Evolving PhD education: Trends in Europe and United States

in 2010, I was invited to speak at the European University Association – Council on Doctoral Education (EUA-CDE) conference in Berlin on a panel on doctoral education in U.S. and Europe. The 2010 report which included the update to the original Salzburg principles (2005) had just been released and these guided my comments comparing U.S. and European doctoral education.  The ten Salzburg principles included the following:

  • The core component of doctoral training is the advancement of knowledge through original research. At the same time it is recognized that doctoral training must increasingly meet the needs of an employment market that is wider than academia.
  • Embedding in institutional strategies and policies:universities as institutions need to assume responsibility for ensuring that the doctoral programmes and research training they offer are designed to meet new challenges and include appropriate professional career development opportunities.
  • The importance of diversity: the rich diversity of doctoral programmes in Europe – including joint doctorates – is a strength which has to be underpinned by quality and sound practice.
  • Doctoral candidates as early stage researchers: should be recognized as professionals – with commensurate rights – who make a key contribution to the creation of new knowledge.
  • The crucial role of supervision and assessment: in respect of individual doctoral candidates, arrangements for supervision and assessment should be based on a transparent contractual framework of shared responsibilities between doctoral candidates, supervisors and the institution (and where appropriate including other partners).
  • Achieving critical mass: Doctoral programmes should seek to achieve critical mass and should draw on different types of innovative practice being introduced in universities across Europe, bearing in mind that different solutions may be appropriate to different contexts and in particular across larger and smaller European countries. These range from graduate schools in major universities to international, national and regional collaboration between universities.
  • Duration: doctoral programmes should operate within an appropriate time duration (three to four years full- time as a rule).
  • The promotion of innovative structures: to meet the challenge of interdisciplinary training and the development of transferable skills.
  • Increasing mobility: Doctoral programmes should seek to offer geographical as well as interdisciplinary and intersectoral mobility and international collaboration within an integrated framework of cooperation between universities and other partners.
  • Ensuring appropriate funding: the development of quality doctoral programmes and the successful completion by doctoral candidates requires appropriate and sustainable funding

In identifying the Salzburg principles, the European University Association (EUA) signaled specific focus on doctoral education across the European universities and its critical components. The topics addressed in these principles are quite similar to components of doctoral education in the United States and issues for doctoral education needed for the 21st century. One of the significant results of the Salzburg principles was the development of Doctoral Colleges and the concept of graduate campuses at European Universities. Graduate Schools have long existed in the U.S., doctoral schools/colleges is a new concept but one that has helped facilitate change in doctoral education in Europe.

Conversations about doctoral education and doctoral education reform in Europe and U.S. have continued in the last 10 years.  Today there are more commonalities and convergence about doctoral education than throughout history. In 2018, the publication of two significant reports has provided a lens into the evolving PhD education: Graduate STEM education in the 21st century (NASEM, 2018) and Doctoral Education in Europe Today (EUA, 2019).

The report entitled Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century (2018) was published by the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM). The report included the identification of core competences for the Master’s and PhD degrees and recommendations for 21st century universities.  Although the report focuses on STEM programs, the competencies and recommendations apply more broadly to graduate education beyond STEM.  The core competencies for the ideal PhD degree fall into the following two broad categories: (a) Develop Scientific and Technological Literacy and Conduct Original Research and (b) Develop Leadership, Communication, and Professional Competencies

Recommendations for implementing quality graduate education in the 21st includes the following:

  • Rewarding Effective Teaching and Mentoring
  • National and Institutional Data on Students and Graduates
  • Ensuring Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Environments
  • Career Exploration and Preparation for Graduate Students
  • Structure of Doctoral Research Activities
  • Funding for Research on Graduate STEM Education
  • Stronger Support for Graduate Student Mental Health Services

“Importantly, this report also calls for a shift from the current system that focuses primarily on the needs of institutions of higher education and those of the research enterprise itself to one that is student centered, placing greater emphasis and focus on graduate students as individuals with diverse needs and challenges.” (2018, p.3)

During this same time period, the EUA-CDE conducted a survey of European universities about doctoral education throughout Europe.  The survey of doctoral education was based upon the Salzburg principles and designed to collect data in the following areas:

  • Organizational structures
  • Training and activities
  • Career development
  • Funding
  • Mobility
  • Time to completion
  • Supervision
  • Application and admission
  • Decision-making processes
  • Completion rate

