Graduate education is inherently decentralized, as much of its success depends upon the close relationship between the student who aspires to a career in a discipline and his or her mentor who is one of its leading researchers or practitioners. This relationship is often described as part of an “apprenticeship model” of graduate education, which places much of the responsibility for creating the conditions for a student’s success on a single individual mentor or advisor. Presented in this booklet is a comprehensive approach that replaces the solo apprenticeship model with one that enhances and augments the student-mentor relationship with increased oversight, monitoring and support by the broader campus community. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) we have sought to establish a Graduate Community Convergence Initiative (GCCI) which seeks to provide the graduate student with support for academic development, along with social and emotional support, financial support, health care, safe housing, and career preparation. It is not only the responsibility of the faculty mentor, but also that of other university faculty and administrators to determine what can be done at the department, college, and university levels to ensure that each student has a quality experience. In short, it takes convergence of the entire graduate community to provide the intellectual, social, and administrative environment for doctoral students to achieve their full potential and successfully complete their degrees.
The pursuit of a doctoral degree can involve the establishment of very close bonds among peers and between students and faculty, but it can also be a very lonely and isolating experience. The GCCI experience enriches doctoral education at UMBC through strategic involvement of the many participants in the university community. Campus services that are often designed with undergraduates in mind are catalyzed to provide a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students at the university. This requires not merely offering to graduate students the same campus services that are offered to undergraduates, but tailoring appropriate services to the needs of an adult population focused on advanced research.
This booklet outlines the key actions that UMBC has taken to achieve an inclusive graduate community and describes those actions in a way that we hope will be applicable to all universities. It builds not only on the UMBC experience, but also on important research and publications on the topics of doctoral student attrition, retention and mentoring. Many of the issues surrounding graduate students’ attrition have been explored in recent articles and book-length publications, including: Barbara Lovitts’ Leaving the Ivory Tower (2001); the National Academy of Sciences’ Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend (1997); the Council of Graduate Schools’ Ph.D. Completion and Attrition: Policy, Numbers, Leadership, and Next Steps (2004); and Michael Nettles and Catherine Millett’s Three Magic Letters (2006). In 2004, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) launched the Ph.D. Completion Project, of which UMBC is a research partner, to assess a comprehensive set of intervention strategies at universities across the country to determine what practices are most effective, and to create a national data set that can be used for universities to benchmark their progress. Publications that document the activities and impact of this project are forthcoming.
During the 1970s and 1980s there was a concerted effort to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities pursuing undergraduate degrees in engineering. Special programs were designed and implemented to provide a welcoming and supportive environment. It was soon realized that all engineering students needed and benefited from these programs, and these best practices were institutionalized across many universities. At UMBC, we have applied this concept to graduate education broadly: the university must provide a welcoming and supportive environment for all graduate students in order to achieve an inclusive community for underrepresented groups. The extensive experience we have had with our nationally recognized undergraduate Meyerhoff Scholarship Program to increase diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) areas, and more recently with our Meyerhoff Graduate Fellowship Program in biomedical science and engineering, is being implemented campus wide through PROMISE: Maryland’s Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (funded by the National Science Foundation’s AGEP program). Recognizing that underrepresented minority graduate students will spend much of their time in laboratories with graduate students from across the U.S. and around the world, their success will be enhanced by including the whole lab in our AGEP activities.
The ten Lessons Learned presented in this booklet apply to all doctoral students, domestic and international, across all disciplines, with an emphasis on STEM fields in general, and on women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields in particular. The authors firmly believe that the outcomes of the recommendations presented here will lead to institutional transformation by affecting the nature and quality of the doctoral student/faculty relationship, the role of graduate education in the greater university community, and the culture of the broader educational process experienced by all doctoral students. Implementing this comprehensive collection of activities is already helping to create a convergent graduate community at UMBC. This publication is intended to provide a model of convergence that will prove successful at other universities.
Two National Challenges for Graduate Education
This publication addresses two major challenges now facing higher education in this country, and ultimately facing American society:
(1) the number of domestic students who obtain doctoral degrees and move into careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)—especially underrepresented minorities—African-Americans, Hispanics, and American-Indians—and women; and
(2) the drop-out rate of doctoral students, especially among women and people of color.
1. The Recruitment Challenge
Too few domestic students, minorities, and women are pursuing degrees and careers in STEM fields. To remain globally competitive, the U.S. must cultivate and develop a knowledge-based workforce by maximizing the educational potential of all its citizens. Students must be nurtured and developed into the future experts who can engage the highest wisdom in their respective fields and enhance the nation’s basic requirements for research, economic development, homeland security, innovation, leadership, understanding, and prosperity. In other words, the key to the future security of the United States is the cultivation of intellectual talent (CGS, 2005).
