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Reorient the educational environment to prioritize students as individuals with diverse educational and professional interests, needs, and challenges.

Problem Statement

Doctoral education in AAU universities is deeply intertwined with the university research and teaching enterprise. This provides unparalleled apprenticeship learning opportunities for doctoral students. However, the demands of the research enterprise, individual faculty member’s research goals, and institutional teaching needs often supersede students’ educational interests and needs. As a result, students may hide their professional ambitions or feel unable to broaden their education.

The Initiative aims to influence institution and department cultures at AAU universities so that they promote more student-centered educational environments for all doctoral students. Student-centered education systems are those which prioritize the needs and interests of graduate students, rather than focusing first and foremost on the interests of higher education institutions and the demands of the research enterprise. Our definition follows the recent National Academies report on Graduate Education for the 21st Century (NASEM, 2018).

Putting the interests and needs of graduate students at the center will entail change for individual advisors and for doctoral programs. At the program level, it requires rethinking the core doctoral curriculum and requirements. How can skill development—such as working effectively in teams, business acumen, and leadership competencies (NASEM, 2018, p. 112)—be integrated into the curriculum? What are strategies for permitting students the flexibility to add an internship or build skills via courses in other departments on campus? Doctoral mentoring and advising requires time and effort. For some individual faculty advisors, centering students’ interests and needs may result in changes in practice as students become active participants in setting their specific individual goals.

In the long run, reorienting doctoral education to a student-centered educational environment is a shift in culture. It may demand changes in funding and advising. In many cases, it may result in reallocating faculty time and energy. It may require rethinking measures of faculty success.

As a first step, student-centered educational environments support students’ diverse educational and professional goals. Specifically, this entails:

  • Recognize each student’s specific educational and professional interests, their needs, and their challenges.
  • Ensuring that every student’s educational goals are clear and that decisions about how students spend their time are based on their educational needs and goals, not solely on demand for research productivity.
  • Regular conversations between faculty advisors and students about students’ goals and plans. Tools such as regular advising committee meetings and an annually updated Individual Development Plan can be required.
  • Providing curricular flexibility and time for students to engage in professional development of their choosing. Ensuring that students are aware of the resources available on their campus.
  • Develop mechanisms for student feedback and input in departmental practices to ensure that student educational interests and needs are not superseded by other institutional priorities.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). Graduate STEM education for the 21st century.