Rethinking Graduate Education for the 21st Century: a Talk by Dr. Alan Leshner at the 2017 GCC meeting

Rethinking Graduate Education for the 21st Century: a Talk by Dr. Alan Leshner at the 2017 GCC meeting

 

This is a guest post by Future of Research policy activist, Adriana Bankston.  

 

The mission of the Graduate Career Consortium (GCC) is to help members provide career and professional development for doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars at GCC member institutions. I recently attended the 2017 GCC meeting, held at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX. The theme was “Innovation and Insight,” reflecting the continued growth of both GCC membership, and the professional development of individual GCC members.  

 

One of the plenary sessions was given by Dr. Alan Leshner, Chief Executive Officer, Emeritus, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the former Executive Publisher of the Science family of journals. Dr. Leshner is also Chair of the Committee on Revitalizing Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century at the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. This Committee was described in more detail in a previous blog post related to a session on this topic at the 2017 AAAS meeting.

 

Dr. Leshner’s talk was entitled “Rethinking Graduate Education for the 21st Century,” which was a popular thread on Twitter. Dr. Leshner discussed how graduate education needs to change, given that a high percentage of PhD graduates do not pursue academic careers:

 

He pointed out that the world is different now than it was 100 years ago, in that the STEM workforce is growing, and the number of PhDs produced is also growing. However, the settings in which graduate students pursue research have changed, and the nature of science itself has changed in the last 100 years:

 

 

He then posed the question of how we can change graduate education without compromising what it means to be a Ph.D. He asserted that we must engage in the national conversation on this topic, but should consider how to do so in order to make change in the system without doing “too much harm.” Nevertheless, in his own words, “we do want to make change, and don’t want to be just another report released by the Academies” but actually take some action towards making change in this area.

 

He then challenged us to think about what it would look like to design graduate education from scratch. Some of the things the Committee has heard from listening sessions and from reviews of previous reports are as follows:

 

  1. Institutions should be transparent about career paths of their graduates
  2. Engage a broader and more diverse cross section of population in STEM fields
  3. Develop a set of core competencies for STEM PhD and Masters graduates:

 

 

4. Develop a number of skills needed for a STEM career:

 

 

In Dr. Leshner’s view, part of this training should be exposing students to non-academic career options while pursuing their degrees. We should also be thinking about making and propagating different model programs in terms of the incentives for graduate students to do research, instead of thinking of them as “slaves.” And perhaps more important, as he pointed out, is to think about what impact their work is having on society, rather than focusing only on the work itself (i.e. the number of publications).

 

Following this talk, there were a number of very interesting questions from the audience, which I will pose here along with Dr. Leshner’s responses:

 

  1. Are there too many PhDs? Dr. Leshner turned this question around saying that he doesn’t think there are too many PhDs, but the question we should be asking is “who needs a postdoc?” To quote him directly, he suggested that “nobody needs 3 postdocs, you might need 1…” – of course this depends on your goals, but is a relevant question to ponder. He also stated that we should be training our students to be able to do different things, and that ultimately “it’s good for society if not all of the best and brightest go into academia.”

 

 

  • How do you measure trainee success? As a possible definition of success, Dr. Leshner offered the option that success could mean having a satisfactory and productive career. He then agreed with a statement by Dr. Keith Yamamoto, a member of the Committee, that this is “not about training in a career sense but more about education at its core.” In that sense, we are not training people to be academic scientists, but should consider the outcomes of their training.

 

 

 

  • What is a postdoc, or what should it be? This is a complex question, to which there are multiple nuances. In this case, Dr. Leshner again challenged us to think about two things: Do you or should you come out of graduate school learning how to be an independent investigator? (meaning learning everything you need to know to be a PI)…or do you get important finishing touches during your postdoc? Perhaps thinking about these two questions may help us begin addressing the purpose of postdoctoral training.

 

 

If you have any insights into these topics, please contact Layne Scherer (lscherer@nas.edu), study director for the Committee on Revitalizing Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century, a study on STEM graduate-level education in the U.S. at the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

 

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