Highest Education

Our country must appreciate the value of postdoctoral education and do more to ensure that it flourishes, writes David Silbersweig.

December 15, 2016
 
 
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If higher education is underappreciated and under threat, then highest education -- postdoctoral fellowships -- may be even more so. Some observers have suggested that too many people are pursuing such advanced training without clearly related direction or the potential for job placements. But while some aspects of postdoctoral education may need adjusting, our country must appreciate the value of highest education and do more to ensure that it flourishes.

When I refer to highest education, I mean those most advanced studies in any field in higher education -- be it medieval history, international relations, heart failure cardiology, polymer nanoscience, biological anthropology, systems engineering, 19th-century French literature or ancient Taoism. This is not an elitist concept but rather a description and acknowledgment of the highest levels of training, specialization and educational attainment in any area of human endeavor. I use the term here to draw attention to an important -- and vulnerable -- element at the apex of our education system.

After obtaining highest education in various fields, people go on to faculty careers or other professions, continuing to learn and sharing the benefits of what they know and how they think. And those benefits are great, in the academy and beyond, given the experience and perspective accrued along the way. People who have obtained the highest education contribute to leadership in myriad fields and to the critical reasoning and discourse vital for a civil society.

That is not to say that advanced training is necessary for brilliant insights, breakthroughs and leadership. History is replete with individuals who have made extraordinary contributions and have great wisdom without formal education -- let alone higher education. And many people with advanced degrees have proceeded successfully without postdoctoral-level training. But postgraduate education allows for the larger-scale sharing, transfer and development of deep expertise in an academic or professional field. And in this age of interdisciplinary scholarship, deep doesn’t necessarily mean narrow -- such advanced studies may confer a broader, integrated perspective.

Most forms and levels of education rely, at their best, upon the close interaction between student and teacher. In highest education, the interaction between advanced students and highly expert faculty enhances the work of both, and through research or qualitative studies, advances human understanding. Their discoveries occur at the edge of what is known and what is unknown, and can involve specific observations and overarching or paradigm-shifting insights. Either way, areas of human endeavor move ahead, hopefully guided by ethical considerations, sometimes informing policy or creating whole new fields and industries.

Indeed, people with advanced, specialized training fill an important niche in the discovery, innovation and application of new knowledge. They also serve as stewards of acquired expertise and perspective within and across disciplines and fields. Those with postdocs in engineering can be highly sought after by Silicon Valley, Wall Street or academe. In medicine, they can lead top academic medical centers and help patients suffering with complex conditions. In the economic and social sciences, they can serve in a myriad of fields in industry, government or academe. In the arts and humanities, they can manage museums, orchestras and other nonprofit organizations. Some develop their own niches.

Not all postdocs succeed in their chosen areas, as with any area of human endeavor. That may be due to a range of issues unrelated to their training, or to work force needs and capacities that do not always match their aspirations. Thus, advanced training can be a risky investment, though if pursued for its inherent value, quite worthwhile -- and often in unanticipated ways. It can give students highly developed, transferable thinking skills that allow them to excel in a wide range of careers as well as to respond to emerging new needs for expertise -- for example, in specific sects of Islam or biomaterials science.

Today’s Challenges

Preparing people for successful trajectories at the fellowship or postdoc level presents considerable challenges, especially in a resource-constrained environment. It requires focusing explicit attention on the specific elements of education at this level.

But highest education often doesn’t get the attention and resources it requires and deserves. Because programs are usually smaller, they do not always receive dedicated budgetary support. Funding may be precarious, depending upon faculty grants, training grants or individual grants for students from the National Science Foundation and other organizations. A decrease in support from the National Institutes of Health, and the gap between tuition and rising institutional costs, puts particular pressure on fellowship programs.

Universities are increasingly aware of the need to secure sustainable sources of support, whether philanthropic or from other institutional sources, but options are limited. As a result, the right-sizing of programs is crucial. The pursuit of a fellowship because a student doesn’t know what else he or she wants to do, or because a faculty position is not available, should be discouraged. Overly prolonged or multiple fellowships are not helpful, either, unless there is continued advancement and specialized, multidisciplinary training. And while success on the job market should not be the sole criterion for academic pursuits, the overproduction of advanced trainees in a given field can be counterproductive.

Fellowships and fellows themselves face certain challenges. Salaries for advanced trainees are frequently inadequate, considering the nature of the work and the life stage of the trainees. (Families are often being started). Postdocs and fellows can be exploited by faculty members and others in their departments. They may feel pressured into doing supportive work without adequate mentorship or growth. Finally, many postdocs can be relatively isolated in laboratories or divisions of departments, without a common voice, experience or infrastructure.

