Student Survey Highlights Mismatch of Training, Goals

This article appears in the January 19 issue of Science magazine.

Biochemist Timothy Dore is living his dream. After earning his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1998 and doing a postdoc at the University of California, San Diego, Dore began a tenure-track job last fall at a major research university.

But fewer and fewer of his colleagues can say the same. A new report, based on a survey of U.S. graduate students, finds a "three-way mismatch between student goals, their training, and their actual careers." It recommends major changes to better prepare graduate students for today's economic realities, including a greater emphasis on teaching, more information about the job market, and support for those interested in nonacademic career paths. Educators hope it will spur efforts to reform a system that Dore, who is also a co-author, had to navigate largely on his own. "I learned to be a faculty member despite the system," says Dore, a 33-year-old assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Georgia, Athens, who teamed with education policy analyst Chris Golde of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on a survey of 4114 graduate students in 11 disciplines from 27 institutions. "I decided early on that I was interested both in good teaching and good research, and went looking for the help I needed. I had to make it happen."

The study, funded by Pew Charitable Trusts and released this week, feeds into a growing debate about doctoral education in the higher education community by adding the voice of students. The title delivers the message: "At Cross Purposes: What the experiences of today's doctoral students reveal about doctoral education." Citing other studies, it drives home the point that the path taken by Dore is no longer the norm: Almost half of U.S. faculty members are part-timers, nearly one-third work at 2-year colleges, and only one-quarter of full-time faculty members work at research universities. And it makes a number of recommendations, including providing more relevant information for students about their training and what happens to graduates, better mentoring by faculty, more emphasis on teaching, more courses outside one's field, and more discussion of the problem at professional meetings.

"This report not only provides a comprehensive overview of how students feel, but it also suggests what various groups can do," says George Walker, dean of the graduate school at Indiana University, Bloomington, who this month is beginning an initiative on graduate education as senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "We're going to pick a few disciplines and focus on leading universities, and this report will be a very valuable reference guide."

The mismatch between training and reality persists, says Golde, because of the "incredible conservatism of higher education" and the fact that professors who have thrived under the current system have little incentive to change it. Another obstacle to reform, says Jerry Gaff, vice president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), is the fragmented structure of U.S. graduate education itself. "It's a cottage industry," he says, with most of the authority vested in individual faculty members and "with little consistency across departments and universities." The survey, conducted by mail and over the Web with a 42% response rate, contains good news along with the warnings. Only 3% of the students regret their decision to attend graduate school, and some 91% say that they like their adviser. An even higher percentage, topped by chemistry students at 96%, say that they understand what's required of them for a Ph.D. And seven in 10 say that their program has prepared them well to become independent researchers. Dore says his experience supports those results: "In research I succeeded because of the system, thanks to an adviser telling me what I needed to know."

The problem, however, is that most graduates need more than that to compete in today's economy. "I don't think the old model of training researchers is sufficient anymore," says Gaff. "If students only learn topflight research skills, they won't get jobs when they graduate." Students say that they are not well prepared for classroom responsibilities, especially teaching higher level courses. They also would like to take more courses in related fields and outside their disciplines, such as languages and business. Their training in professional practices is also inadequate, the students report, with large numbers unclear about subjects ranging from assigning authorship on papers to avoiding financial and ethical conflicts of interest.

The authors admit that neither their findings nor their recommendations will surprise those who have followed the debate for the past decade, although they hope the data will arm reformers like Walker. In addition to putting up $350,000 for the study, Pew is a partner with AACU and the Council of Graduate Schools in the Preparing Future Faculty project, a national effort to improve graduate training . This summer, the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students hopes to present the results of a similar survey organized around departments. Its goal is to help "consumers" select the graduate program that's best for them.

Students may indeed be the strongest force for change. This survey, for example, arose from a graduate course in academic ethics that Dore and Golde took at Stanford University. Dore has taken that interest with him to Georgia, where he is designing small organic molecules as probes to better understand the workings of the cell. "My future on the tenure track is tied to this project as well as to my research," he says about his plans to further analyze the survey's large database. "And my department chair and the graduate school dean are very interested in what I come up with."

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