sciences (9.1 to 8.3 years), medical and other health sciences (9.7 to 9 years), and earth, atmospheric, and oceanic sciences (7.4 to 6.9 years) (NSB, 2018).
A program that can serve as an illustrative example of balancing primary degree requirements with additional activities is the former NSF GK-12 program. In this program, graduate students spent 10 to 15 hours on K-12 education activities, and the participants had publication rates and time to degree similar to those of students in typical Ph.D. programs (Gamse et al., 2010). The results from this program suggest that it is possible to build transferrable skills in the context of the graduate program in a way that can enhance research and education outcomes without significantly increasing time to degree. Such opportunities could give students the chance to develop time management skills. For example, students can be more intentional about their dissertation project planning, project management, and collaboration to achieve better outcomes. They could also take on roles that support the scientific enterprise while improving their transferrable
skills, such as creating a website to describe their lab’s work for public audiences or managing data for multiple projects.
Another central Ph.D. requirement is the dissertation, seen as the primary achievement and a record of the student’s contribution to the field, as described in the 1995 National Research Council report:
The dissertation, as a demonstration of ability to carry out independent research, is the central exercise of the PhD program. When completed, it is expected to describe in detail the student’s research and results, the relevance of that research to previous work, and the importance of the results in extending understanding of that topic. (NRC, 1995, p. 49)
Despite changes in many fields to include collaboration as a key part of academic research and the long-standing tradition of teamwork in industry, the written dissertation typically continues to remain the work of a single author. Some programs do allow for research done in teams to be included; however, the end product remains the creation of one student. The opportunity for team or group dissertations may appeal to students, better reflect the nature of work in contemporary science and engineering, and allow students to navigate issues of authorship, research ethics, and scholarly communication practices that they will encounter as STEM professionals (Hakkarainen et al., 2016). Organizations such as the Council of Graduate Schools have initiated projects looking at the future of the dissertation in the face of the changing nature of science and engineering,6 and the results should be monitored closely.
Beyond producing the dissertation itself, the guidance given for writing in many Ph.D. programs is limited to preparing students to write in a technical manner. However, many of the students who participated in the committee’s focus groups expressed a desire to learn to communicate results to a broader audience. This could be demonstrated in a chapter in the dissertation that reflects the value of the findings to society or provides students the opportunity to write to the broader public. Since 2010, the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy, for example, hosts a dissertation award for chemistry Ph.D. candidates to include a chapter aimed at nonspecialists, such as family members, friends, civic groups, newspaper reporters, and program officers at appropriate funding agencies, state legislators, and members of the U.S. Congress.7 Other institutions have requirements that dissertations include a lay summary or abstract. While the traditional dissertation format may remain appropriate for many students, programs may consider pilot projects and flexibility within the dissertation to tailor the dissertation more to the educational and career goals of the student and measure the outcomes of such options on students’ perceptions
7 See http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu/news/thesis_awards.htm (accessed January 23, 2018).
about graduate programs or whether such opportunities have broadened their perspectives about potential career pathways.
RECOMMENDATION 5.3—Structure of Doctoral Research Activities: Curricula and research projects, team projects, and dissertations should be designed to reflect the state of the art in the ways STEM research and education are conducted.
- Universities, professional societies, and higher education associations should take the lead in establishing criteria and updating characteristics of the doctoral research project and dissertation preparation and format.
- Students should seek opportunities to work in cross-disciplinary and cross-sector teams during their graduate education and via extracurricular activities and be incentivized by their departments and faculty advisors to do so.
- Graduate programs and faculty should encourage and facilitate the development of student teams within and across disciplines.
The evolving 21st century context in which STEM education is imbedded, as discussed earlier in this report, calls for some significant changes in the graduate education system itself. While many of the issues featured below were introduced in Chapter 3, the sections below include detail on how the trends have a specific effect for Ph.D. programs.
Mentoring and Advising
In addition to the detailed review of issues related to mentoring and advising in graduate-level education under the section Adjusting Faculty Rewards and Incentives to Improve STEM Graduate Education in Chapter 3, the importance of the relationship between student and research mentor warrants additional detail here. In addition to a moderate amount of formal coursework, Ph.D. education is typically structured like an apprenticeship, where students work for one primary research advisor who plays a vital role in passing on deep knowledge and sophisticated methodology, imparting the norms of the field, and advising and authorizing the students’ graduate activities and experiences.
