Altering the Academic Ecosystem: Graduate Education Reports Propose Critical Reforms

June 21, 2019

Academia is an ecosystem composed of several stakeholders including graduate students, undergraduates, faculty, staff, institutions, scientific societies, and funders, each with a role to play. Much like the human gut microbiome, the academic ecosystem has fluctuated gently within the slowly changing parameters of societal norms and expectations. But the 21st century has perturbed academia like going from a keto diet to a vegan diet would alter the gut microbiome. Recent decades have drastically improved technologies for data collection and analysis, the amount of data and publications have skyrocketed, and the need for scientists in areas beyond academia is increasing (image 1). Additionally, academia must address pervasive sexual harassment and an infrastructure that historically excludes underrepresented and marginalized groups. Together, stakeholders of academia must redefine our ecosystem in search of a new equilibrium.
 
Knowledge-doubling curve: The exponential increase in knowledge resulting from the growth of the “Internet of Things” (IoT). Used from source with permission.
Knowledge-doubling curve: The exponential increase in knowledge resulting from the growth of the “Internet of Things” (IoT). Used from source with permission.

In recent years, multiple scientific organizations have attempted to address these changes and concerns, including the American Academy of Microbiology (AAM)1 and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics (NASEM). Both organizations have compiled reports addressing the future of graduate education. To better understand the consensus of the field and move forward in redefining the academic ecosystem, this blog will summarize findings of the two reports, note their strengths, and identify next steps to adapt the future of graduate education in microbiology.
 
Report: Strengthening the "Ph" in the Ph.D: The Role of Professional Societies in Graduate Training

The AAM report was released today, summarizing the results of their deliberation addressing the role of professional societies in graduate training, with some recommendations for institutional departments. Last year the NASEM released their report2, which attempted to answer the question “how can the U.S. system of graduate education, given the significant contextual shifts in the 21st century, best serve students and the nation both now and into the future?”.

Ecological Pressures on Academia 

Both AAM and NASEM reports agreed that the following issues exist (in the current ecosystem):
  • A lack of training for scientists increasingly involved in non-academic professions.
  • An exclusionary academic environment and infrastructure.
  • A lack of transparency on trainee success.
  • A power imbalance between trainees and research faculty.
  • The focus of the current academic training structure on faculty versus trainees.   
Both reports made several similar suggestions to address these issues:
  • Increase data collection on trainees to better understand career and salary potential.         
  • Increase the clarity of program milestones and competencies.     
  • Encourage and facilitate multiple mentors for trainees.
  • Increase access to career exploration opportunities.
However, the specificity of further suggestions varied greatly between the 2 reports. Because AAM is a field-specific entity, they had the insights for more nuanced changes than the NASEM, whose scope included all types of institutions within all scientific fields.

Structural Changes Are Needed to Increase Trainee Participation

Structural changes were the dominant focus of the NASEM report and restructuring the incentive system of academia was the number one recommendation. The NASEM laid the charge on funders to create policies that incentivize effective teaching and mentoring while institutions were urged to revise tenure requirements in an effort to reward and facilitate effective teaching and mentoring practices. These changes should be accompanied by curriculum changes to create diverse, equitable, and inclusive learning environments that produce trainees who: have completed a broad set of core competencies, understand the broader impacts of their work at the “intersection of science, technology, and ethics”, who can communicate their work, and have skills in data science and analysis.
 
The NASEM report also addressed the role of scientific societies, charging them with the following responsibilities:
  • Create measurable, evidence-based models and programs to ensure a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment.
  • Participate in and support studies on integration of the changing scientific enterprise into graduate education programs and curricula.
  • Design and provide resources on professional and career development.
  • Collaborate with other sectors to create programs that transition trainees into a variety of careers.
To extend the microbiome analogy introduced earlier, the NASEM perspective on graduate education was at the community structure level, able to see the bacterial composition of the microbiome and how it changes over time. AAM, however, has a finer resolution to see the functional changes over time through direct outcomes and products.