However, the reality in American research universities is that too few domestic students are attracted to doctoral programs in these fields, leaving a potential shortfall of skilled personnel in agencies and companies conducting research that requires some minimal aspect of national security. Many recent studies have found that the pipeline of scientists and engineers will be under-supplied, based on the current condition of math and science education (e.g., Quimbita, 1991; NAS, 2007). The Science and Engineering Indicators 2004 (NSF, 2004) documents a disturbing trend—a decline in the number of U.S. citizens training to become scientists and engineers, coupled with a growth in the number of jobs requiring science and engineering skills (p.9). Despite recent increases in doctorates awarded in science and engineering, the U.S. continues to experience a shortfall in faculty—documented by the growing number of science and engineering PhDs who have found non-academic, non-faculty employment. Over the past three decades, science and engineering PhDs were more likely to find employment outside the academy (NSF, 2004). One explanation for this faculty shortfall, of course, may be that PhDs are deliberately choosing non-academic employment because of more attractive career options and salary levels outside the academy.
But the decision of minority and women students not to go into the STEM fields is even more problematic. The same institutions that have struggled to attract the best domestic graduate students are even less able to attract women and people of color. There are several arguments for why this sector of the population should be employed at the highest levels of science and industry. One compelling reason can be called the “domino effect.” If there are few if any minorities and women employed as university faculty and senior research scientists in industry and government, subsequent generations of minority and women students will continue to be discouraged from entering those fields. Their absence will be perpetuated generation after generation because of the lack of role models. Such models are needed both for students planning their careers as well as for employers who may lack the experience of having on staff well-educated minority and women scientists and mathematicians, engineers, and technology experts. Without a diversity of ideas represented, science does not move forward at the pace needed to sustain global competitiveness.
The University of Maryland Baltimore County has been recognized as a leader in the national effort to attract domestic students generally, and underrepresented minorities and women specifically, into doctoral programs in the STEM fields. This publication addresses this first challenge by describing the steps that must be taken to create a welcoming and positive environment for underrepresented students, an environment that will attract and support doctoral students throughout their academic careers and position them to be successful in the job market.
2. The Retention Challenge
Minorities and women drop out of doctoral programs, nationally, at rates that should cause concern on every campus. Research shows that, historically, attrition from doctoral programs has been consistently higher among students from underrerepresented groups (summarized in CGS, 2004). But the problem of doctoral student dropout is not limited to minority and women students; this pattern is true for all doctoral students (Mitchell-Kernan, 2005). Barbara Lovitts (2001, p.1) estimates that as many as 50 percent of the students entering doctoral programs in U.S. institutions do not obtain the degree.
The inability of our nation’s universities to support to degree completion large numbers of graduate students has wide-ranging consequences for the future health of the academy. The waste of human and financial resources that results from the failure of higher education to address the problem of dropout cannot continue when those same resources are at such a premium. The impending retirement of the baby-boom generation of faculty and top scientists in the STEM fields poses a challenge to higher education and the greater society. Young scientists and researchers must replace these individuals; sufficient PhDs must be produced. This replacement is not currently being accomplished.
Lovitts (2001) effectively argues that the failure of large percentages of doctoral candidates to complete their degrees is primarily the result of institutional policies, procedures, and environment rather than the “fault” of students who begin doctoral studies; the high dropout rate of doctoral students, including but not limited to women and minorities, she argues, is due not primarily to the failures of individuals that need remediation but to institutional causes. Granted, some students enter graduate school academically unprepared, and these students need to be appropriately counseled and offered supportive academic services. But Lovitts’ data show that the primary contributors to students’ departure from doctoral study are problems in the culture of higher education that must be addressed with system, program, and policy changes. The evidence that she produces strongly points to a systematic pattern of institutional practices that sets up barriers, fails to nurture, discourages careful attention to individual needs of students, and perpetuates a culture of mystery and obfuscation.
This document addresses this second challenge by describing how research universities can change their institutional environment in ways that promote success among its doctoral students, paying particular attention to fostering degree completion of underrepresented minorities and women. The intended result is an education system that enables most students that enter doctoral programs— including those students that are vulnerable—to depart with degree in hand.
Lessons Learned and Shared
The ten Lessons Learned presented in this booklet cover three major areas of graduate education: cultivating new students, building a supportive community, and fostering professional development. Included are brief descriptions of programs, strategies, goals, and objectives that address these areas. In other words, they cover areas of recruitment, admissions, progressions, graduation, and student support services.
Lesson 1: Identify and cultivate the campus leadership—administrative, academic, and intellectual—to assist in developing initiatives that foster student retention and success.
Lesson 2: Work continually to gain faculty and staff engagement, involvement, and ownership in creating a campus atmosphere that fosters student success among an inclusive community of scholars.
Lesson 3: Work with graduate program admissions committees to establish appropriate recruitment strategies and admissions criteria.
Lesson 4: Ensure that every graduate program has in place a system that supports a successful mentoring relationship throughout the student’s progress.
Lesson 5: Have in place a mechanism for record-keeping and reporting to monitor graduate student and departmental successes and failures.
Lesson 6: Provide an extensive orientation to new graduate students and establish a support system to assist in the transition to the culture of doctoral education and research.
Lesson 7: Establish within each program a clearly articulated policy regarding financial support for doctoral students.
Lesson 8: Establish recognition and rewards for students and mentors as they progress over the academic hurdles.
Lesson 9: Recognize that underrepresented minority and women doctoral students are especially vulnerable, and put into place programs and services that foster engagement and minimize potential marginalization.
Lesson 10: Prepare students deliberately and explicitly for the next phase of their lives—life after graduate school.