Mentoring and advising are two different sets of activities and require distinct kinds of expertise and approaches (Paglis et al., 2006; see also Green, 2015; Misra and Lundquist, 2016). In general, the role of a Ph.D. research advisor is to focus more on the academic progress of a student, serve as an information resource regarding courses and university policies, help students develop core capacities as an independent researcher, and help students gain broad scientific
literacy. A mentor’s role combines academic guidance with career advice, role modeling, and varying amounts of emotional support to help students succeed through graduate school. Students are most successful when their primary research advisor also provides some mentoring. However, recognizing that every faculty member has particular strengths and each student has different goals, most students need multiple advisors and mentors to help them acquire interdisciplinary perspectives, develop broad professional competencies, explore career pathways, navigate graduate school, and support their well-being.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is the power dynamics of the advisor-student relationship, where both the student and the advisor recognize that the advisor is dominant in the relationship, and that in many cases the student becomes a true apprentice working for the benefit of the advisor more than the student. Students are often the literal producers of research products in the form of data and publications, and many have reported that they can feel exploited by their advisors. Although the advisor-student relationship can work adequately, the imbalance in power can also be problematic when the advisor is perceived to have the power to determine the student’s future. Addressing this relationship and making it more equal makes the graduate experience more student centered (Graduate Assembly, 2014; Levecque et al., 2017) while still recognizing the needs of the research enterprise and students’ advisor’s need to secure funding, publish, and gain tenure or promotion. Having different individuals serving as advisor and mentor can help address that power dynamic by dividing responsibilities. In some disciplines and at some universities, the members of a student’s dissertation committee play important advising and mentoring roles, which can also ameliorate the power dynamics of the single advisor-student relationship.
A student’s relationship with his or her primary advisor is the factor most directly correlated with retention, timely completion, sense of inclusion, career aspirations, and overall satisfaction with her or his graduate experience (O’Meara et al., 2013). Studies have reported that the best faculty advisors improved academic success, research productivity, career commitment, and self-efficacy, commonly defined as one’s belief in one’s own ability to succeed (Mollica and Nemeth, 2014; Paglis et al., 2006). Recommendation 3.2 on Institutional Support for Quality Teaching and Mentoring includes specific actions related to improving mentoring and advising for doctoral students.8
8 RECOMMENDATION 3.2—Institutional Support for Teaching and Mentoring: To improve the quality and effectiveness of faculty teaching and mentoring, institutions of higher education should provide training for new faculty and should offer regular refresher courses in teaching and mentoring for established faculty.
- Institutions should require faculty and postdoctoral researchers who have extensive contact with graduate students to learn and demonstrate evidence-based and inclusive teaching and mentoring practices.
- Graduate programs should facilitate mentor relationships between the graduate student and the primary research advisors, as well as opportunities for students to develop additional mentor
In addition to the broader issues related to data collection on graduate education and increasing funding for research on outcomes of graduate education in Increasing Data Collection, Research, and Transparency in Graduate STEM Education in Chapter 3, the issues facing doctoral students have additional nuance described below.
Approximately 90 percent of Ph.D. recipients in STEM fields fund their graduate education primarily through their advisor’s research grants or other institutional sources (Zeiser and Kirschstein, 2014). While there is much discussion about the form of this financial support and the balance in prevalence and use of research and/or teaching assistantships versus traineeships or fellowships, overall there is little definitive information available on how student experiences and outcomes differ based on mechanisms for funding their education, how mechanisms affect students at different points in their education, whether different mechanisms have differential effects on subsets of the student population, and the requirements of funders.
For the approximately 40,000 graduate students supported by the NSF, funds are distributed as follows: 6 to 8 percent traineeships, 10 to 15 percent fellowships, and 80 percent research assistantships (NSF, 2014). NIH reports that out of nearly 109,000 graduate students in the biomedical, behavioral, social, and clinical sciences, approximately 7 percent are supported on traineeships, nearly 14 percent are on fellowships, 29 percent are on research assistantships, and 19 percent are on teaching assistantships, with the remainder supported by other means.9 In the case of research assistantships, a student’s support is tied to his or her mentor’s grants and includes obligations to “assist” the principal investigator in addition to receiving training (Bersola et al., 2014; Blume-Kohout and Clack, 2013). Fellowships, on the other hand, allow for increased intellectual freedom and autonomy, which could allow greater participation in professional development outside of the discipline but may also be associated with lower levels of interaction with an advisor (Miller and Feldman, 2015).
