In my role as Vice President and Dean for Graduate School at Virginia Tech, I have thought a lot about transforming graduate education in general and more specifically about preparation in an academic area as well as preparation for career(s) after degree completion. The graduate dean should think about these things and create opportunities and programs for graduate students to enhance their preparation for success in the career options they can pursue following degree completion. Academic area mentioned above does not mean simply discipline or department but rather encompassing departments, programs and includes multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary areas of study. And careers refer to academic and careers outside academe and the fact that graduates should expect a lifetime of career changes.
Many of us in higher education often make reference to the “I” educated or the “T” educated individuals. The “I” has been used to refer to depth in the discipline and the “T” offering breadth beyond the depth within the discipline. Breadth can be understood in terms of going beyond one’s discipline moving toward multi or interdisciplinary thinking. Breadth can also be interpreted as moving toward a more holistic education that of a well rounded person. Although applicable to graduate education, this breadth has been associated more commonly within the undergraduate experience; education in a discipline plus educational opportunities beyond one’s major(s).
I have reflected on the “I” and the “T” in the context of and advocating for interdisciplinary graduate education. In a blog post entitled “interdisciplinary thinking, Pi and adaptive innovators”, I introduced the Pi symbol as a visual representation of interdisciplinary thinking and adaptive innovators.
Pi is primarily understood as a mathematical constant or a Greek letter. Much has been written about Pi in those contexts but I use it here as a symbol of and metaphor for interdisciplinarity. As shown above, the symbol Pi includes three lines: two vertical lines and one line across the top of the two vertical lines. Beyond the straight line, each of these lines has an additional feature at one end.
I find the visual compelling in its simplicity. Interdisciplinary thinking and education requires depth in one of more disciplines of study and the ability to integrate across the disciplines. There must be a firm foundation (wider base) grounded in the knowledge within a discipline and a strong connection (anchor, hook) into the academic field(s) of study. The horizontal line provides the link between the academic pillars. Specifically, this line represents the link that facilitates meaningful connections between (among) the academic areas of study, integrates knowledge and understanding across the disciplines and extends beyond the pillars of the disciplines to situate knowledge and understanding in the societal context.
Societal context is important. Academic leaders need to acknowledge and confirm the underlying principle and purpose of higher education “to educate” but we must also be mindful of the need to implement programs that incorporate the knowledge, skills and abilities for success in the work place. Reports from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) support and encourage interdisciplinary graduate education. Two additional reports from Educational Testing Services (ETS) and Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) articulate clearly the responsibility of Graduate Schools to prepare graduates for the professoriate and careers outside academe.
In our ongoing efforts to transform graduate education (and higher education), academic leaders should continue to support “I” and “T” education and we must definitely encourage more “Pi”-educated individuals. The universities for the 21st century need scholars who have the depth, breadth, and integrated interdisciplinary perspectives to address the complex problems facing us in 21st century.