The EUA-CDE doctoral education report includes data on the topics above and resulted in the identification of strategic priorities for European doctoral education moving forward.  The strategic priorities included the following:

  • Funding for doctoral students
  • Ethics and scholarly integrity
  • Attracting students from abroad
  • Career development
  • Gender equality
  • Open access/open science
  • Health/wellbeing of doctoral candidates
  • Increasing number of doctoral candidates
  • University-business cooperation
  • Societal engagement of doctoral candidates

As shown in the figure above, the top three strategic priorities for universities in Europe were funding for doctoral students, ethics and attracting students from abroad.  For more information about the findings, recommendations and suggested actions, see the report.

In addition to these specific doctoral education topics and priorities, universities in Europe and the U.S. continue to explore evolving issues facing the 21st century university.  Among these are focus on teaching/learning, diversity and equity, open access, innovation and entrepreneurship, technology, academic freedom and accessibility.  Changes in doctoral education are critical for the 21st century university and doctoral colleges/graduate schools can help lead the path forward.

References.

Doctoral education in Europe today: Approaches and institutional structures (2019).  European University Association

Graduate STEM education for the 21st century (2019).  National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM).

Salzburg Principles II Recommendations (2010).  European University Association (EUA).

It Depends

There are many times in our professional or personal lives when the answer to a variety of questions/queries is “it depends”.  This isn’t really surprising or uncommon. Frequently the answer/response falls somewhere along a continuum rather in a binary category.

One in particular comes to mind. It was apparent to those of us in the space that the facilitator wanted a definitive answer or at least an answer that was headed in one direction.  Among the audience, the answer we offered was “it depends”.  Although we were in agreement about the general direction of the conversation and goal of the workshop, there were too many unknowns or not-clearly-knowns that the response continued to be “it depends”.

In a graduate class I teach entitled “Preparing the Future Professoriate”, we take topics such as the description of an institution of higher education (e.g., college or university), definition of a faculty member, the role of faculty, mission of the university, funding for higher education, future direction of higher education, international higher education and much more. Obviously these topics are rather broad and there is no single definitive answer. “It depends”.

The fable of the elephant and blind “men” comes to mind here. How each of these individuals would describe the elephant “depends” upon the part of the elephant they touched.  The university is frequently described in this same manner. Those from a specific discipline or administrative home will offer their view based upon that discipline or administrative unit. The roles and responsibilities of a faculty member “depends” upon the academic discipline as well as institution type (e.g., “extramural funding is required”, “a book is the primary scholarly product”, “a 3-3 teaching load is standard”).  In other words, “it depends”.

Even topics of academic freedom and scholarly integrity, the hallmarks of higher education in my view, don’t always allow us to conclude with a definitive answer of yes or no.  Yes, we in higher education have academic freedom but questions are raised (e.g., is academic freedom an absolute, is academic freedom defined in various contexts and are their limits or conditions of academic freedom).  Around the world and even in the U.S., academic freedom is being challenged.  (Note: this is a topic for another blog post).

The complexity in which we live and work in higher education requires additional perspectives.  Many of the “grand challenges” and “wicked problems” require interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary efforts. As we work in these settings, there is no definitive answer from a single disciplinary perspective but rather an evolving academic journey informed by the multiple perspectives in the conversation.  The initial answer is “it depends” and requires interdisciplinary thinking.

As change continues in higher education and the 21st century university evolves, we must not only anticipate and expect but embrace “it depends”.

University mission statements

Some background before discussing mission statements….

Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) is a university-wide initiative offered by the Graduate School at Virginia Tech. Through the implementation of unique programs and opportunities, TGE pushes the boundaries of traditional disciplinary academic education and aims to significantly change how graduate students prepare to become the next generation of scientists, educators, scholars, engineers, artists, and career professionals.  One of these programs is the Future Professoriate graduate certificate.

Every semester for the past 15+ years, I’ve taught a graduate course entitled Preparing the Future Professoriate which is one of the required courses to earn the certificate. The purpose of the class is to provide graduate students the opportunity to learn about universities and especially the roles and responsibilities of faculty members.  Each semester 55+ master’s and doctoral students from our 8 different colleges (e.g., Engineering, Science, Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Business, Architecture and Urban Studies, Natural Resources and Environment, Agriculture and Life Sciences) enroll in the class.

