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American research universities have embarked on wide-ranging efforts to improve Ph.D. training and make it more student-centered. One key theme has been to foster experiential learning, which challenges doctoral students to bring their skills in research and analysis to bear on practical problems. As Bonnie Keeler emphasized in a recent Inside Higher Ed essay on engaged scholarship, this orientation greatly appeals to a growing number of graduate students, who wish to direct their research toward the thorniest challenges of our time, such as climate mitigation and the fostering of racial equity.

Among the universities embracing this impulse, the most common approach has been to expand opportunities for internships beyond campus. Long a feature of Ph.D. training in engineering and some natural sciences, such short-term placements have become more common in the humanities and social sciences, often facilitated by university funding that allows Ph.D. students to become embedded in an NGO, community organization or public agency that cannot afford to provide stipends. The City University of New York Graduate Center with its Publics Lab, the University of Iowa with its Humanities for the Public Good program, the University of Chicago and my own institution, Duke University, are just four of the many institutions that have developed such internship programs.

Other notable innovations abound. Through the University of Michigan’s HistoryLab, Ph.D. students get the chance to work with external partners, like the United States Holocaust Museum, on team-based, public-facing projects—in this case to develop online teaching modules related to the museum’s collections. In the Boston University pharmacology Ph.D. program, students do one of their first-year research rotations at a pharmaceutical company, giving them early exposure to the distinctive characteristics of industry science. The University of Virginia’s Ph.D. Plus program offers students an array of professional development modules that complement core disciplinary study and research. At Duke, I oversee the Bass Connections program, which each year places approximately 100 Ph.D. students on interdisciplinary applied research teams that incorporate faculty, graduate and professional students, and undergraduates, often along with external partner organizations.

Students tend to give such experiential learning opportunities high marks. They cultivate important soft skills like project management, the ability to work constructively on a team and versatility in communicating to diverse audiences. They build a sense of community and foster intellectual self-confidence, especially when students have the chance to take on leadership roles and see completed projects have a tangible impact. In some cases, they reshape research agendas and re-energize students. In almost all cases, they assist with career discernment, sometimes confirming a prior interest in an academic path, sometimes widening horizons and at least occasionally leading directly to excellent postgraduation employment. For all these reasons, the faculty members directly involved in such programs sing their praises, too.

Throughout higher education, however, many professors view experiential learning for Ph.D. students with raised eyebrows, even if they accept its value for undergraduates and professional students. Doctoral supervisors worry about distractions from core disciplinary research, whether in the lab, the archive or out in the field. They want to make sure that Ph.D. students cultivate the deep expertise and publication record that scholarly hiring committees increasingly expect. Skeptical faculty members similarly fear that time spent on internships, professional development short courses or interdisciplinary research teams will compel students to take longer to complete their degrees.

Those concerns continue to shape faculty advising and departmental culture. As a result, they have limited the reach of experiential learning for Ph.D. students, especially outside highly applied fields that have a long track record of sending Ph.D. recipients to nonacademic employers.

Such faculty concerns are misplaced. For those doctoral students who embrace experiential learning, the time spent on such encounters remains a very modest fraction of their overall effort and can provide a salutary counterweight to the sometimes-isolating aspects of Ph.D. training. In addition, the students who take on an internship or join an applied interdisciplinary research team cultivate their capacity to collaborate and translate ideas, get better at time management, and gain experience with mentorship. Those skills are just as valuable for academic researchers and teachers as for Ph.D. holders working in firms, NGOs or government agencies.

Needed: More Information and Analysis

Nonetheless, we shouldn’t ignore trepidation among the professoriate. Instead, we should assess experiential learning for Ph.D. students in a much more structured way, testing whether the widespread uneasiness among faculty members has merit. Research universities and graduate faculty need much more information and analysis. We need a clearer inventory of programmatic experimentation—about experiential learning, to be sure, but also about efforts to diversify student cohorts, build more inclusive intellectual communities, improve the quality of advising and mentoring, train Ph.D. students how to teach effectively, and ensure that curricula remain up-to-date with intellectual currents and modes of communication. We also need comparative evaluation of the impact that these innovations have on student outcomes.

At Duke, we regularly survey students—and, where applicable, external “hosts”—immediately after they do experiential learning through a specific program like Bass Connections or university-funded internships. We also have begun to re-engage participants some years after those experiences, collecting reflections about the impact such experiences have had on their later trajectories. These efforts have underscored the benefits of experiential learning for many students across the divisions of knowledge.

Ideally, however, we would have a better grasp of the frequency of experiential learning among Ph.D. students in general (it often occurs outside the formal curriculum and without the knowledge of faculty advisers), as well as how such experiences shape intellectual growth and processes of career discernment. We should also be comparing students who take part in experiential learning to peers who don’t in terms of attrition, time to degree and later career outcomes.

Major funders of Ph.D. education, including federal agencies and leading foundations, can play a key role here. A great deal of the ferment in doctoral training has been catalyzed by the financial support they provide. Within the government, pivotal undertakings have included the National Institutes of Health’s BEST (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) initiative, the National Science Foundation’s INTERN program (which provides financial support for students already on NSF funding who wish to undertake a nonacademic internship), and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Next Generation grants, which encouraged new thinking about doctoral education in the humanities. Among foundations, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation have provided a series of large grants to universities piloting new directions in doctoral education.

Organizations that fund Ph.D. reform should sift through reports from grantees and conduct retrospective surveys to catalog reforms and assess impacts. The NIH BEST program has led the way in that regard, generating research, for example, that suggests that when biomedical Ph.D. students engage in extensive professional development activities, they neither take longer to obtain their degree than peers nor have fewer publications at graduation. Other funders should similarly step up.

Higher education’s umbrella organizations should engage, as well. The Council of Graduate Schools, in partnership with the Association of American Universities, already provides an extensive Ph.D. student exit survey used by dozens of universities. The current version, however, does not ask graduating students about internships or other encounters with experiential learning, which seems like a huge missed opportunity. (AAU has also launched a major initiative to spark further innovation in student-centered doctoral education, in partnership with eight pilot campuses, including Iowa, the University of Virginia, Boston University and Duke.) Organizations like the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine should look for complementary opportunities to evaluate how reforms influence completion rates, length of time in programs and career trajectories.

A consensus is growing among university administrators, external stakeholders and some faculty members that Ph.D. training needs fresh thinking, including the incorporation of more opportunities for experiential learning. That sentiment is matched by ongoing faculty skepticism about the impact of those new directions on the quality of doctoral education. Let’s bring more evidence to bear on such an important debate.

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