Improving the Effectiveness of Graduate STEM Education

Title: Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century

Many of us have a stereotypical image in mind when we think of a traditional STEM educational experience. To begin with, a homogeneous student body sits scribbling notes while listening to an absentminded and unsympathetic professor lecture away. Some of the graduate students will eventually “graduate” to doing research, alone of course, hidden away in an office making painstaking calculations and attempting to churn out papers at a rapid pace. After their studies have concluded, they will themselves become professors, as unsympathetic as any member of the old guard.

However, whether or not this picture of STEM was ever accurate, it has been shifting slowly for decades to become something entirely different. Long overdue changes in demographics are underway; among underrepresented racial and ethnic groups (although exact trends vary strongly by field and the group in question) there were substantial increases in the number of STEM graduate degrees awarded from 2000 to 2015 (Figure 1). Things are changing for (mostly white) women as well; in 2015, women were earning nearly twice as many STEM degrees per year as in 2000, although it’s unclear if things are changing for gender minorities.

Figure 1: Doctoral degrees awarded over the last 15 years for racial and ethnic minorities, with numbers generally increasing. In the 2015 bin, the previous category ‘Asian or Pacific Islander’ was split into two new categories, ‘Asian’ and ‘Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander’, by data collection agencies. Figure 2-7 in Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century.

Moreover, classroom instruction is also changing. Pedagogical research has suggested that pure lecture is an inefficient way to transmit information, and leads to worse performance by students compared to active learning methods. More than ever, scientific advancements are coming from massive collaborations: consider the team of scientists, numbering over 200 people, behind the data collection and analysis of the black hole in M87. Lastly, much to the dismay of aspiring professors, it is clear from the statistics that most graduate students in STEM will not remain in academia to become tenure-track faculty, the traditionally expected career outcome. Within 5 years of graduation, only 17.7% of all STEM doctoral degree holders can be expected to attain a tenure-track position.

In recognition of these shifts in the fundamental nature of STEM fields, in May 2018 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) released a report entitled Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century (which you can read for free online here) detailing specific recommendations to individuals, institutions, and federal agencies to adjust modern STEM education to better meet the needs of the students and the fields they occupy.

The following are some specific recommendations from the report for actions in graduate programs (not only astronomy) to improve the state of STEM education.

1. Incentivize good teaching and mentoring practices

It is fairly common knowledge that one must “publish or perish” in academia. The drive to publish papers often comes at the expense of health, happiness, and sanity of practitioners, and is usually considered the key (or sole) metric of success. Further, it can be a deciding factor in whether a faculty member may be granted tenure (in addition to other items like grant funding). However, with the academic machine’s focus on churning out papers, efforts to improve one’s teaching ability are not only ignored; they are effectively discouraged. After all, why would a professor devote time learning how to teach or mentor effectively if it eats up time that could otherwise be spent writing or doing research?

In order to increase professors’ interest in good teaching practices, institutions must provide the appropriate motivation. Including teaching and mentoring quality when considering faculty for tenure or providing funding for grants or awards on the basis of these skills would help create an incentive for faculty to place some focus on these. This would undoubtedly reduce the time available for writing papers and doing research, but placing more value on teaching will improve the state of things for both graduate and undergraduate students.

2. Increase access to statistics about individual graduate programs

Certain nationwide organizations collect data from surveys about postsecondary education in the United States, including statistics regarding demographics, typical careers by degree subject, and years to completion of the doctorate. However, this information is (1) difficult for the average person to find and (2) often missing at the level of individual institutions. By providing prospective students with information about career outcomes, average years-to-completion, and typical financial support, institutions would enhance the ability of potential graduate students to make fully-informed decisions about what institution would be best for them to attend based on their needs and goals.

Individual institutions often collect this information to analyze their own trends and make changes to better match their goals, but it is rare for the statistics to be made publicly available. Some universities have already begun taking action to make nationwide statistics more accessible (addressing point 1 above), such as the IPUMS Higher Ed platform created at the University of Minnesota. Other institutions should make efforts to begin collecting such information and making it easily accessible to the public.

3. Act to improve retention and recruitment of marginalized students

Despite decades of acknowledgement of the homogeneous demographics in STEM, there still remains a dearth of students belonging to underrepresented minority (URM) groups in numerous scientific fields. Evidence shows further that it has as much to do with retention as with recruitment, likely due to the harassment and hostility that marginalized people are subject to both in academia and industry, so it is not solely a “leaky pipeline” issue. One contributor to lack of retention of URM students, in an unfortunate feedback process, is likely the lack of URM students, postdocs, and faculty. It can be very difficult for a person to feel welcome and as though they belong in a community when they are the only one who looks like they do. This is especially true when experience has demonstrated that they are likely to be subject to harassment in one form or another.

