Universities should assess the value of experiential learning for PhDs (opinion)

American research universities have embarked on extensive efforts to improve the Ph.D. training and make it more student-centred. A key theme has been fostering experiential learning, which challenges PhD students to apply their research and analytical skills to practical problems. As Bonnie Keeler pointed out in a recent Inside Higher Education essay on engaged scholarship, this focus appeals to a growing number of graduate students, who want to direct their research toward the most vexing challenges of our time, such as climate mitigation and the promotion of racial equity .

Among universities that have embraced this impulse, the most common approach has been to expand internship opportunities beyond campus. Long a feature of the doctorate. training in engineering and some natural sciences, such short-term internships have become more common in the humanities and social sciences, often facilitated by university funding that allows for the Ph.D. students to integrate into an NGO, community organization or government agency that cannot afford to provide stipends. The City University of New York Graduate Center with its Publics Lab, the University of Iowa with its Humanities for the Public Good program, the University of Chicago and my own institution, Duke University, are just four of the many institutions that have developed such courses. programs.

Other notable innovations abound. Through the University of Michigan HistoryLab, Ph.D. students have the opportunity to work with external partners, such as the United States Holocaust Museum, on public-facing team projects, in this case to develop online teaching modules related to the museum’s collections. In the Ph.D. in Pharmacology at Boston University. program, students complete one of their first-year research internships at a pharmaceutical company, giving them early exposure to the distinctive characteristics of industry science. The Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. The Plus program offers students a range of professional development modules that complement core disciplinary study and research. At Duke, I oversee the Bass Connections program, which places about 100 doctoral students each year. students who are part of interdisciplinary applied research teams that include faculty, graduate and professional students, and undergraduate students, often with external partner organizations.

Students tend to give high marks to these experiential learning opportunities. They cultivate important soft skills such as project management, the ability to work constructively in teams, and versatility in communicating with diverse audiences. They create a sense of community and foster intellectual self-confidence, especially when students have the opportunity to take on leadership roles and see completed projects have a tangible impact. In some cases, they reshape research programs and re-energize students. In almost all cases, they aid in career discernment, sometimes confirming a previous interest in an academic path, sometimes broadening horizons, and at least occasionally leading directly to excellent post-graduation employment. For all these reasons, the faculty members directly involved in these programs also sing their praises.

Throughout higher education, however, many professors consider experiential learning for the doctorate. students with raised eyebrows, even though they accept its value for undergraduates and professional students. Doctoral supervisors worry about distractions from basic disciplinary research, whether in the laboratory, in the archives, or in the field. They want to make sure the Ph.D. students cultivate the in-depth expertise and publication record that university hiring committees increasingly expect. Skeptical faculty members also worry that time spent on internships, short professional development courses, or interdisciplinary research teams will force students to take longer to complete their studies.

These concerns continue to shape faculty guidance and departmental culture. As a result, they limited the scope of experiential learning for the Ph.D. students, especially outside of highly applied fields who have a long track record of sending Ph.D. beneficiaries to non-academic employers.

Such faculty concerns are misplaced. For PhD students who embrace experiential learning, the time spent in such encounters remains a very modest fraction of their overall effort and can provide a healthy counterweight to the sometimes isolating aspects of the PhD. training. Additionally, students who complete an internship or join an interdisciplinary applied research team cultivate their ability to collaborate and translate ideas, improve their time management, and gain experience with mentoring. These skills are just as valuable for academic researchers and teachers as they are for doctoral students. holders working in companies, NGOs or government agencies.

Needed: more information and analysis

Nevertheless, we should not ignore faculty apprehension. Instead, we should assess experiential learning for the Ph.D. students in a much more structured way, testing whether the widespread unease among faculty members has merit. Research universities and graduate professors need much more information and analysis. We need a clearer inventory of programmatic experimentation – on experiential learning, of course, but also on efforts to diversify student cohorts, create more inclusive intellectual communities, improve the quality of advice and mentoring, to train doctoral students. teach students to teach effectively and ensure that curricula stay current with intellectual currents and modes of communication. We also need a comparative assessment of the impact of these innovations on student outcomes.

At Duke, we routinely interview students – and, where appropriate, external “hosts” – immediately after they have learned through experiential learning through a specific program such as Bass Connections or university-funded internships. We also began to re-engage participants a few years after these experiences, collecting reflections on the impact these experiences had on their subsequent trajectories. These efforts have underscored the benefits of experiential learning for many students in all divisions of knowledge.

Ideally, however, we would have a better understanding of the frequency of experiential learning among PhDs. students in general (this often happens outside of the formal curriculum and unbeknownst to academic advisors), as well as how these experiences shape intellectual growth and career discernment processes. We should also compare students who participate in experiential learning to their peers who do not in terms of attrition, time to graduation, and later career outcomes.

Main funders of the doctorate. education, including federal agencies and major foundations, can play a key role here. Much of the excitement of doctoral education has been catalyzed by the financial support it provides. In government, central enterprises have included the National Institutes of Health’s BEST (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) initiative, the National Science Foundation’s INTERN program (which provides financial support to students already funded by the NSF who wish to undertake a non-academic internship), and the National Endowment for the Humanities Next Generation Fellowships, which have encouraged new thinking about doctoral education in the humanities. Among the foundations, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation have awarded a series of large grants to universities piloting new directions in doctoral education.

Organizations that fund the Ph.D. The reform should sift through beneficiary reports and conduct retrospective surveys to map reforms and assess impacts. The NIH BEST program has led the way in this regard, generating research, for example, that suggests that when the biomedical Ph.D. students engage in extensive professional development activities, take no longer to graduate than their peers, and have no fewer publications upon graduation. Other donors should also intervene.

Higher education umbrella organizations should also engage. The Council of Graduate Schools, in partnership with the Association of American Universities, already offers an in-depth doctorate. student exit survey used by dozens of universities. The current version, however, doesn’t ask graduate students about internships or other experiential learning encounters, which seems like a huge missed opportunity. (AAU has also launched a major initiative to spark new innovations in student-centered doctoral education, in partnership with eight pilot campuses, including Iowa, University of Virginia, Boston University, and Duke .) Organizations like the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine should seek complementary opportunities to assess how reforms affect completion rates, program length, and career trajectories.

A consensus is developing among university administrators, external stakeholders and some faculty members that the Ph.D. training requires fresh thinking, including incorporating more experiential learning opportunities. This feeling goes hand in hand with the permanent skepticism of the faculty as to the impact of these new orientations on the quality of doctoral training. Let’s bring more evidence to bear on such an important debate.

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