Teaching experience can be invaluable to Ph.D. students (Connolly et al., 2015), particularly for those who wish to pursue faculty positions and those who seek to work at primarily teaching institutions. One perceived disadvantage of being supported on a teaching assistantship has been the belief that students who receive them have a longer time to degree compared to students supported on fellowships or research assistantships (Ehrenberg and Mavros, 1995). While the
or advisor relationships, including with professionals in industry, government laboratories, and technical societies.
- Graduate schools should provide extra-departmental mentoring and support programs.
- Graduate students should seek multiple mentors to meet their varied academic and career needs.
9 See https://report.nih.gov/NIHDatabook/Charts/Default.aspx?showm=Y&chartId=235&catId=19 (accessed May 11, 2018).
available research reflects distinct studies focusing on specific disciplines, implying that the conclusions drawn from these studies may not be generalizable to all STEM fields, the existing data do appear to refute this narrative.
According to the Longitudinal Study of Future STEM Scholars, nearly all (94.9 percent) doctoral students taught undergraduates, primarily as research mentors and teaching or lab assistants (Connolly et al., 2016, p. 1). This study found that although coursework-based teaching development programs alone did not affect students’ time to degree, actual teaching experience did correlate with an increased time to degree. Other studies, however, have found that structured teaching experiences, such as the NSF Graduate STEM Fellowship in K-12 Education10 and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s BEST program, do not have longer time to degree. Moreover, students who participate in this type of program and/or serve as teaching assistants appear to be better able to generate testable hypotheses and valid research designs compared to those who serve only as research assistants (Feldon et al., 2011; Trautmann and Krasny, 2006). The reality of the graduate experience is that most students are supported on a mix of fellowships, traineeships, research assistantships, and teaching assistantships over the course of their degree programs, making it difficult to tease out the effects of these different support mechanisms.
Recommendation 3.3 on Comprehensive National and Institutional Data on Students and Graduates includes specific suggestions for additional data collection, and Recommendation 3.4 on Funding for Research on Graduate STEM Education, include details on researching the effect of different funding mechanisms on STEM Ph.D. students educational and career outcomes.11
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
While the changing demographics of the pool of potential students are detailed in Chapter 2 and issues related to cultivating talent and preparing students from all backgrounds in graduate-level education is reviewed in Enhancing
11 RECOMMENDATION 3.4—Funding for Research on Graduate STEM Education: The National Science Foundation, other federal and state agencies, and private funders of graduate STEM education should issue calls for proposals to better understand the graduate education system and outcomes of various interventions and policies, including but not limited to the effect of different models of graduate education on knowledge, competencies, mind-sets, and career outcomes.
- Funders should support research on the effect of different funding mechanisms on outcomes for doctoral students, including traineeships, fellowships, teaching and research assistantships; the effects of policies and procedures on degree completion, disaggregated by gender, race and ethnicity, and citizenship; and the effect of expanding eligibility of international students to be supported on federal fellowships and training grants.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Chapter 3, the section below features nuance and additional detail related to doctoral STEM degree programs.
Although many institutions have made vigorous efforts to recruit and include students from a wide variety of backgrounds, too many programs have continued to struggle with the creation of an inclusive and equitable environment that can improve chances for their academic success and degree completion. Indeed, achieving inclusion and equity may require significant additional efforts to promote full integration of scientists from all backgrounds into teaching, research, and leadership positions (Tienda, 2013). At its core, an inclusive environment not only admits students from all backgrounds through equitable admissions practices, but also ensures that the classroom, lab, and campus environments serve all students equally well throughout their education and that all students receive the mentoring and support they need to succeed in their doctoral programs (CGS, 2009).