One of the early assignments for the class is to find, share and blog about mission statements from two college or universities, U.S. or international. Over the years, I have found this assignment and the discussion that follows to be important in raising awareness about the various types of colleges and universities around the world and their different and yet sometimes similar mission statements. As a result, I have continued to reflect upon the purposes for mission statements, similarity in the words included in the mission statements, the audiences for mission statements, and changes that have occurred over time.  And in the past few years, I have used digital polling software (e.g. Mentimeter for interactive presentations) to share the results with the class for discussion.

The first question I ask for each to share three to four words that they found in the mission statements.  And the second question was for them to identify the type of institution they selected.  I was curious about the words contained in the mission statements and I wanted to learn how they would characterize the university they selected.

Below I’ve included word clouds from the mission statements as shared by the graduate students in the class for the past three semesters. (Please note that this is not intended as a scientific analysis but more of an observation). As you can see, there are some words like research, community, knowledge, service and more that seem to be found in many of the mission statements. Teaching (learning), diversity (access), and global also appear in many mission statements. None of these words are surprising.  But what is surprising is that the word “student” (students) doesn’t appear as often as one would think.  Student or learner (and teaching/learning) seems to be implied rather than directly mentioned. In the figures below, private universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges were in the mix.  If we were to sort by higher education institution type (e.g.private universities, liberal arts colleges, HBCUs, and community colleges) the key words in the mission statements would reflect more about the specific mission of the institution.

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to the word clouds for the mission statements, the second question was about the type of college or university selected by these students.  Two examples of the word clouds are shown below.  As you can see, public research universities were common among the universities selected – not surprising because VT is a public research university and perhaps is the most familiar and of interest to the graduate students.   I found it interesting that “PWI” was used as a popular description for many of the entries but likely this was related to the recent in class conversation about PWI (predominately white institution), HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and MSI (Minority serving institutions) institutions.

 

 

 

In January 2018, I was pleased to read a blog by Julian David Cortes-Sanchez entitled “What do universities want to be? A content analysis of mission and vision statements worldwide”.  Although this isn’t the only analysis completed on mission statements, I found his findings pertinent to the mission statement assignment for my graduate course.  Cortes-Sanchez did an analysis of mission and vision statements and found that the most frequently used terms were research, university, world, knowledge and education. These are very similar to the words identified through the class assignment; not surprisingly.  The terms of global or world seem to be newer addition to mission statements as universities strive for a more global presence.

Although there are some very similar words used in mission statements, close attention to the words used can provide a greater understanding of the unique mission of the institutions of higher education.

 

Eve of departure: Global Perspectives Program 2018

For nearly two decades now I have been actively engaged with higher education around the world (which provided the impetus for the establishment of the Global Perspectives Program).  I have watched with great interest the emergence of the  Bologna Process in Europe in 1999 and now the extension of the Bologna process for another 10 years.  Universities around the world have been and are challenged to become 21st century universities and this requires change.  There is no need to abandon the rich history of many universities, but change requires colleges and universities to rethink the who, how, where, when and even the why of higher education.

Universities around the world are grappling with a number of issues, many of which are local or national.  These often differ by country, institutional structure, political climate, financial constraints and more.  Recently, I have noticed that many European universities with the encouragement of the European University Association (EUA) are embracing some of the timely topics which are also lively topics within the United States.  And these will inform the discussion of the participants during our journey known as #GPPVT18.

This is year 13 for the VT Graduate School Future Professoriate: Global Perspectives program (GPP) in Switzerland. Thirteen years and it seems like yesterday when I flew to Zurich to initiate the program.  It is truly amazing how time passes so quickly and how much the program has evolved.

Although we visit the same countries (Switzerland, France, Italy) and the same universities in those countries, the same hotels and even some of the same restaurants, the experiences are different due to the GPP participants and the new places and people within the universities we visit. This year there are 13 graduate students traveling plus the GPP Graduate Assistant Abram and me. Abram was a participant last year and has switched roles for #GPPVT18. The participants come from 13 different degree programs located in five different colleges (4 from Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, 3 from Agriculture and Life Sciences, 3 from Engineering, 2 from Science).  The diversity of academic disciplines, lived experiences, social identities and perspectives is rich and serves to enhance the experience.  I look forward to meeting up with the group at Hotel St. Josef on Sunday, May 27th at 15.00 (3 pm).

