A Fork in the Road: Time to Re-think the Future of STEM Graduate Education

“Rather than squeeze everyone into preordained roles, my goal has always been to foster an environment where the players can grow as individuals and express themselves creatively within a team structure” –Phil Jackson (1)

Recently, I was reading the PECOP blog “Paradigm Shifts in Teaching Graduate Physiology” by Dr. Andrew Roberts.  His discussion focused on how we need to change the way physiology is taught to graduate students as technology has evolved.  But, one particular line caught my eyes as I was preparing my blog:  “if it was good enough for Galileo, it is good enough for me.”   Many university faculty members believe the “If it was good enough for Galileo, it is good enough for me” approach is the major issue with the current biomedical graduate student training system, which stands at a crossroad and is threatening its own future if appropriate corrections are not made (2, 3).

The document I read for this blog, Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century (4) is an updated version of the report published in 1995 (5).  It is rather large (174 total pages) and contains information on various topics about the current status of STEM graduate education and a call for systematic change. I will limit my discussion to the current status of the PhD training system and recommendations for changes in the programs.

Issues at the heart: Gap between the Great Expectation and Hard Reality

Both the 1995 and the current documents list several issues associated with the STEM graduate training programs in the U.S.  However, the common thread that runs through both documents is associated with the gap between how our graduate students are trained and what has been happening in the job market.  The current STEM graduate program still is designed with the general expectation that students will pursue a career in academia as a tenure-track faculty member at a research institution.  However:

  1. The majority of growth in the academic job market has come from part-time positions, adjunct appointments, and full-time non-tenure-track positions (i.e. instructors, lecturers, research associates) rather than tenure-track positions in research-intensive institutions.
  2. The employment trend for STEM PhDs is shifting away from academia to non-academic positions.

The gap in the expectation of the training programs and the reality of job market creates several problems, including:

  1. Those who wish to pursue a career in academia often require a longer time to secure permanent employment and often work in positions that under-employ them (i.e. part-time, non-tenure track) and/or under-utilize their training (i.e. positions that do not require a PhD).
  2. Graduates who pursue non-academic positions, especially in the private sector, lack adequate preparation to enter their positions and become successful.

Many non-academic employers have voiced concerns that current STEM education is no longer acceptable for the current job market, as it does not provide sufficient training to make students more attractive and versatile to be employed outside of academia, which is becoming more international and diverse.  In particular, employers are concerned that current STEM graduates lack skills in areas such as:

  1. Communication
  2. Teaching and mentoring
  3. Problem solving
  4. Technology application
  5. Interdisciplinary teamwork
  6. Business decision making
  7. Leadership
  8. The ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds in a team setting

Changes needed for the system: Let students discover their destiny

The major change needed in the current STEM education system is that we need to let students figure out which career path is for them and provide appropriate training opportunities, rather than trying to force them to fit into one mold. Phil Jackson, whom I quoted earlier, writes: “Let each player discover his own destiny. One thing I’ve learned as a coach is that you can’t force your will on people.” (1). Jackson goes on to say: “On another level, I always tried to give each player the freedom to carve out a role for himself within the team structure.  I’ve seen dozens of players flame out and disappear not because they lacked talent but because they couldn’t figure out how to fit into the cookie-cutter model of basketball that pervades the NBA.”   We need to foster a graduate training environment that encourages each student to discover their role without any pressure, stigma, or discouragement.

Dr. Keith Yamamoto from the University of California San Francisco says that graduate training needs to be student-centered so that graduates can find their roles and meet the needs of the society (3). Faculty mentors have the responsibility of training students so that students become successful in what they choose to do.  Faculty mentors, academic departments, and institutions also need to make a concerted effort to provide opportunities for students to develop additional skills necessary to become successful in what they choose to do.  This includes teaching, especially if they want to work in a teaching-intensive institution (like the one in which I work). Faculty mentors may fear that allowing students to work on skills unrelated to the research area may hinder student success.  They may also fear that students serving as graduate teaching assistants may extend the time needed to complete their degree.  However, students need opportunities to develop these other skills, along with discipline-specific skills to become competitive in the job market and competent employees.  Again, the focus needs to be on the students and what they want to pursue, as well as what is needed for them to succeed after they walk out of the laboratory.  And, we need to trust students that they will find their paths on their own.  Dr. Yamamoto concludes his seminar by saying: “Inform/empower students to make appropriate career decision…. Students will get it right.” (3)

References and additional resources:

  1. Jackson P, Delehanty H (2013). Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success (Penguin, New York).
  2. Alberts B, Kirschner MW, Tilghman S, Vermus H (2014) Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaw. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 111(16):5773-5777.
  3. Yamamoto K (2014) Time to rethink graduate and postdoc education. https://www.ibiology.org/biomedical-workforce/graduate-education/
  4. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (2018) Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century (The National Academics Press, Washington DC).
  5. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (1995) Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers (The National Academics Press, Washington DC).
Yass Kobayashi is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Fort Hays State University in Hays, KS.   He teaches a human/mammalian physiology course and an upper-level cellular biology course to biology majors, along with a two-semester anatomy and physiology sequence to nursing and allied health students.   He received his BS in agriculture (animal science emphasis) with a minor in zoology from Southeast Missouri State University in 1991.  He received his MS in domestic animal reproductive physiology from Kansas State University in 1995.  After a brief stint at Oklahoma State University, he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri-Columbia in domestic animal molecular endocrinology in 2000.  He was a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Arizona for 2 years and at Michigan State University for 4 years before taking an Assistant Professor of biology position at Delta State University in Cleveland, MS in 2006.  He moved to Fort Hays State in 2010 and has been with the institution ever since.
One thought on “A Fork in the Road: Time to Re-think the Future of STEM Graduate Education”

Here is an excellent resource to help Ph.D. students identify potential career options.  While the typical teaching/research options are included, many other career options may be suggested.  What I like about this tool is that participants will self-assess their professional skill set and interests, interests, and values.  Based on the individualized responses, potential career options will be provided.  In addition, career exploration modules are provided and this tool will help with career goal-setting.

My IDP (Individualized Development Plan) Science Careers: https://myidp.sciencecareers.org/

 

Leave a Reply