Students from all backgrounds cannot be expected to thrive in a system that does not create an inclusive and equitable environment. Efforts to increase diversity and equity require, among other steps, making a commitment to recruiting faculty and other mentors and trainees from historically underrepresented groups. Such efforts also require changing the culture of universities so that equity and inclusion are not viewed as an “add-on,” but as an integral and deeply embedded component for promoting the scientific success. NSF has funded programs and initiatives focused on addressing these issues and is also funding research to understand the efficacy of interventions. One program, ADVANCE: Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers, seeks to fund projects that address the fact that women are significantly underrepresented as faculty, particularly in upper ranks, and in academic administrative positions, in almost all STEM fields.12 The program looks at challenges in recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in STEM and focuses funding to projects developing systemic approaches to increase women’s representation and advancement in academic careers, promoting gender equity strategies for all members of the academic workforce, and contributing to the field of equity research. NSF has also launched INCLUDES, a national initiative focused on broadening participation for groups historically underrepresented in STEM.13 The initiative will fund a group of research-based collaboratives, linking individual projects for collective impact and including an emphasis on evaluation to share lessons learned from each project. Of the 69 pilot awards made in FY 2016 and FY 2017, 20 of them enhance support systems for undergraduate and graduate students.
To create and sustain an inclusive and equitable environment, universities should address institutional structures, policies, and behaviors that can contrib-
12 See https://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5383 (accessed March 27, 2018).
13 See https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/nsfincludes/index.jsp (accessed March 27, 2018).
ute to a hostile culture that correlates with imposter syndrome,14 lack of cultural capital,15 and reduced self-efficacy.16 They also need to organize experiences in which students and faculty are encouraged to leave homogeneous peer groups and challenge themselves to think critically about their assumptions, seek out knowledge and develop informed perspectives—skills that will translate into a more favorable attitude toward collaborating with colleagues from different backgrounds. Given that each discipline, and even subdiscipline, is characterized by a different demographic profile with regard to gender, race and ethnicity, and international origin, programs should seek to use their own data iteratively to address inequities. Creating solutions within a local context at the department and program levels will be relevant for how graduate students approach career decisions and the overall graduate education experience. Best practices exist to guide the development of local solutions (Bhopal, 2017; Field et al., 2007).
Since faculty have the most direct contact with students and deeply impact perceptions and training experiences, they will need to be at the forefront of creating an inclusive and equitable culture, policies, and practices for all students, which means that they will need to learn how to improve their own cultural awareness about mentoring. Finally, programs will need to prioritize this goal for the sake of improved innovation and funding outcomes in research as well. For example, NIH is advancing policies to require mentor training for faculty as a criterion for receiving a National Institute of General Medical Sciences T32 predoctoral institutional training grant.17 Recommendation 3.5 on Ensuring Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Environments includes specific actions related to improving support for students of all backgrounds.18
15 Cultural capital in the context of graduate education can be conceptualized as the combination of academic qualifications (skills, knowledge, and value within a group) and the intersection with an individual’s social background (Gazley et al., 2015).
17 See https://researchtraining.nih.gov/programs/training-grants/T32 (accessed May 6, 2018).
18 RECOMMENDATION 3.5—Ensuring Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Environments: The graduate STEM education enterprise should enable students of all backgrounds, including but not limited to racial and ethnic background, gender, stage of life, culture, socioeconomic status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and nationality, to succeed by implementing practices that create an equitable and inclusive institutional environment.
- Faculty and administrators involved in graduate education should develop, adopt, and regularly evaluate a suite of strategies to accelerate increasing diversity and improving equity and inclusion, including comprehensive recruitment, holistic review in admissions, and interventions to prevent attrition in the late stages of progress toward a degree.
- Faculty should cultivate their individual professional development skills to advance their abilities to improve educational culture and environments on behalf of students.
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- Institutions, national laboratories, professional societies, and research organizations should develop comprehensive strategies that use evidence-based models and programs and include measures to evaluate outcomes to ensure a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment.
- Institutions should develop comprehensive strategies for recruiting and retaining faculty and mentors from demographic groups historically underrepresented in academia.
- Federal and state agencies, universities, professional societies, and nongovernmental organizations that rate institutions should embed diversity and inclusion metrics in their criteria.
- Federal and state funding agencies and private funders that support graduate education and training should adjust their award policies and funding criteria to include policies that incentivize diversity, equity, and inclusion and include accountability measures through reporting mechanisms.
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