Introductory graduate courses help ensure student success, promote inclusivity

FACULTY Q&A A lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the geosciences has prompted universities to ramp up recruitment efforts but they alone are not enough, say faculty at several universities that have also developed courses to make programs more inclusive and sustainable.

Professors Naomi Levin and Nathan Niemi of the University of Michigan Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Michele Cooke of the University of Massachusetts Department of Geosciences are among several authors who share Geoscience that first-year graduate courses developed by their universities have helped succeed in fostering inclusion.

The three collectively share information on their work: What is the hidden curriculum of graduate school? Graduate school, particularly in the sciences, is quite different from undergraduate education. There is a component of coursework, but much of graduate school functions as a combination of employment and apprenticeship, with graduate students typically working alongside a mentor or adviser to become an expert in the field. Some new graduate students have some insight into this transition, through family or friends; others, who attended a research university for undergraduate education, may have gained some insight through osmosis. But, for many graduate students, there is no preexisting knowledge of, or insight into, how graduate school works and how the expectations, practices and challenges are different from their undergraduate work.

As you say, universities do many things to help undergraduates succeed and yet often graduate students are expected to find their own way. Why is this flawed thinking and what are the consequences of not helping them navigate grad school? Inequities creep in when we don’t make the system transparent and explicit. Students who aren’t getting good mentoring may not know to access resources or they may not have good strategies for navigating adviser conflict. During times of stress, such as adviser conflict, students without good mentorship are likely to think that they don’t have what it takes to succeed and quit graduate school.

Please talk about the collaboration you have developed and your goals for it.

This collaboration started from a Twitter thread asking advice about starting up a course for new graduate students. Michele invited folks on that thread and others that she knew who were offering courses to join forces and compare what they were teaching. We learned a lot from each other. There hasn’t been a venue for sharing materials for graduate courses in geosciences but we are now starting to build that. We have a GeoGrad curriculum listserv and Slack channel with participants from across the United States and Canada. We look forward to growing a repository of resources with NAGT (National Association of Geoscience Teachers) that folks can use to strengthen their professional development programming for graduate students.

How have the courses the collaborating universities have offered impacted student success? One of us has been teaching a first-year graduate course for 10 years and has data to show that students are more successful in applying for external grants than they were 10 years ago. At Michigan, the start of teaching this class and a focus on cohort building coincides with increased retention rates among Ph.D. students, although monitoring these trends over longer periods of time will be important before drawing clear conclusions.

You say courses like the ones you and your colleagues teach level the field, and in particular help promote inclusion and equity. Please explain.

As stated above, these courses level the field and prompt equity by providing pathways to information and networks that are not otherwise accessible to all students. These courses also function to provide community among students where they can build a shared experience. This cohort building is critical at the start of graduate school, which can be isolating for many students, particularly for those from underrepresented backgrounds or identities.

You have some marks of success from the U-M program. Please briefly elaborate.

Students from minority groups and international students are especially vulnerable to poor mentorship, as they may also have a reduced sense of belonging within the predominantly white, male and able-bodied sciences and within the U.S. academic system. This program helps these students navigate our program and helps to reduce feelings of isolation. It helps build ties among students and between students and faculty members, beyond their primary adviser, which can be critical connections when the inevitable challenges of graduate school arise.

Your work focuses on geosciences but is there something here for other disciplines? Absolutely. One of our co-authors is a biologist, and in our discussions we saw that the challenges of graduate student onboarding and professional development within our disciplines were largely the same. Disciplinary differences can arise in the details of how we approach graduate student training and career preparation, but there are many similarities among graduate programs in the natural sciences that involve a combination of field, laboratory and computational work.

Other authors of the paper include: Mya Breitbart, College of Marine Science, University of South Florida; Emily Cooperdock, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Southern California; Christopher Bell, Department of Geological Sciences, Jackson School of Geosciences,, University of Texas; Liane Stevens, Department of Geology, Stephen F. Austin State University; and Karen Viskupic, Department of Geoscience, Boise State University.

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