Each year we identify a theme which focuses our attention on trends, challenges and issues facing higher education in Europe especially Switzerland.  This year’s theme is “Evolving European and U.S. higher education”.  The GPP’18 participants will explore four timely topic areas (teaching/learning, open access, inclusion/diversity and doctoral education) during the university visits, engage in group dialogue at the GPP summit in Riva San Vitale, and ultimately at the global seminar at the Embassy of Switzerland in Washington D.C. in June.  The exploration of these topics will be invigorating and the dialogue rich.

Check out the website (futureprof.global), read our blogs, and follow up on twitter (#gppvt18).

 

Effectiveness requires psychological safety: Musings for higher education

Team work is not a new concept but is likely taking on greater significance in the 21st century.  Working in teams is needed not only to understand and address the complexity of the issues facing society today but to recognize the importance of and to engage actively with diverse perspectives in the conversation. The key to success is the effectiveness of these teams as investigated by Google in their study of team effectiveness and described in the Guide: Understand Team Effectiveness in 2015.

Although it is important to have particularly knowledgable individuals on the team, the “who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions”.  The study revealed the following five key factors were important to successful and effective teams:

  • Psychological safety – feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable
  • Dependability – getting work done on time and meeting expectation
  • Structure and clarity – having clear goals and roles
  • Meaning of work – meaningfulness and personal
  • Impact of work – work matters and positive change

Google found that the psychological safety was the most important key factor and the foundation for the others.

Higher education can take lessons from these findings as we conduct much of our work in teams throughout the university (e.g., faculty research teams, task forces and committees, administrative units pursuing strategic goals, organizations and associations, and more).  In addition, the context of the 21st century university lends itself to an interactive and innovative learning environments at the core of our mission.

The “work” in higher education is often undertaken in teams or in collaborations with others. The “work” as demonstrated through the missions of the university (e.g., teaching, research and service) and seen in our outcomes (e.g., education/degrees, research findings) must be meaningful and relevant not only to the individual(s) but to society as well. Inasmuch as colleges and universities are preparing the next generations of professionals, it is important that we do so as global citizens who will work in an increasingly more collaborative contexts.  As I have argued before, the university (especially the 21st century university) is a social institution with responsibility to society and therefore our “work” must matter and be about positive change.

Following in the spirit of academic freedom and liberal education for students, U.S. universities tend to subscribe to principles that guide our words and actions (e.g., principles of community) and actively promote inclusion and diversity.  Universities must actively encourage inclusive pedagogy and ways in which to undertake the difficult dialogues.  Although challenged by the rhetoric and divisiveness that appears in society today, institutions of higher education must continue to situate themselves to provide a welcoming and affirming environment for all where differences are respected and valued. Further, colleges and universities have an obligation to create a “space” where all (faculty, staff, students and administrators) know that diverse perspectives are valued and feel safe about taking risks, being vulnerable and learning from failure.  Innovation and creativity depend upon this and our universities must become futurisktic in our thinking and our actions.

Higher education should build and sustain a strong sense of community and adopt a philosophy of “thriving” not simply surviving. To do so, requires leadership (throughout the university) that in words and actions demonstrates that it values diverse perspectives, actively encourages the sharing of differing views and welcomes individual voices to the table.

And of course, we must continue to value and respect independent work and scholarship and at the same time value collaboration and teamwork.  The relevance of universities today depends upon the meaningfulness of our “work” and how well and effectively we work individually and together in teams and through interdisciplinary and innovative collaborative environments.

Edward Bouchet: Changing U.S. higher education forever

Sometimes there are individuals who by the nature of being oneself and moving forward make history and influence change. One such individual is Edward A. Bouchet, PhD (1852-1918).

Higher education in the United States prior to the early 1800s was accessible primarily to white males of some social and financial privilege.  Women’s colleges (e.g., Oberlin, 1837) would be founded in the early19th century.  Two HBCUs (Cheyney University of Pennsylvania,1837; Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, 1854) were established for blacks before the American Civil War although the vast majority of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were established post civil-war.  The Land Grant university was developed in 1862 and shortly thereafter land grant universities were established throughout the United States including the addition of the 1890 HBCU institutions in the formerly segregated South.  As is evident above, very few individuals of color and women were provided access to seek higher education let alone an opportunity to earn a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) prior to the 1870s.  Edward A. Bouchet would change that history.

