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Making PhD Education More Student-Centered

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AAU’S PhD Education Initiative Launches with Pilots at Eight Member Campuses

In the not-too-distant past, scholars who received PhDs were almost exclusively expected to take their degrees and pursue careers in academia. But that era is over, and advanced degree holders are increasingly sought after for jobs across multiple occupations and economic sectors. For instance, National Science Foundation data show that, of the 992,000 STEM PhDs in the United States in 2015, 48.3 percent had jobs in business or industry and 8.5 percent worked in federal, state, or local government. Additionally, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 2015 31.5 percent of humanities PhDs were employed in occupations outside the education sector.

But too often PhD programs at our nation’s universities haven’t caught up with the reality of the emerging economy. To maintain our competitive edge in today’s global society and to help solve the most pressing problems facing our country and world, academic leaders are studying and recommending ways to broaden career pathways for advanced degree holders. Recently, I served on a National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) committee that studied this issue and produced a report on Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century.

I have always believed AAU was in a strong position to implement recommendations made in the report. We represent the nation’s leading research universities, and our 60 member schools in the United States have awarded more than 200,000 graduate degrees – including more than 50,000 doctorates.

This is why AAU has launched our PhD Education Initiative . Earlier this month, we announced eight member campuses will participate in the pilot phase of this effort. We are actively partnering with these campuses to implement reforms at university-wide and departmental levels across more than 34 diverse natural science, social science, and arts and humanities programs. The reforms are designed to create student-centered educational environments in which all PhD students feel a sense of belonging in their departments and have the support necessary to achieve their desired educational and professional goals.

The ultimate end of these reforms is to make diverse PhD career pathways  visible, valued, and viable for all current and prospective students. A related goal of the initiative is to help campuses foster increased inclusion of students from diverse backgrounds. This aligns with a central theme of the NASEM report, which calls for institutional cultural change that puts individual students and their diverse goals, needs, and challenges at the center of the graduate education experience.

The AAU PhD Education Initiative has been made possible by funding from the Sloan and Charles Koch Foundations and its work is guided by an advisory board of national thought leaders on graduate education. Last month, we hosted a very productive meeting with the advisory board members here at AAU. This group will serve as a valuable sounding board for AAU by providing us with expert guidance on how we can best implement and advance the goals of the PhD initiative. We will also be looking for ongoing input from our member campuses and ways to engage PhD students themselves as we work to advance this important new initiative; we invite you to contact us with comments or suggestions.