Four essential elements that improve graduate training

grad training

Graduate school can be a stressful time for many reasons. Some of these reasons may include pressures to have experiments work, publish papers, and graduate within a certain time frame, as well as find a job after graduation. Focusing on some of these issues may, therefore, come at the expense of training. This situation may manifest in intense pressure to publish quickly and obtain independent funding, both important for academic career success.

The result can be neglect of elements necessary to develop “whole scientists,” such as training and mentoring, career development, learning research integrity best practices, as well as mental health and well-being. Although these elements are essential to training graduate students, they are not currently integrated into their education in a systematic fashion. This discrepancy may be due to variability of training styles among advisors within an institution, or programs that differ among institutions across the country. Lack of financial resources for some smaller institutions may also play a role in diminished access to and availability of appropriate training. Integrating these elements into graduate training would ensure necessary attention and accountability for these elements in graduate education.

Training and mentoring

While some institutions have made efforts to address these issues, it is necessary to demonstrate the efficacy of solutions meant to ensure the professional success of graduate students beyond their research training. This can be achieved by collecting nationwide institutional data on career tracking for PhDs, as well as data on particular aspects of graduate training and mentoring across institutions. Making these types of data openly available would enable sharing of best practices across U.S. institutions. This practice would also increase the accountability of advisors and institutions to provide more well-rounded training for their graduate students. If more details on the quality of training at a particular institution were also freely available, future generations of students could utilize this information to make decisions about where to pursue their graduate work.

By virtue of their role, advisors can be useful resources for the professional development of their graduate students. At the same time, advisors must be held accountable for training their graduate students. This may involve requiring a certain number of hours dedicated to training graduate students in skills that are not bench related, as well as discussing aspects of mental health and well-being that are necessary for them to succeed. Institutions should therefore also have programs to educate advisors on existing resources they can use to point graduate students in the right direction.

One way to ensure accountability of advisors in training their graduate students is to institute consequences linked to their own career success. It would be beneficial for accountability to extend across multiple levels of the institution, from the department to the institution as a whole. Outside factors can also influence the institutional level of accountability for training graduate students. One way to ensure that this training occurs is to link it to funding sources. As such, funding agencies should make their research dollars for laboratories contingent upon this training happening. This may occur via metrics designed by funding agencies to assess whether and how training and mentoring are taking place on an individual basis. On a larger scale, these metrics may become standards upon which funding is contingent on a national level across institutions. Another way to ensure advisor accountability for training graduate students is to link it to their ability to obtain tenure. Advisors would take such training more seriously if it affected their own ability to climb up the career ladder. Publishing transparent data on graduate student training and mentoring would also affect the reputation of the institution as a whole. Well-performing institutions would therefore attract top graduate students, who would thrive in the system, and their advisors’ careers would also advance.

Career development

Career development is also currently not integrated formally into graduate student training. While many institutions offer programs exposing graduate students to various career options, other tools such as an alumni network and career workshops (especially for institutions with less funding or fewer resources) are necessary to properly train graduate students to succeed in society. Institutions should therefore increase transparency around career outcomes for their PhDs by making these data openly available. Data transparency in career outcomes should occur both at the level of each individual advisor and the institution as a whole, with career data for graduates from each laboratory. These data should then be aggregated in a centralized website that allows for easy comparison of career outcomes for graduate students across U.S. institutions. While some institutions have thus far released such data, comparisons nationwide are still difficult to make.

In addition, resources to help graduate students explore career options, as well as access to an alumni network, should be available across all institutions. Centralizing this information into one database would also allow undergraduate students to consider graduate school options based on the types of careers that each institution prepares their graduates for, and which university is stronger in a particular area. For example, universities with close collaborations with biotech companies may be a better option for those wanting to go into industry after graduation, whereas others may focus more on basic science or education careers.

Research integrity

Research integrity training and positive research practices are being implemented by more institutions in the form of various mandatory workshops. However, research practices still vary widely between laboratories at the same institution, or between institutions. These disparities include ways in which advisors train students to perform experiments, ways in which they record and store this information, and ways in which they interpret data. Courses on best practices in this area, which could be implemented across institutions, would allow for greater standardization of the research system as a whole. In addition, statistical training implemented nationally would also help with publishing research of high integrity, as well as in reducing the number of publications with falsified data that may be retracted, endangering the future careers of graduate students who are relying on these data for their own projects.

Mental health and well-being

Mental health and well-being are also critical to ensure a successful experience for graduate students during their training, as well as helping in their transitions after graduation. As graduate school imposes many stresses on graduate students, every campus needs to ensure that mechanisms are in place to prioritize work-life balance and to enable access to mental health resources. This includes accessibility to counselors, as well as quick access to other resources for specific mental disorders. Although some institutions offer counseling services, we still have a long way to go in prioritizing mental health at the graduate education level. Advisors themselves may need access to mental health resources.

In conclusion, graduate training needs to incorporate several aspects of training that are less tangible than the number of publications and grants a laboratory produces. Doing so will ensure a more vibrant and productive research enterprise where everyone can thrive and will produce a workforce better able to tackle societal challenges.

This post represents the writer’s personal views and not the views of their employer, University of California.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Adriana Bankston is a Principal Legislative Analyst in the University of California (UC) Office of Federal Governmental Relations, where she serves as an advocate for UC with Congress, the Administration, and federal agencies. Prior to this position, Adriana was a Policy & Advocacy Fellow at The Society for Neuroscience (SfN), where she provided staff support for special and ongoing projects, including SfN’s annual lobby event and the society’s annual meeting. In addition to working at UC, Adriana also serves as Vice-President of Future of Research, and is Chief Outreach Officer at the Journal of Science Policy and Governance. Adriana obtained her PhD in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology from Emory University and a Bachelor’s in Biological Sciences from Clemson University.