Over the past several years, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has been part of the Association of American Universities’ PhD Education Initiative. The initiative, in which eight universities participated, was designed to foster student-centered doctoral education, with special emphasis on enhancing career diversity and data transparency. As part of the initiative, we partnered with two STEM departments and two humanities departments, as well as representatives from a variety of college- and campus-level units.
We took a broad approach to assessing doctoral education on campus and in the four partner departments, exploring a range of topics including mentoring, career preparation, climate and inclusion, program structure and academic milestones, student wellness, and more. Beginning in Fall 2019 and continuing through last year, the initiative also provided an especially valuable opportunity to pay attention to how pandemic-related disruptions impacted graduate student experiences.
We learned a lot through the initiative, and we want to share five particularly important lessons we learned about how to make doctoral education more student-centered:
Create space for reflection and analysis
The most fundamental lesson learned was a seemingly simple one: graduate programs should regularly revisit their goals and, when needed, realign their structure to meet them.
We used the first year and a half of the initiative to create time and space for department leaders to 1) identify the goals and current practices of their graduate programs, and 2) look for gaps between those goals and practices. This opportunity to ask not only “Why do we do what we do?” but also “Does the what match the why?” was key to most of the transformation that happened during the initiative.
One department, for example, noticed that while the goals of the department around career outcomes had shifted to preparing students for a wide range of careers, many program milestones still assumed that most students would end up in research faculty careers. Another recognized that their goal of building a diverse and innovative student body was at odds with a somewhat outdated first-year curriculum. Noticing these gaps between what they did and why they did it allowed departments to make adjustments that better fit their goals.
Consider academic requirements in the context of students’ lives
Academic requirements are key to graduate education, providing structure and consistency in students learning. But they can also have a significant (and sometimes negative) impact on students’ wellness and sense of belonging.
The pandemic helped one department see clearly how intertwined their academic expectations and students’ sense of community really were. Prior to the pandemic, the department held regular seminars that brought the whole department together, giving graduate students an opportunity to connect with and learn informally from one another in the moments before and after the presentations. When the pandemic required moving the presentations to Zoom, those moments of informal interaction didn’t happen. Through focus groups and analysis during the Initiative, the department realized that first- and second-year students were isolated, anxious, and struggling more with academic milestones because they lacked opportunities to ask more advanced colleagues for advice.
Other departments recognized and acted on the ways that their preliminary and qualifying exam processes were significant sources of stress, prompting them to explore ways of mitigating stress without losing structure and consistency.
Revisit preliminary and qualifying exam processes regularly
After undertaking the reflection and analysis described above, many of the departments found that their preliminary and qualifying exam processes were particularly characterized by gaps between goals and practice.
These exams carry a lot of weight in most doctoral programs, for both students and faculty. As key moments for evaluation and advancement, exams are significant sources of stress for students and also play a major role in many debates around “rigor.”
At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the format and timing of exams are largely under program control. Three of the four departments involved made some kind of changes to their exam process during the period of the initiative. Crucially, each of those changes was quite different from one another, responding to conditions and needs in a particular department.
The department that wanted to better align their milestones with broader career outcomes added a professional portfolio to the exam format options, while also developing guidelines for faculty around exam administration to standardize the exam experience for students.
Another department noticed that they had changed their coursework requirements to better meet the needs of a shifting student population but had not revisited the prelim process in light of those changes. Mismatches between coursework and exams were causing increased student stress and indicated a need to explore revisions to post-coursework milestones.
Another department kept the exam itself mostly the same but incorporated a preparatory step in which students researched and reflected on potential career paths opened up by their subfield and planned dissertation research.
Foster an orientation toward change
Doctoral education in many disciplines tends to be shaped by centuries-long traditions and governed by decades-old policies there is rarely enough time to assess and update. These two dynamics together create an environment where change can be difficult and sometimes contentious.
We found that taking steps to foster an orientation toward change greatly contributed to departments’ ability to pursue new approaches to student-centered doctoral education. Four of the main strategies used as part of the AAU PhD Education Initiative at UIUC were:
- Data-Informed Change: Using data to both determine and motivate proposed changes made it easier to arrive at a shared understanding of problems and engage in change-oriented conversations about them. All four departments, for example, undertook some combination of focus groups, town halls, and climate surveys to gather information and assess experiences of graduate education in their programs. Several departments also analyzed retention and attrition trends in relation to student demographics, finding concerning patterns at odds with their programs’ diversity and inclusion goals. As part of the initiative, the Graduate College also overhauled its public dashboard, as well as data tools available to programs.
- Ranked-Choice Voting: Making change an expectation rather than a possibility shifted the conversation to what kinds of change would best align with the program’s goals. One department undertook its most significant curriculum change in many years during the AAU PhD Education Initiative, using ranked-choice voting among faculty to determine the alterations. Rather than frame the decision as being between the status quo and a change, the leadership presented three different possible options, all of which varied from the current curriculum in different ways to meet different aims.
- Cross-Pollination: One strategy for fostering an orientation to change happened in the structure of the initiative itself on our campus. Much of the work to shape and run graduate programs happens entirely within departments. That makes sense (much of graduate education is driven by the particularities of different disciplines) but can encourage isolation on the part of department leaders and a tendency to continue to do what has always been done. As part of the Initiative, we invited leadership from similar (but not identical) departments to regularly meet and discuss their challenges and opportunities together. This conversation served to cross-pollinate ideas and strategies, and it made it possible for programs to adapt successful strategies from others without having to come up with every idea from scratch on their own.
- Involve Students in the Process: Including students in efforts to reflect on and analyze graduate education in a program is crucial. Student representatives contributed in a collaborative and consultative manner in those processes as part of the initiative, and their perspectives were valuable for determining priorities. Student voices were also included via focus groups, surveys, and recommendations from graduate student organizations. Programs should consider the scale of expectations for student participants, including from an equity perspective (e.g., the “service tax”). When students’ contributions extend beyond consultation to include significant administrative duties, programs should determine how they will compensate and recognize those efforts.
Institutional structures have significant impact on student-centered doctoral education
Through conversation and analysis as part of the Initiative, both department and campus leaders identified decentralization as a defining feature of the University. This decentralization operates across scales throughout the university: authority over graduate education is delegated to colleges, to departments, to programs, and to individual faculty and research groups.
This decentralization can enable innovation and experimentation, but it can also result in drastic variation in the experiences of individual graduate students. Program to program, policies and cultures vary dramatically. And even within a single program, students working with different faculty can have extremely different experiences of mentoring, with often little program-level oversight or even knowledge.
Relatedly, Initiative participants noted that incentives for faculty can encourage practices at odds with the goal of student-centered doctoral education. Research-related incentives structures (external funder expectations, university tenure requirements, etc.) can prioritize productivity over process-related concerns. And, perhaps most significantly, the lack of emphasis on graduate student mentoring in the university tenure process makes it challenging to encourage or enforce effective mentoring. Additionally, participants identified a need for a way to recognize in the tenure process faculty who mentor or otherwise support graduate students who are not their advisees, work that disproportionately falls on junior faculty from groups historically excluded from academia.