Preparing Grad Students to Change the World

Students want to gain the skills and expertise that empower them to make a difference, yet most graduate programs fail to deliver the necessary training, argues Bonnie Keeler.

February 10, 2022
 
 
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Across the globe, faculty and admissions staff are reviewing application packages as the next wave of students seeks professional advancement via the academic ladder. I genuinely enjoy reading these essays. However, in recent years I have noted an increasing sense of urgency underlying students’ motivations for pursuing higher education. In this year’s applications, students described climate action as the existential crisis of their generation, they shared personal experiences with injustice or discrimination that motivated them to create a better world, and they detailed deep-seated commitments to social and environmental justice.

Myriad global crises appear to be changing the needs and desires of today’s students. Youth movements all around the world are inspiring students to take action to solve humanity’s most pressing challenges. In response, prospective students are looking to graduate programs to gain the skills and expertise that empower them to make a difference. Recent polling finds that over 80 percent of today’s college-aged students say it’s important that their work contributes to the greater good—significantly more than previous generations. And much of our graduate programs’ marketing to these students appeals to this yearning.

Yet most graduate programs will, in fact, fail to deliver the training that students desire and society desperately needs. Graduate training remains focused on preparing students to address disciplinary knowledge gaps valued in a shrinking pool of faculty positions. While we invite students to apply for degrees based on their motivations to change the world, once they arrive, we do not prepare them to be successful change makers.

Current students report being discouraged from doing applied work, cut off from mentors who represent affected communities and constituencies, and given few opportunities to engage in the messy, value-laden contexts that await them upon graduation. At the same time, students coming into graduate programs often lack sophisticated theories of power and are fairly naïve with respect to strategies for creating effective and enduring change.

This is why we must teach students how to navigate academe and activism, where personal values motivate the questions researchers choose to pursue and the types of knowledge products they create. Academic research on positionality has made it clear that our values influence and shape our research questions, methods and interpretations. If the old model of graduate education asked students to bury their values under a guise of objectivity, then next generation of graduate training should encourage researchers to be transparent and explicit about how their personal beliefs and values inform their research. We must allow students to bring their “why” to their work and articulate the connections between their identities and their research approaches.

Central to this goal is training students to be effective engaged scholars. Engaged scholars are proficient at mediating complex boundaries between science and society. They are empowered to follow lines of inquiry wherever they lead, even if it takes them far outside a disciplinary box. Engaged scholars develop curiosities about problems articulated both inside and outside the academy and are pragmatic and creative in researching solutions. A culture of engagement would force programs to attack those trends head-on through trainings, debate and difficult conversations. Many innovative graduate programs have already responded to this need and have developed specialized training in relationship management, navigating conflict and power differentials, negotiation across differences, and cultural competency. Cohort programs combine skill building with communities of like-minded scholars and nonacademic mentors who help students translate their skills to applied contexts and formulate their identities as scholar activists.

To stay competitive, institutions of higher education will face increasing pressure to develop programming that prioritizes interdisciplinarity and external engagement, especially around themes of racial justice, sustainable development and environmental change. A recent survey reaffirms this, with more than 50 percent of employers under the age of 40 noting that they would be “much more likely to consider” graduates with experiences emphasizing community and diversity, including “completion of a community-based or service-learning project” or “experience working in community settings with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures.” These opportunities are essential not only for securing employment for our graduates but also for ensuring universities fulfill their social contract to produce future leaders capable of addressing societal challenges. That’s why the Beyond the Academy network, a coalition of university leaders seeking to promote actionable, engaged scholarship on sustainability, is recommending that universities adopt a comprehensive model of engaged scholarship with the goal of building an institutionwide culture of engagement.

Building that culture will take time, especially because of the numerous barriers to reforming graduate education toward a paradigm of engagement. Most faculty members don’t identify as engaged scholars and are thus ill equipped to train students in engaged scholarship or help to broker relationships with external partners. Many remain skeptical of applied research due to concerns about objectivity, a loss of academic rigor and/or the “watering down” of graduate degrees. Engaged research is time-consuming, risky and may not lead to scholarship that academic institutions recognize and reward.

That’s why, if engagement reforms to graduate education are to be durable, they must be embedded within a university infrastructure that supports and facilitates external engagement. What might such a 360-degree engaged university look like? A forthcoming guidebook from the Beyond the Academy network suggests the following:

  • The engaged university provides students with seed grants to jump-start new engagements and access to university staff who are dedicated to outreach and maintenance of external relationships. For example, the University of Vermont hired a dedicated director of policy and partnerships whose responsibilities include connecting researchers with external partners and increasing the impact and relevance of university scholarship.
  • The engaged university recruits, retains and rewards faculty who are committed to applied research and collaborations with stakeholders—faculty with the skills, networks and experiences needed to mentor future leaders.
  • The engaged university offers digital badges and other credentialed skills courses for students. At Utah State University, an Excellence in Community Engagement badge will be available to students who complete 100 hours of community-engaged work and enroll in at least two community-engaged learning courses.
  • The engaged university offers guidelines for evaluating engaged scholarship, like at the University of Minnesota, where faculty can have their promotion and tenure dossiers evaluated based on the university’s criteria for engaged scholarship.
  • Finally, an engaged university invests in policy labs, capstone courses and other client-centered experiences that allow students to create knowledge products that decision makers—not just other academics—value. For instance, Cornell University’s NOISE project is a community-led research initiative that has produced videos, community surveys and guidebooks on effective engagement.

The most successful graduate programs will be those that align the motivations of students, the needs of society and the mission of the academy to create future leaders that will solve grand challenges. Universities that do not meet this challenge are unlikely to attract the best and brightest students and will become increasingly irrelevant to solving real-world problems. Most important, our need for future leaders to solve urgent challenges will go unmet.

Those who seek to reform graduate education need not look far afield for examples of bright spots. What we need next is to scale these examples to create cultures of engagement that empower students to succeed in creating a more just, inclusive and sustainable future. The good news is faculty and graduate program leaders do not need to wait for administrators to change course—start discussing effective and respectful engagement with your advisees, invite community members into your classes and stop perpetuating negative narratives about engaged, applied work being a career killer. As we recruit students to join our graduate programs this fall, let’s also advocate for the institutional and programmatic reforms that are needed to prepare them to make good on the aspirations of their admissions essays.

Bio

Bonnie Keeler is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and director of the Beyond the Academy network.

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