Taking Action: Reforming Graduate Education Reflection

On July 31, 2020, the National Science Policy Network (NSPN)’s Graduate Education Committee hosted a webinar on reforming graduate education post COVID-19 disruptions. The four panelists represented different stakeholders from academia, professional societies, and governmental agencies. Attendees were able to brainstorm the first steps in taking action. Graduate Education Committee members Alessandra Zimmermann, Adriana Bankston, Esko Brummel, Megan Damico, and Dilara Kiran served as moderators for the event and have provided a summary of the discussions below.

Outline of Issues

Rigoberto Hernandez (John Hopkins University), Maria Lund Dahlberg (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine), Erin Suderman (Genetics Society of America), and Jamaine Davis (Meharry Medical College, and American Society for Cell Biology Faculty Research Education Development recipient) worked with workshop participants to initiate policy plans to reform education in these ways: 

  • Graduate Student Involvement in Department Affairs
  • Developing Harassment Reporting Frameworks
  • Recognition/Awards System for Graduate Student Public Services & Leadership 
  • Incentivizing Mentorship and Student-First Mentoring Development

Graduate students are often well aware that certain structures within their graduate programs make their lives unnecessarily difficult, and a bottom-up approach is one of the strategies for working towards institutional change. However, in order to achieve lasting policy change within institutions, top-down enforcement is equally necessary. To this end, breakout room participants (including the panelists) discussed ways to get faculty members and department chairs engaged in, or at the very least recognize the need for, new policies in these areas. 

  • Specific action items towards developing institutional policies to improve graduate education included:
  • Conducting climate surveys as evidence for the need to change the system, such as reporting harassment;
  • Hosting town halls where grievances can be aired and problems to tackle uncovered;
  • Creating open letters, op-eds, and other written pieces that are well-researched, citing literature on improving graduate education; and
  • Improving departmental culture to attract students

Developing Harassment Reporting Frameworks

Harassment reporting is a complicated policy to implement, particularly since policies are unique to each institution. Instituting a harassment reporting policy to fix a toxic culture can often backfire, causing the perpetrators to be more exclusive in their interactions and ostracize those they feel could be threats. There is also the issue of which office these incidents would be reported to. Sexual harassment already falls under Title IX, and the university’s Office of Diversity might already have a harassment reporting system. If someone believes this system is inadequate, they must consider the type of reporting to institute, as there is a wide spectrum from a complaints box to mandatory reporters.

A recommended first step would be to conduct a climate survey. From its findings, further steps can be taken to determine what kind of structure would most benefit the students and faculty. It would also help to identify a clear need for the reporting structure, one that is not anecdotal and cannot ignore complaints as rare events. There are several examples of climate surveys available online, some looking to evaluate experience at the university and others focusing specifically on harassment instances and culture.  

Graduate Student Involvement in Department Affairs

A particular interest of attendees was more agency for graduate students, specifically by influencing activities such as faculty hiring. Many departments encourage students to go to lunch with and provide notes about the potential hires and their presentation; however, there is no evidence that students’ notes influence hiring decisions. Giving graduate students a voice and a seat in the room allows students agency and active participation in their larger institution. This recognition and change may be minor but illuminating for all parties involved.

Recognition/Awards System for Graduate Student Public Services & Leadership 

Participants were eager to discuss the idea of creating an awards/recognition system to acknowledge work done by graduate students outside of their research, perhaps similar to the TOP guidelines created by the Center for Open Science. The group collectively agreed that they wanted their outreach, advocacy, and leadership work, including their work focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion, to be valued and acknowledged.

Quickly, the group formulated ways to put this policy change into action. The first step was to identify the positives that this policy could bring to a university. This policy would improve graduate student visibility, diversity, educational enlightenment, and self-promotion. However, the main weaknesses and threats to this policy were: 

  1. How would one quantify mentorship or service?
  2. Some students may want to remain anonymous for their DEI/outreach work
  3. This policy could further promote students already in privileged positions 

This policy would need to be tailored to each institution and the message would need to be directed towards deans, academic colleges, and department heads. A group member highlighted that a town hall event combined with an open letter signed by graduate students, graduate student governments/organizations, and faculty/staff proved to be a good first step to enacting a policy like this at their university. Overall, by using positive language to show the mutual benefits for both graduate students and academic advisors, this policy would allow for the compensation of graduate student service and leadership work through an award or recognition at a graduation ceremony or public event. 

Incentivizing Mentorship and Student-First Mentoring Development

Spurred on by an audience question on whether mentorship is indeed an established responsibility of faculty and institutions, another breakout group brainstormed ways to encourage mentorship and its development. Reinforcing the idea that such changes require support at both the grassroots and administrative levels, policy changes at both ends were suggested to be pursued in tandem. On the individual level, institutions can incorporate mentorship metrics to evaluate retention, promotion, and tenure decision-making for faculty. Another suggested metric was how well the faculty member integrated their students into other resources and faculty at that institution to ensure that each student has multiple sources of guidance. A top-level cultural change that can affect mentoring would be to petition for mentoring accountability within funding systems, such as the National Science Foundation’s Broader Impacts Statement. Under this intervention, defining mentoring success would be critical and required. There are several national and international systems that can be models for celebrating these efforts, including SEA Change (US) and Athena SWAN (UK).

Groups of students and recent graduates, as well as organizations such as the National Science Policy Network, advocate for and recognize student-defined conceptions of great mentorship. To this end, a third and final suggestion was made for such groups to create scientific, governmental, and academic coalitions that collectively award and highlight great mentors and mentorships at institutions to help make such examples the norm.

Barriers to policy implementation

In parallel to conversations about policy solutions, barriers to implementation were also discussed in depth. Common across all these steps is the appeal to a researcher’s instinctive need for empirical evidence and a demonstration that the policy will not benefit only one party, but all who are involved. Once the faculty are interested in engaging with the policy, the next common hurdle across all covered topics was pacing. While you might see the current system as intolerable and requiring an immediate fix, faculty may not agree and are often resistant to dramatic changes. Instead, baby steps are recommended so that the institution may tolerate and eventually adopt the shift. 

Call to Action

If you’re interested in developing these policy ideas further, consider reaching out to the NSPN Graduate Education Committee (gradeducation@scipolnetwork.org). The committee meets every two weeks on Wednesdays, 9 PM ET // 6 PM PT. You can learn more about the meetings at scipolnetwork.org/events.

Other news