New Programs

To address such challenges, many research universities are developing or enhancing programs and policies specifically aimed at the fellowship level of education. They are taking the model from that of ad-hoc apprenticeships to one of carefully considered didactic and experiential learning, optimized for this stage of educational development.

Institutions are also creating structured, social, peer-oriented activities for postdocs that such advanced students often miss. The number of trainees in any one area may be small, but the number of trainees at similar levels in related or unrelated areas is often large. Bringing people together has enormous benefits for morale, networking and transdisciplinary collaboration.

An example of such developments can be found at Dartmouth College, which offers a broad array of resources, initiatives, events and services for fellows. A new School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, with its own budget, provides an administrative home for postdocs and graduate students across departments, and integrates with Dartmouth’s graduate professional schools. Some of its many benefits include:

  • It synthesizes goals and policies across programs and disciplines and reduces administrative red tape without interfering with the core instruction and mentorship that happens within academic departments.
  • It facilitates interdisciplinary study and helps to make sure elements of the scholar’s trajectory do not fall between departmental cracks.
  • It provides workshops and instruction in relevant areas, such as ethics, writing, online courses, correspondence, grant preparation, CV preparation, and academic and nonacademic job searches. It also offers courses in interviewing, communication and teaching skills.
  • It facilitates an independent development plan based upon an individual’s interests and skills, to help define and achieve long-term career goals. Similarly, it facilitates research-performance progress reports that faculty members fill out for trainees.
  • It connects fellows with cross-cutting academic initiatives addressing pressing societal and global problems.
  • It provides a central place where postdocs in various fields can congregate.

In addition, the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning prepares fellows to incorporate contemporary, experiential educational methods and provides resources to share best practices in processes such as teaching-assistant orientation. It offers individual and group consultations in instructional design, science education outreach and other areas, and it sponsors a teaching series as well as career fairs and travel grants. Other workshops address collaborative learning techniques, teaching philosophy, syllabus design, digital learning, diversity in the classroom, learning styles and academic computing.

Postdocs themselves run the Dartmouth Postdoctoral Association, which organizes and provides talks, social events, research days, career development resources, networking and job information sessions. It also addresses specific issues facing postdocs, with links to the National Postdoctoral Association, which addresses postdoc concerns on the national level. Postdocs have access to Dartmouth athletic, health and wellness programs, as well as other campus facilities and services, and are being incorporated into new housing communities.

Another recent Dartmouth initiative to enhance the interdisciplinary intellectual community is the creation of the Society of Fellows. It provides three years of support for outstanding postdocs, who come together with senior faculty fellows and visiting fellows. The rising scholars pursue their own research while serving as lecturers or teachers and mentors in the departments and programs they join. They participate in society-sponsored symposia and events and receive pedagogical training, in addition to the resources offered to all postdoctoral fellows across the various schools. Dartmouth also offers Academic Diversity Fellowships for underrepresented minority postdocs or those studying areas underrepresented in academe.

These examples from Dartmouth illustrate the trend at leading universities and provide an evolving set of mutually enhancing programmatic innovations that specifically and effectively address the needs of today’s postdoctoral fellows. They also provide explicit mechanisms for beneficial integration with graduate and undergraduate programs and students. Carefully constructed integration need not preclude a strong focus on undergraduate education as well.

Other universities should develop programs along these lines. Some additional administrative infrastructure is needed to adequately support such developments, but need not be excessive. Core faculty leadership and staff are important for oversight, coordination, facilitation and advancement of cross-departmental and cross-school initiatives. More educational research is also needed to provide evidence-based guidelines and best practices for such program development. This will help to optimize impact and to demonstrate value.

Drawing upon educational experiences as a student, trainee, faculty member and educational administrator across a number of fields and levels, I have found that it is possible to create advanced programs that are transdisciplinary yet deep, organized yet creative, and rigorous yet caring. Our students and society deserve no less. With current economic pressures and attacks on facts, evidence and expertise, it is even more imperative to do so.

Moreover, as postdoctoral highest education starts to get the attention it deserves, it doesn’t need to detract attention or resources from other types of education, which are equally important. Educational options are not mutually exclusive and can build upon and complement each other. We must aim for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, to have access to all educational offerings, based on their needs, preferences, situation and dreams. That includes K-12, special, community, vocational, liberal arts, STEM and other forms of education.

But let us not forget the value of highest education for those who seek it and for our society. Everyone benefits from the specialists it produces across all domains of human inquiry and endeavor.

Bio

David Silbersweig is chairman of the department of psychiatry and co-director of the Institute for the Neurosciences at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He is also Stanley Cobb Professor of Psychiatry and an academic dean at Harvard Medical School.

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