An influential ally aims to reform the experience of US PhD students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by advocating for a system that rewards faculty members for mentoring and advising students rather than for their own publications.
By Chris Woolston
In a 29 May report , Graduate STEM Education for the 20th Century, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) in Washington DC calls for providing faculty members with incentives for developing skills such as teaching and mentoring while de-emphasizing the importance of publications. The report recommends that institutions change their promotion and tenure policies and practices to recognise and reward faculty members’ contributions to graduate mentoring and education.
“We want to move the focus back to what students need,” says Alan Leshner, the chair of the report committee and the chief executive officer emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC. “We’re trying to acknowledge the purpose of graduate education, and that’s to produce scientists and engineers.”
NASEM is an independent body whose member organizations, the National Academy of Science; the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Medicine and the National Research Council, the academies’ operating arm, examine the scientific and technical aspects of societal issues and provide advice.
The report calls for federal granting agencies to rethink the criteria they use for distributing funds. “If the federal government were to adjust its award criteria to place explicit emphasis on quality teaching and mentoring, I promise there would be more high-quality teaching and mentoring,” Leshner says. As a long-time senior member of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, he acknowledges that US funding agencies have immense power.
A change of emphasis wouldn’t just help students become better, more well-rounded scientists, Leshner says. Effective mentoring would also improve their quality of life and reduce the strain of PhD studies.
Gary McDowell, executive director of Future of Research, an advocacy organization for junior scientists that is based in San Francisco, California, says that he is impressed by the tone and scope of the report. “It’s a very clear acknowledgement that institutions have been getting all of the benefit from cheap student labour,” he says. “There has to be a change in the incentive structure. Change is going to be difficult, but the fact that they called it out is really great.”
It remains to be seen whether US funding agencies, research institutions and universities will heed the report’s recommendations. Leshner sees reason for optimism. Members of the US National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, responded positively to an early briefing on the report, he says, and he believes some current leaders of the NIH share his vision and priorities. “We know there’s a lot of interest in this,” he says. “The question is, can we get the momentum going.”
The report also calls for institutions to provide hiring statistics of previous graduates, including those who pursued non-academic careers. “Anyone who goes into training should be fully informed about the outcomes,” Leshner says. Currently, many students are in the dark about where their path might lead. “Some institutions collect all kinds of data about job outcomes, but some don’t collect any at all,” he says.
Leshner notes that collecting and reporting such data at all institutions would be expensive. In fact, all of the recommendations in the report would require some level of investment and sacrifice. “None of this is free,” he says. “But if it’s seen as a sufficient priority, we believe that those costs can be absorbed.”
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.