Edward A. Bbouchetouchet was born on September 15, 1852 in New Haven, Connecticut.  According to Dr. Curtis Patton, Edward Bouchet “became a man of exceptional intellectual and emotional courage, undaunted by the barriers of the day”.  He attended the Artisan Street Colored School and New Haven High School prior to entering the Hopkins School in 1868 where he studied the “classics, Latin, Greek and Greek history, geometry and algebra and graduated valedictorian”.  Bouchet entered Yale in 1870 to study physics and mathematics and graduated with highest honors in 1874.  Two years later, he earned a Ph.D. in physics from Yale becoming the first African American in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D.  He was one of the first African Americans to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa Honor society.

In 2005, Yale University and Howard University established the Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society (Bouchet Society) to recognize outstanding scholarly achievement and promotes diversity and excellence in doctoral education and the professoriate . As the co-founding chapters, Yale University and Howard University succeeded in honoring Dr. Bouchet’s pioneering contributions to doctoral education and established an ever increasing network of scholars and advocates for students who have been historically underrepresented in the professoriate. Since the founding, additional chapters have been established (Cornell University, Rutgers University, the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, the George Washington University, University of California, Los Angeles, University of California, San Diego, University of Miami, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Washington University, St. Louis) and many deserving emerging scholars and faculty have been inducted to membership. At Virginia Tech, we are honored to have been recently invited to develop a chapter and induct VT PhD candidates as members.  This year, VT President Timothy Sands delivered the keynote address at the 11th Annual Edward A. Bouchet Forum at Howard University and received the Legacy Award.

Edward Bouchet lived during a challenging time period for African Americans and he persevered. He expected much of himself and achieved even more. In addition to the Bouchet Graduate Honor society, his achievements and legacy are celebrated through numerous fellowships and awards such the Bouchet undergraduate fellowship at Yale, Promising Scholars fund, Bouchet Leadership award, American Physical Society Bouchet Award, and more.

Edward Bouchet served as a role model throughout his life and does so today. His legacy continues through the work of the Bouchet Society and especially the fellows selected annually by the chapters for their academic excellence, leadership, character, service and commitment to inclusion and diversity in the academy.  Challenges still exist today and there is much work to be done. The scholarship conducted by the Bouchet Fellows gives great value and meaning to society and their commitment to an inclusive academy helps continue the change that Bouchet started more than century ago.

Understanding stress in context to thrive in graduate school

Graduate school should be challenging but doesn’t need to be overly stressful. Stress can come in many forms. Many graduate students will likely say that they experience stress in graduate school and that’s just part of being a graduate student.  As a graduate dean, I hear this frequently and understand but it is time to change the paradigm from surviving to thriving.

A quick “google” search easily reveals a number of blogs, books and articles on tips for surviving even thriving in graduate school.  One example is the blog entitled Graduate Student Way and a recent post with advice from three PhD students.  It is worth a quick read to understand that one is not alone and the feelings are common among graduate students.  It also points out that warning signs of stress should not be ignored but understood and addressed.

Other examples include an article on 12 tips for surviving and surviving in grad school, a self-published book by David Nguyen which offers some basic tips for surviving graduate school and an archived site from University of Oregon called Survive Grad School that contains some valuable information.  Many Graduate Schools today offer resources and guidance for graduate student success on their websites, at orientations and workshops and through social media (e.g., UNL, UBC, GMU).

Lots of good advice and tips are available but I wish to encourage actions of a more personal nature that are often de-emphasized during graduate education. Here, I pull from the advice offered by University of California at Berkeley (UCB) regarding stress and graduate school.  Please read and consider the four primary points that are encouraged: make yourself a priority, take control of your life, avoid procrastination through time management, and look for social support.  These tend to go counter to the perceived “survival” nature required for graduate school and the toughness and persistence at all costs needed for success. Rather, I would argue that taking time for oneself is critical.  Although a graduate student can sometimes feel as if one doesn’t have control, it is important to exercise one’s agency and control over one’s life.  Further it is important to learn to say “no” and to establish some balance between graduate study and personal life. Of course, time management is crucial to academic progress and when there’s lots of work to do and deadlines, managing one’s time becomes even more important. As is a key component of the VT Graduate School’s experience, establishing a community (communities) and social networks for support are critical.  These are essential within the academic setting as well as beyond the university setting.