A recommended method to counteract this underrepresentation is to examine the strategies implemented by institutions who have managed to increase representation, both at the student and faculty level. Whatever methods seem to work should be tested and evaluated at other institutions and implemented permanently if shown to be successful. For example, the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Program was designed to provide additional support to URM students and act as a stepping stone to pursuing a PhD and the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation Program is a group that assists institutions in modifying their undergraduate STEM education programs to be more effective. The LSAMP has been demonstrated to increase the rates at which URM students completed undergraduate coursework and pursued post-undergraduate education in STEM.

Another method, widely discussed in astronomy, is admissions criteria that effectively exclude people on the basis of race, gender, or disability (à la the GRE and physics GRE in astronomy). In theory, these criteria are included to find the “best” students who are likely to be well-prepared to be successful in graduate school and beyond. In practice, they become a screen that filters out many URM students without significantly improving the odds of selecting a good researcher. There is an exceptionally obvious way to address this problem: drop the GRE requirement.

It is also important to note that while many inquiries will claim that STEM fields should focus on increasing their diversity for the purpose of increased or improved scientific output, we should also be motivated to act on this topic because it is simply the right thing to do.

4. Be prepared and willing to adapt to rapid change

STEM fields are generating new advancements at a breakneck pace and these changes often have implications for the way science is done. For example, many STEM disciplines that have traditionally been solo enterprises are now becoming team-affairs as long distance communication becomes easier and more commonplace. In addition to the aforementioned M87 black hole image, the majority of scientific output is becoming increasingly dominated by teams, with the sizes of teams on physics papers having more than doubled in the last 45 years. “Big data” is also becoming increasingly relevant. The report notes that in 2017, “90% of the data in the world [had been] created in the past two years” (Figure 2). This is especially relevant to the field of astronomy as massive projects (like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) begin to come online, since conventional methods for handling data can’t accommodate the amount of information being generated.

Figure 2: The “Internet of Things”, a representation of both information and people’s ability to access it. The gist? The amount of data in the world is increasing at an exponential rate. Figure 3-1 in Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century.

To address these types of issues, STEM graduate programs must act to (1) on a regular basis, evaluate the topics being taught to their students and ensure that they are keeping up with the state of the profession, and (2) modify their curricula and requirements accordingly. Additionally, professional societies, such as the American Astronomical Society, should (3) facilitate discussions to help spread information between institutions and employers about how to incorporate new approaches.

5. Center the Graduate Students

Despite a researcher’s well-being being positively correlated with their ability to take in new information and generate quality scientific output, the personal experiences of many graduate students would indicate that little to no priority is placed on the well-being of students. Instead they are experiencing unprecedented stresses compared with previous generations of students, resulting in greater incidence of mental health problems.

There are a number of stressors contributing to the decreased overall health of graduate students in the U.S., but a couple prominent ones are the power differential between graduate students and advisors, social isolation, and sexual harassment. The latter point is serious enough that it has warranted its own specific report by NASEM.

One way to address the power differential is to administer anonymous climate surveys to give graduate students an opportunity to voice any concerns about graduate advising procedures. Another option would be ensuring that graduate students have access to a 3rd party advisor or mentor to turn to when experiencing difficulty with a primary advisor. Graduate programs are also advised to encourage students to participate in group activities, which can reduce feelings of isolation as well as inadequacy. Clear policies regarding sexual harassment, and reporting mechanisms, should be given by any educational institution.


Of course, no report on such a complicated topic can be perfect. A number of these recommendations rely on the receptivity to graduate student recommendations of people in positions of power, and many leaders are not (judging by all these strikes). All of them also require additional work, for example by a graduate admissions committee to determine how to use holistic admissions vs. a physics GRE score cutoff. Regardless, these areas are all important to think about, and efforts by people at all stages of academic career would undoubtedly improve the situation.

These are only a few of the recommendations given in the report, because at over 200 pages, it is a bit difficult to give a comprehensive summary. We here at Astrobites recommend taking a look, if you haven’t already, to see recommendations given at the institutional, department, faculty, and graduate student levels to see how you and/or your department might contribute to the betterment of STEM graduate education.

About Caitlin Doughty

Caitlin Doughty is a fifth year graduate student at New Mexico State University. They use cosmological simulations to study galaxy evolution during the epoch of reionization, with a focus on metal absorption in the intergalactic medium.

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1 Comment

  1. Hello Caitlin- thank you for taking the time to read through Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century. In addition to that report and the one you mention on addressing sexual harassment in academia, the National Academies recently released a report on the Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM:

    Additionally, to the point you raised about mental health, the National Academies has launched a study on mental health, substance use, and well-being in higher education. This will cover students in community college through doctoral programs, and it will be released in November 2020.

    Feel free to reach out if you have any questions!



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