Training Opportunities to Prepare Trainees for Diverse Careers

The AAM report acknowledged gaps in the overall graduate training of microbiology departments, broad audience communication skills and training in big data and computation. The colloquium noted that graduate programs should place more emphasis on research ethics, critical thinking, project management, management and mentorship training, and collaborations. They also provided example curriculum to facilitate these additions.
 
Many of the specific suggestions, however, were focused toward scientific societies. The AAM report noted that scientific societies have played a historic role in networking across fields and advocated for increased attention in this area. They encouraged scientific societies to provide additional networking and connection opportunities across academic strata; an activity that can help create future opportunities. For instance, conferences could create dedicated opportunities for trainees to interact with established microbiologists and provide networking between alumni and current trainees of society fellowships. The AAM report also suggested the involvement of graduate students in conference planning to encourage both engagement and the creation of relevant sessions. Other suggestions for societies were to develop mentoring programs and incentivize interdisciplinary research, possibly through cross-disciplinary partnerships that provide trainees an opportunity to work in labs outside of their degree-granting institution.
 
Skills to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, while not directly mentioned by either report, also need to be developed during academic training. Not only are the demographics of the U.S. and STEM changing, but there is also an increase in the tenure-track positions that require diversity statements and workplaces that emphasize intercultural competency. The NASEM report notes that “although many institutions have made vigorous efforts to recruit and include students from a wide variety of backgrounds, too many programs have continued to struggle with the creation of an inclusive and equitable environment that can improve chances for their academic success and degree completion.” In addition to the overall academic structural changes required to facilitate entry and success of trainees from diverse backgrounds, these topics should be embedded in the training process.

Finding a New Balance: The Future of Graduate Education 

The next step is taking concrete actions to merge the recommendations into something actionable. Changes suggested by both reports must be discussed and incorporated into field-wide policies that:
  1. Incentivize accountable, responsible, non-exploitative mentor:mentee relationships
  2. Create inclusive and equitable learning environments for trainees at all levels3
  3. Increase acceptance and availability to non-academic career exploration  
  4. Generate well-trained4 graduate students
  5. Maintain scientific rigor and progress.
But in the words of the NASEM, “Unless there is a clear, common commitment from all stakeholders to make the system work better…. the recommendations in [these reports] will likely have no more than minimal impact, as have many previous reports on the same topic.”
 
In other words, the time for talking is done and all stakeholders need to make changes and commitments. Arturo Casadevall, Chair of the AAM Governors, noted that “societies can help encourage good behavior by setting out clear policies that provide reference points for good behavior.” To make lasting changes, the recommendations made by the NASEM require the more detailed recommendations suggested in the AAM report, which in turn, now require conversations at the society level to lay out those clear policies and expectations. The society can then support the policies reflecting the suggested recommendations by creating incentives for programs and departments to adopt the policies, and make their adoption publicly available5.
 
The crucial piece to initiate these conversations, however, is you. Society members, like yourself must either step up and/or actively support those who do. Because in addition to the society-wide conversation, these changes need to be reflected at our home institutions where we should all push for implementation of policies to improve graduate education.                   
 
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Footnotes:
  1. The AAM is an honorific leadership group within ASM that convenes colloquia to address challenges facing the microbiological community. Timely suggestions are made to, and voted on by, the Academy’s Governors who organizes a colloquium of AAM members and select experts. The resulting discussion and recommendations are compiled into public white papers.
  2. The NASEM report was the product of extensive discussions with several stakeholders in academia, including graduate students, recent graduates, graduate advocates, and faculty, in addition to extensive research on best practices.
  3. Including undergraduates, whose success in undergraduate research experiences          is instrumental for persistence in STEM
  4. As agreed upon by core competencies suggested by the NASEM and, in particular, the AAM.
  5. See the American Academy for the Advancement of Science Sea-Change program for one example.

Author: Ada Hagan

Ada Hagan
Senior Contributor Dr. Ada Hagan works with the ASM Journals Chair Dr. Pat Schloss in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Michigan. Her postdoctoral research focuses on representation and bias in scientific publishing, focusing on the field of microbiology. In addition to diversity, equity and inclusion, Ada is an advocate for science communication and research trainees. You can follow her on Twitter @adahagan.