In my welcome remarks to incoming graduate students, I share four conditions for graduate study: academic quality, time to fiddle, a baggy idea of truth, and a sense of community.  I encourage the graduate students to reflect upon these throughout their graduate study and to realize that failure is a part of the learning process.  I also encourage them to work hard and to play as well.  To thrive in graduate school is to enjoy the challenge and to pursue opportunities as they present themselves.

One additional thought.  Keep a sense of humor because it helps to keep one grounded and attentive to the richness of the graduate experience.  Visit PhD comics.

Thriving in Graduate School

Thriving has not been the typical term used to describe the graduate education experience; rather “surviving” has been the term associated with earning a graduate degree. But now it is time to question this existing paradigm and move from surviving to thriving through the implementation of affirming, and yet still challenging, environments for advanced learning and research. High expectations and quality standards can be and should be maintained but the academic bullying (subtle or overt) and questionable professional behaviors must be eliminated.

Based upon their research of faculty conduct with graduate students, Braxton, Proper and Bayer (2011) derived a “normative structure” that includes “inviolable norms” and “admonitory norms”. The inviolable norms included disrespect for student efforts, misappropriation of student work, harassment of students, whistle-blowing suppression, and directed research malfeasance. The admonitory norms were identified as neglectful teaching, inadequate advising/mentoring, degradation of faculty colleagues, negligent thesis/dissertation advising, insufficient course structure, pedagogical narrowness, student assignment misallocation, and disregard for program.  As a result of their work, we can better understand these broad categories of faculty behavior and can provide “guidelines of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors” for graduate education.

To address and counter these “norms” found in graduate education, we need a cultural shift and commitment of faculty and departments as well as the graduate school to encourage strategies that foster an affirming environment for graduate education.  Examples might include (but are not limited to):

  1. Development of quality mentoring programs and recognition for faculty who engage in mentoring (e.g., outstanding mentor award, mentor of the month)
  2. Professional development programs for faculty and graduate students (e.g., Transformative Graduate Education) in the roles and responsibilities of a 21st century faculty member including teaching/learning, advising/mentoring, directing thesis/dissertation, lab management, and more.
  3. Graduate teaching assistantship training programs (e.g., GTA workshop, Academy for GTA Excellence) and recognition for graduate teaching excellence (e.g., GTA awards)
  4. Emphasis upon inclusion and diversity especially inclusive pedagogy and affirming diverse environments. Workshops and education to understand unconscious biases and eliminating micro-aggressions (see Tool_Recognizing_Microaggressions)
  5. Building graduate community within and beyond departmental/college boundaries; Graduate Schools can play a significant role and assume responsibility here as well.
  6. Utilization of holistic admissions process and ongoing inclusive retention strategies
  7. Annual progress review with honest constructive feedback; equitable appeal process
  8. Establishment of an Office of the Graduate Student Ombudsperson
  9. Establishment of an honor code, ethics requirement, graduate student handbooks and expectations for graduate study
  10. Engage and work closely with graduate students in creating positive learning environments
  11. Communicate directly and work closely with faculty to create academic environments in which graduate students can thrive
  12. Celebrate achievements and graduate student success

Thriving not surviving.  Please join me in the conversation.

Expectations for Graduate Education: Virginia Tech Graduate School

The Virginia Tech Graduate School is committed to providing a “rich learning environment” for graduate students and a quality graduate education experience.  To do so requires clear communication about policy and procedures and especially the expectations for graduate study.  The VT Graduate School’s commitment is articulated in the “Expectations for Graduate Education at Virginia Tech.”

Originally created by graduate students and faculty in 2003, the expectations document was revised in 2011 and highlights the “vital elements of 21st-century graduate education, including ethics, civility, professional and academic development, teaching/learning, and inclusive community”.  The document describes the graduate environment promoted at VT and articulates expectations for graduate students, faculty, departments (programs, schools) and the Graduate School.  The document also includes a section on mentoring and a section on complaints and the appeals process.  A summary of the expectations are shared in a printable format as well.

