Career Development in Graduate Education

In “Critical Steps Toward Modernizing Graduate STEM Education” (Issues, Winter 2019), Alan Leshner and Layne Scherer note that career exploration and professional skills development should be core components of an “ideal” graduate program. Indeed, individual mentoring can be highly variable, making access to structured professional development programs an issue intricately linked to equity, inclusion, and retention of early career scientists.

In recent years, many graduate schools have invested in the creation or expansion of PhD-specific career and professional development programs, attributable in part to funding agencies’ higher expectations for training grants and funding for innovation in this area. Though promising, access to professional development programs is not sufficient. Whether real or perceived, pressures for research productivity create barriers to attending workshops or exploring careers. Indeed, student attendance and faculty buy-in are two of the four top challenges facing professional development programs, according to a 2018 survey by the Graduate Career Consortium. These challenges speak to the systemic barriers that must be overcome for programmatic investments to have impact.

Six years ago, the University of Massachusetts Medical School proposed a fundamentally different approach: to reframe career development as an expectation for all PhDs by building career and professional development directly into and across the required curriculum, rather than considering them extracurricular. Each educational component is tailored for students’ specific year in training, and requires minimal time commitment—important for faculty buy-in. As a next phase, we will be developing evidence-based mentoring resources to maximize synergies between the curriculum and individual mentoring practices.

As part of national efforts to build an inclusive and equitable training environment, we must reframe career and professional development as a core part of STEM training, as integral as understanding basic genetics principles is to becoming a geneticist.

Funded by a National Institutes of Health BEST award, we are assessing outcomes and impacts of these curricular changes, including attitudes and behaviors of students and faculty. We are fortunate; rigorous program evaluation is difficult and resource-intensive. With few incentives and resources for evaluation, the field of graduate education is significantly less developed than undergraduate education.

To advance graduate education—including career and professional development—the field needs to move toward scientific teaching and consider ways we can better disseminate (and support adoption of) best practices, so that efficient change can happen at a systems-wide, national level. Though multiple organizations have created national communities that actively exchange ideas, much innovation continues to take place within silos. As recommended by Leshner and Scherer—as well as by Ronald J. Daniels and Lida A. Beninson in their article, “Securing the Future of the US Biomedical Research Workforce,” in the same volume—there would be great value in working together and across stakeholders to enhance research, innovation, and dissemination in graduate education.

I am working on two multi-stakeholder national initiatives to address these goals. Through one, I3IDP, we are developing toolkits to help universities assess their Individual Development Plan processes. The second is a broader initiative to create a national center to incentivize and support the spread of evidence-based practices in career and professional development by building capacity for stakeholder collaboration, dissemination, high-fidelity implementation, and evaluation.

As part of national efforts to build an inclusive and equitable training environment, we must reframe career and professional development as a core part of STEM training, as integral as understanding basic genetics principles is to becoming a geneticist. Building national capacity for testing and disseminating educational innovations will accelerate advancement of graduate education practices. As STEM PhD career trajectories continue to evolve, our ability to adapt educational practices will be essential for continuing to attract talented prospective students to PhD training, and ultimately for the health of the scientific enterprise.

Assistant Dean, Career & Professional Development
Associate Professor, Biochemistry & Molecular Pharmacology
Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences
University of Massachusetts Medical School

As a group of current and recent STEM graduate students, we applaud Alan Leshner and Layne Scherer’s argument for systemic changes that are essential to improving graduate education. Many of their points deeply resonate with our perspectives, especially the lack of support for students and preparation for jobs outside academia. As this article ironically notes, “Over 20 studies and reports on graduate (STEM) education have come to that same conclusion,” while research institutions continue to struggle to create sustained change.

Increasing numbers of PhDs are pursuing nonacademic careers rather than tenure-track faculty positions, but we believe that framing these changes as an effort to “modernize” is problematic. It allows the established academic community to avoid responsibility for and reflection on the institutionalized flaws in graduate student training. Graduate STEM education systems have always had an obligation to be ethical, empathetic, and all-around mindful of the needs and goals of the students, contrary to the implications that this is a contemporary challenge.

We hope that more university faculty and administrators will step up as allies and advocates who can facilitate the prosperity of graduate student- and postdoc-led endeavors.

Indeed, “real change requires a systems approach,” as their article notes, but all levels of the academic ecosystem are not equal in their power and influence. Students have a responsibility to pursue interdisciplinary training and professional development, and faculty have a responsibility to be inclusive and supportive resources for their students. But we believe that the critical role of university administrations and deans is being dangerously overlooked. Leshner and Scherer acknowledge the fact that systematic change is inherently difficult in decentralized systems, which further highlights the importance of holding institutional leadership to a higher standard, since they reflect a small number of individuals with immense local power. The recommendations in the recent National Academies report on which the authors based much of their article should be prioritized and integrated into top-down university hiring requirements, strategic planning, and budget allocations in order to lead by example and shape campus culture to be conducive to change-making at the faculty, staff, and student levels.

Furthermore, a call for changes in funding criteria from state and federal agencies is not sufficient to produce more than superficial results. Successful systematic change will also require putting the spotlight on institutional leaders, challenging them to think creatively and holding them accountable on their promises to prioritize graduate student success.

It is especially important that all levels of leadership within academic institutions support the bottom-up grassroots efforts of graduate students. In the absence of institutional support, these student-led efforts are providing hands-on experience, community building, and public outreach that fill the gap in professional development opportunities. For example, the National Science Policy Network is comprised of early-career scientists and engineers across the United States who are pursuing focused training and professional development opportunities that align with science policy and advocacy career goals. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these efforts operate on shoestring budgets or even on the sheer willpower of student volunteers. In response to the National Academies report, we hope that more university faculty and administrators will step up as allies and advocates who can facilitate the prosperity of graduate student- and postdoc-led endeavors.

Ultimately, early-career researchers who don’t feel welcome or supported in academia because of their extracurricular efforts aren’t going to stay around to eventually become tenured committee members and advocate for this vision of reformed STEM graduate education. Instead, they will leave, and myopic attitudes toward graduate education will continue to proliferate within the walls of academia. However, the pursuit of healthier and more equitable academic environments; higher-quality of teaching, advising, and mentoring; and expanded support for more interdisciplinary curriculum and research has the potential to benefit not only individual students but also the broader standing of science in society.

Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Virginia
Chief Operating Officer, National Science Policy Network

PhD Candidate, University of Virginia
Chief Financial Officer, National Science Policy Network

AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow
Chief Executive Officer, National Science Policy Network

Cite this Article

“Career Development in Graduate Education.” Issues in Science and Technology 35, no. 3 (Spring 2019).

Vol. XXXV, No. 3, Spring 2019