Leonard Cassuto

Professor at Fordham Univ

Outcome-Based Graduate School?

Full vitae diplomas horizontal

Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

Have you ever eaten in a restaurant that posts calorie counts on the menu? For me, that information makes a difference — I order more carefully when I see the numbers. Likewise, in designing a graduate-school curriculum, numbers can make a difference.

All too often, however, we don’t have those numbers. What if we gathered information about our students and then taught graduate school based on our findings? What do doctoral students want to learn when they arrive? What do they actually learn in our courses, colloquia, and labs? What do they do with what they learn? And, most important for professors, how can we use all of that information to shape their doctoral education?

Organizational experts call this "outcome-based" planning. We could also call it reverse engineering. Or common sense.

Sensible it may be, but it’s hardly common. That’s because graduate teaching in the arts and sciences has historically been viewed as a byproduct of faculty research. Humanities scholars often create courses based on the books we’re in the middle of writing. In the sciences, students work on experiments that are part of their professors’ research agendas. And few of us in any discipline pay much attention to how our doctoral students learn.

I doubt that was ever a very good approach, but indifference to the skills that graduate students actually might need in their careers is utterly out of place today. Graduate school is school, after all. We have to attend to what our students learn from us in graduate school — not just to what they can do for us while they’re there.

In this very difficult academic job market, it follows, then, that we need to think more carefully about what to teach in graduate programs.

Brandy Randall, associate dean of the College of Graduate and Interdisciplinary Studies at North Dakota State University, calls outcome-based education "the doctoral education of today." In this month’s column, I’ll focus on how outcome-based graduate study works in the sciences at North Dakota State. Next month I’ll continue the series with a spotlight on a similarly focused program in the humanities at a private institution, Lehigh University.

Case studies like these illustrate the promise of a flexible, responsive approach to doctoral training. They come at a time when more institutions are placing increased emphasis on good teaching, and when some academics are pushing for doctoral training to reflect the reality that a faculty job is just one possible career outcome for a Ph.D.

At North Dakota State, a combination of curricular and co-curricular changes has catalyzed a cultural shift in doctoral training. As dean of graduate studies, Randall has been helping graduate programs move to outcome-based planning. She also has started a parallel program that supports a new graduation requirement: All Ph.D.s now must make a short video explaining their dissertation. (That innovation deserves its own discussion; I’ll have more to say about it in a future column.)

Such reforms conceive of graduate training in a more integrated, public way,, which asks what we as faculty members can do for our students, not the other way around.

The curricular changes at North Dakota State take place mostly at the departmental level, with guidance from above. In the microbiology department, the outcome-based reforms are a case in point.

As a young doctoral program — it’s only eight years old — the microbiology department encountered problems large and small soon after its inception. In the early years, "there was no culture of information," said Peter Bergholz, an assistant professor and the department’s graduate-program coordinator. "Very few people were communicating what students should expect to do in graduate school. Students weren’t talking to their advisers about their futures."

Some urgent problems demanded immediate attention. "There were enormous disparities from lab to lab," he said, and too many students were failing their comprehensive exams.

Professors in the department decided to "to formalize what the program should be," Bergholz said. They wanted to create a "road map to success." So they talked with one another, and to their students, and eventually brought administrators into the conversation.

After almost two years, the department arrived at new goals for the graduate program, adopting them by vote in 2017. Some of the goals are the usual scholarly ones: knowledge and skills that students need to become microbiologists.

But other goals reflect the kind of work that most of the program’s Ph.D.s actually pursue — not tenure-track job but positions in the private sector at biotechnology companies. (Occasionally some of the department’s Ph.D.s do seek teaching jobs, but mostly not.)

The reforms involve streamlining and reworking coursework so that it more explicitly targets the skills and knowledge that microbiologists need to succeed as scientists. The content knowledge (that is, foundational microbiological facts and principles) is the focus of the first year, culminating in an oral comprehensive exam. The students start preparing for the doctoral-candidacy exam in their second year.

The "programmatic learning goals" — skills such as the ability to formulate scientific hypotheses and to design and carry out experiments to test them — are a continuing focus. The department measures student progress toward the programmatic goals annually. Students submit an electronic portfolio each year as part of a "Doctoral Portfolio" course. Every student has an individual research committee whose members assess the portfolio and meet with the student to talk about it. The committees also write assessment letters that include specific recommendations for how to make progress in the coming year.

Such individual attention allows students to plan their own ways forward. "We do our best to set students up with internships in their chosen field," Bergholz said, citing a student who recently worked at a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab and "returned with two publications’ worth of data" that led to a job offer from a private company. Another student in the program is working part time locally as a histotechnologist — that is, a specialist in preparing tissue samples for microscopy — toward her goal of running a research program in clinical diagnostics.

That sort of flexibility prevails throughout the program now. "With outcomes and an assessment plan," Bergholz said, "we can assign the course training we want." That training now centers on a newly designed first-year required course, "Foundations in Microbiology Research." It’s a team-taught series of modules that cover fundamental knowledge in the field as well as key research concepts.

"We’ve got a diverse range of research interests within the department," said Reid Hawkins, a second-year student, in an email. "Pretty much every professor teaches a part of it." There were assignments for each module, he explained, with lecture-based classes giving way to "more participation-based learning with presentations and journal club-style literature discussions."

The path has not been without potholes. The assessment of outcomes (both their appropriateness and whether students are meeting them) has proved "more work than people thought," Bergholz said. Some professors were also taken aback by the workload that accompanied the new "Foundations" course. "Everyone had some gripes" about this centerpiece course, said Bergholz, but the professors have worked together to smooth it out.

For their part, the students have thoroughly benefited. "They feel that they know what’s expected of them now," said Bergholz. Their performance has improved, and so has their morale.

Autumn Kraft, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the department, praised the changes. In concrete terms, she wrote in an email, the new program gave her "a focused path" to her comprehensive exam, the first of two that students take before they move to the dissertation. The first exam is content-based; the second is a defense of their dissertation proposal.

The program created a a peer-and-faculty mentoring plan to help students prepare for the second exam on their dissertation proposals. That exam helps shape the methodological basis for the student’s thesis. Hawkins, the second-year student, said in an email that the proposal exam pushes students to "a clear idea of our research plans and direction. It’s amazingly helpful to have this sort of long-term planning in our minds throughout our second year." Such planning is "super motivating," he said.

Motivation produces results. Even at this early stage in her research, Kraft said, she is making progress on her dissertation because she’s been asked to think ahead toward her research and not just to the next exam hurdle. The program’s new attention to "goal planning and committee feedback" allowed her, to "focus on my research" early on, and not just on fulfilling "explicit course/credit requirements." As a result, she was already working on her dissertation, "writing and all, even before I had passed my exams," she said. Kraft credits the program’s new structure for her rapid progress.

The transparency of the new requirements also helps counter the typical anxiety that many students experience in graduate school. ("Is there some expectation I’m not meeting? Am I somehow a fraud?") In other words, the new environment promotes not only better learning but also better mental health. And a better bottom line: Students are passing their exams and progressing through the program more quickly.

The goal of microbiology’s curricular reform, said Bergholz, was "to make sure we were developing scientists who could do well in a variety of fields." So far, it looks as if they are.

The new regime features "a lot more mentorship and guidance early on in the program," said Hawkins. Kraft described how she is "working closely with my committee and adviser to identify — once or twice a year — my long- and short-term goals and how I can take steps now to advance those goals."

In the "Doctoral Portfolio" course, Kraft and her cohort "review what we’ve done in progressing toward our doctorate and reaching the necessary milestones," and the students’ committees evaluate their work at the same time. "We then work together to set new goals and how I can continue to progress in the program. This method forces me to spend time explicitly laying out my goals, communicating them with my committee, and focusing on my future."

That sort of productive reflection by graduate students would be exemplary at any time, but it’s especially welcome at a time when academic jobs are scarce. Kraft and her peers are taking the initiative in their own professional development. What more could their teachers wish for?

Join the Conversation

3 Comments

Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.