Insights and Research on Graduate Education
Volume 7, Number 4Oct 2018
Critical Steps toward Modernizing Graduate STEM Education

Alan I. Leshner, CEO Emeritus, American Association for the Advancement of Science; and
Layne Scherer, Program Officer,
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

There has been a great amount of discussion and substantial agreement about the need to modernize U.S. graduate education generally and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in particular. As an example, there have been over 20 reports since the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s major report in 1995[1] that highlighted how the US system was even then lagging behind trends in student interests and career plans and the ways STEM fields are evolving. Those reports and ensuing conversations have had significantly overlapping messages, and there has been some – but not much – progress made.

Cultural Change: Action Required at All Levels

The reasons for the apparent inertia are unclear, but it is likely that it results from the need for some fundamental culture change in academia before any real transformation will occur. To be specific, graduate education must become much more student-centered and concerned more with meeting the needs and interests of students, rather than being focused so heavily on faculty research productivity in the form of papers published and grants received. This is not to say that research productivity should not still be very important, but, rather, that more focus must be given to the quality of teaching, mentoring, and advising. Moreover, since the majority of new Ph.D.’s will not pursue an academic research career, the stigma long associated with other career choices must be eliminated. Students need to be provided opportunities for broad career exploration as a part of their graduate training. Departments and their faculty should be evaluated on and rewarded for their contributions to student-centered education and the attention they pay to their students’ career interests, as well as on the more usual research productivity measures.

Implementing culture and behavioral changes is extremely difficult and requires institutional leadership and coordinated action from all stakeholders in the system, including university administrators, faculty, professional societies, leaders in industry and the non-profit sector, and the state and local government funders of research and education. We recently were centrally involved in a National Academies committee (CGS President Suzanne Ortega was a member as well) whose report on graduate STEM education[2] spelled out what an ideal, modern STEM graduate education would be. It also presented an action plan for how that ideal might be achieved, with concrete actions recommended for each stakeholder.

Core Competencies for STEM Graduate Students

Central to achieving the proposed ideal STEM graduate education is the concept of “core competencies” – the skills and knowledge base that are the essence of what it means to be a master’s or doctoral graduate, and the competencies that all students must achieve, no matter what their career goals or interests might be. These core competencies would be the main focus of graduate education, with other experiences and coursework supplementing them. At the master’s level, the National Academies’ committee depended heavily on the Council of Graduate Schools’ Alignment Framework for the Master’s Degree[3], focusing on disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge, relevant professional competencies, foundational and transferrable skills, and research.  Examples of core competencies at the doctoral level include, as one might expect, scientific and technological literacy and the ability to do original research. Doctoral level core competencies would also include a set of leadership, communication and professional skills, including an understanding of the norms and values of the STEM enterprise and the ability to communicate both to one’s peers and to the broader public community. Adopting the notion of core competencies would enable each program to consider what of its course requirements are actually essential and what might relegate to optional or supplemental course status.

Removing Barriers, Creating Incentives, and Seeking a Lasting Impact

What makes achieving all of this so difficult is that the incentive system that drives so much of academic culture and faculty behavior is currently misaligned with the goals of this action plan. Criteria for promotion and tenure typically are too heavily weighted toward research productivity in the form of publications in prestigious journals and research grants received from federal agencies, with way too little emphasis given to the quality of graduate student teaching and mentoring.  Our National Academies committee did not recommend any specific weighting but argued that the balance between research and education/mentorship must be readjusted. The additional emphasis on mentoring and advising would also signal the importance of these kinds of activities to the broad research community, since they are so central to developing the next generation of STEM leaders. It also would be a mechanism for more appropriately rewarding those faculty who have consistently dedicated significant attention to the development and growth of graduate students. This would be a radical change for many institutions, and it will only come about with clear commitment from every level of the university, including the president, provost, graduate dean and other administrative leaders, and including all levels of the faculty, particularly department heads and promotion and tenure committees.

To make it even harder, academic incentives are not solely under the control of academic institutions, since the state and federal agencies that fund academic research and training also often employ granting criteria that are biased against the goals of the ideal education, even for purported education and training grants, and these criteria significantly influence faculty behavior. To help modernize the system, funding agencies will need to realign their award criteria, particularly for training grants and those supporting graduate students in other ways, to give more emphasis to the quality of teaching and mentoring. Doing so is in their interest since making these changes can only increase the probability of our having a vibrant future STEM workforce and ensuring that is within their missions as well as supporting high quality research projects.

Realigning the incentives alone, of course, will not solve all the problems with graduate education, even though it would help accelerate the processes of change. The National Academies report argues that academic faculties also need to review and modify curricula, thesis and dissertation requirements, and other capstone projects to ensure alignment with the ways relevant work is conducted today, such as working in teams and in increasingly interdisciplinary settings. Graduate deans and other academic leaders should verify that every graduate program they offer provides for the core competences discussed above and that their students have achieved them before receiving their degrees. Graduate schools and departments need to monitor and facilitate productive relationships between graduate students and their mentors. Departments should adopt and evaluate strategies to accelerate achieving diversity in their faculty and students and improving equity and inclusion.

The kinds of changes being recommended will not be easy, and they will incur some real costs, both financial and in terms of human resources. But, it’s the right thing to do for the sake of the entire STEM enterprise and the nation and now is the right time to make these changes.

[1] Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, and National Academy of Engineering (1995), Reshaping the graduate education of scientists and engineers. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

[2] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (2018) . (A.I. Leshner& L. Scherer, Eds.). Washington, D.C.: National academies Press. doi:

[3] Council of Graduate Schools. (n.d.). The Alignment Framework for the Master's Degree. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from’s-degree