The expectations are discussed in relation to major components of graduate education: progress toward degree, research and ethics, teaching and training, professional development, assistantships and financial aid, and community.  Although written in 2011, the expectations still provide relevant guidelines for graduate education today. Examples include the following:

  • Clear communication about departmental and Graduate School policy and procedures
  • Regular communication between faculty advisor and student
  • Understand and adhere to responsible conduct of research and scholarly endeavors
  • Discuss and agree upon requirements and expectation for authorship
  • Ensure that graduate programs conform to the highest academic standards and remain relevant through appropriate curriculum
  • Adherence to professional codes of conduct, student conduct and honor codes
  • Provide appropriate teacher training and professional development opportunities
  • Provide annual feedback to students and provide opportunity for students to correct academic deficiencies
  • Ensure fair and equitable treatment of students
  • Provide a safe and collegial work environment; respect work-life balance and working conditions
  • Provide pertinent resources and mentoring for degree completion
While the information seems fairly straightforward and common sense, it is valuable to have the expectations clearly identified and shared with the graduate students and faculty in order to provide the foundation for a quality graduate education experience at the beginning of one’s graduate study and to remind faculty, departments and the Graduate School of our collective responsibility for quality graduate education. The goal of graduate education should be to provide the academic context(s) and mentoring that allows graduate students to demonstrate their ability to achieve, their desire to succeed and their commitment to future professional contributions.
Unfortunately, academic bullying and questionable professional behavior are still prevalent in higher education.  And as I mentioned in the previous blog entitled Academic Bullying and graduate education, these must be eliminated from graduate education and replaced with a challenging yet affirming academic environment.

Academic bullying and graduate education

A recent study by Gentry and Whitely (2014) entitled “Bullying in Graduate School: Its Nature and Effects” concluded that although graduate students did experience ‘aggressive and exclusionary’ behaviors associated with traditional definition of bullying they tended to reject the use of “bullying” to describe their experiences. (see The Qualitative Report 2014 Volume 19, Article 71, 1-18 http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR19/gentry71.pdf).  The behaviors were experienced were as more “covert and indirect” rather than typical images of playground bullying.  These behaviors could also be described under the umbrella of micro aggressions, incivilities, and acts based upon unconscious bias.  To emphasize the importance of understanding these behaviors, how they manifest  themselves in graduate school, and the significant impact that they can have on graduate students, I have written about and will continue to use the terminology of “academic bullying“.

Academic bullying manifests itself in many different ways and can include intimidation, humiliation, belittlement, embarrassment and undermining one’s authority.  Academic bullying also includes behaviors or comments that indicate disregard of one’s concerns, ignoring contributions, minimize one’s efforts in the eyes of colleagues, and other means of exclusion or withholding information.  Expectations of unreasonable workload, limiting earned vacation and prohibiting graduate student’s own agency for professional choices and personal decision could also be inappropriate.  As is well known, comments or behaviors that are sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic and more are unacceptable and can fall under the umbrella of academic bullying and should not be tolerated.  Academic bullying occurs throughout the academic or professional space; in the classroom, in meetings, at conferences, in the laboratory setting, in face-to-face interactions, and of course through email and social media.

Essentially, the behaviors and actions described above would be considered unprofessional and could be considered as “misconduct”. In their book entitled Professors Behaving Badly: Faculty Misconduct in Graduate Education, the authors (Braxton, Proper & Bayer, 2011) provide some more specific examples based upon their study including the following (more discussion in a later blog post):

Professors behaving badly

• Publishing an article without a graduate student among the authors who made significant contributions to the study.

• Prohibiting graduate students from expressions differing viewpoints.

• Requiring additional hours of work per week regularly beyond that of the assistantship and on nights, weekends and vacation times.

While it is important to understand what constitutes academic bullying, it is just as important to understand the context for graduate education and what would not be considered as academic bullying.  Graduate school should be challenging and is sometimes difficult and frustrating.  Graduate school should not be demoralizing although students might occasionally question their ability to perform.  Graduate students need to understand the conditions for graduate study set by the Graduate School and the department or faculty.  Obviously there are policies and procedures that need to be followed.  Academic freedom is valued and respected for graduate students and faculty.  Freedom of speech is a right but must be exercised in an atmosphere of respect for others. Disagreements are likely and emotions will be expressed but must be civil.  To read about the VT Graduate School’s description of the graduate environment, link here.

Communication and clarity are key to success in graduate school.  The next blog will focus on expectations for graduate study and ways in which we can move the conversation about graduate school from surviving to thriving.