Changing Graduate Education Policy

In the spring of 2001, my program director nominated me for an Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs (ANDP) fellowship. Flattered and curious, I did a little research into the program ?

ANDP, an organization of more than 250 neuroscience departments and programs from academic institutions across North America, works to advance neuroscience education and research training. In 1999, ANDP developed a fellowship program to give graduate students and postdocs a chance to acquire leadership training, exposure to what goes into academic policy formation, and an understanding of what it takes to be a department chair or program director.

In addition to being an interesting training opportunity for graduate students and postdocs, the fellowship came with the added bonus of travel funds. ANDP fellows were also expected to study a problem in neuroscience graduate education at either the graduate or postdoctoral level and present their work to the ANDP membership.

I was hooked. I accepted the nomination, and in August of 2001, I became one of three 2001?2002 ANDP fellows.

Feeling a bit as if I had won a trip to a foreign land without any information on what to do there or how to speak the language, I started developing ideas for my research project. Over the next 6 months, as I researched career planning services for graduate students, I found the lack of guidance for fellows challenging, as I did my lack of experience in education policy. Even so, I learned a great deal about graduate education. The fellowship was a worthwhile experience, one that many graduate students and postdocs--and graduate departments--could benefit from.

The entire fellowship program centers on the research presentations, because it is through these that the ANDP realizes a return on its investment--insight into issues facing neuroscience graduate students and postdocs and, even better, some problem-solving ideas. Usually, fellows show by example how a problem could be overcome, showcasing successful programs and departments. ANDP Fellow presentations from the past three years have covered topics such as preparing students for non-academic careers, student-advisor relationships, recruiting strategies, and the visibility of postdocs.

I presented students? opinions of career services currently available to them versus those they wished were available and shared solutions I had found at other schools. I outlined examples of programs, such as career planning offices, manuals, career assistance Web sites, and student-run seminars on alternative careers. I also described whether those programs worked (or didn?t work) and suggested implementation strategies.

Another of the 2001?2002 ANDP fellows presented her research on the postdoctoral experience in neuroscience departments and programs. She identified job placement and career counseling services and the development of a postdoctoral contract as targets for improvement. The third ANDP fellow researched whether an undergraduate research experience was a predictor of student success in graduate school.

The most eye-opening experience of the fellowship was the "leadership interview." The ANDP requires fellows to meet and interview several program directors and department chairs. The objective is to give the fellows a window on the administration of neuroscience education. Our interviews typically covered a range of administrative topics. How was the chair or director chosen for that position? What are the chair or director's goals? How is the program or department run, including complaint procedures, where money comes from and how it is budgeted, and how courses are selected? How does the program or department interact with the rest of the school concerning funding and teaching support? How are activities for students implemented?

A number of things surprised me while doing these interviews. First, there was a lot I didn?t know about how my own program was run. Second, neuroscience programs show remarkable institutional diversity. And third (and most remarkable to me), I encountered surprising openness among administrators. I later learned that one of the overarching goals of the ANDP fellowship program is to show the fellows that students and postdocs can talk with the administration.

Unfortunately, the ANDP fellowship program was short-lived. In 2002 it was terminated due to inadequate funds, making my fellowship year its last. The ANDP executive committee is working now to develop a smaller program that provides the ANDP leaders, students, and postdocs a chance to talk with each other.

The ANDP program was unusual in that it trained fellows to play an active role in shaping their education. I learned that you can talk with anyone in any position. If you see a hole, a problem, or something broken, it is up to you to find the appropriate people and tell them about it. By taking the initiative and doing a little research, you can find out how other programs have fixed their ?holes? and develop proposals for how things could be done better in your own program, department, or university.

You?d be surprised not only at how open other programs are to sharing their ideas, but also at how open your program is to hearing your ideas.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers