Buddy Can You Spare...Support for a Graduate Student?

David Mogk
published Oct 8, 2012

The past two years I've had the privilege of working with some of the best and brightest young geoscientists in the country through our NSF-REU project on Precambrian Rocks of Yellowstone National Park. We selected these students based on diversity of geologic interests (petrology, geochemistry, structural geology, sedimentology), types of institution (liberal arts college, comprehensive and research I universities), geographic distribution (coast to coast), and academic preparation (students had completed most of the geoscience "core" courses"). Most importantly, these students were selected on the basis of their motivation to learn geology, curiosity about the Earth system, and confidence in their abilities as expressed in letters of support from their academic advisors. Our research positions were highly competitive, and we could only select 12 participants out of a pool of over 100 applicants in each of our two years. These students were all well-prepared, enthusiastic, energetic, and ready to rock'n'roll. Simply stated, we got to work with the best of the best.

All of these students have now graduated with undergraduate degrees from their home institutions. In tracking their continued professional development many have applied and been accepted to graduate school, some have elected to do year-long service projects, some have gone on to pursue careers in industry or have had internships with the USGS. This is all good news. However, there is a disturbing undercurrent: although many of the students have been accepted to graduate programs at prestigious research institutions, a number of students have had to defer the start of their program, or were ultimately told they could not enroll, because research funding was not available to support their graduate work.

This is an extraordinary conundrum. At a time when there is a clear need for a technologically trained work force, there simply is not sufficient funding to provide the advanced training that is needed to prepare the workforce for the 21st century. For the geosciences, this encompasses a wide array of career options to address the grand challenges facing society in diverse fields such as geohazards, natural resources, environmental remediation, and increasingly fields such as public policy and environmental law. There is no question that the United States relies on science and technology as economic drivers. The National Academy of Sciences raised a clarion call to direct attention to the urgency of this situation in their 2007 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. President Obama has called for 100,000 more teachers in the STEM disciplines in the next decade to help prepare and recruit students for careers in the STEM disciplines. NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education has supported a myriad of projects and programs to recruit and train students in the STEM disciplines, and NSF's REU Program has long supported a wide variety of research opportunities for students through research sites and supplements to standard research grants. So, what are we to do with these cohorts of highly qualified students who are all dressed up with no place to go?

Who should assume responsibility for providing the resources for advanced (graduate) training? The federal government? NSF has an excellent, highly prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program, and it is customary for PIs of standard research grants to include funding for graduate or post-doctoral training. But, these grants are either too few, not a reliable source of funding (considering proposal success rates), and typically individual research grants have only a 2-3 year time span. These programs do not support the sustained, programmatic training programs that are needed to systemically train the large number of graduate students that are needed. In addition, reduced grant awards from NSF have led many investigators to conclude that they get more research 'bang for their buck' by supporting post-docs rather than graduate students (who are relatively inefficient as they learn the trade, and also come with extra charges of tuition and fees). One could also look to the mission and regulatory federal agencies (USGS, NASA, EPA, DOE...), but in the face of huge federal deficits it is unlikely that any substantial support for graduate students will be forthcoming. Is this a responsibility of the states? Not likely. The National Science Board has recently decried the alarming erosion of state support for research universities in their recent report Diminishing Funding and Rising Expectations: Trends and Challenges for Public Research Institutions. Is it the responsibility of industry? One would hope that they would see this issue through the lens of enlightened self interest, and invest in the future labor pool. Unfortunately, the history of corporate support for graduate students has been spotty at best, and has largely tracked with the vagaries of the marketplace (e.g. the spot price of oil; see AGI's Workforce Database).

In my own department (which currently has 40 MS and 20 PhD candidates), we had over 100 applications to our graduate program last year. We were only able to accept 14 new students, and only 7 of these received Teaching Assistant aid; the other students may have direct support as Research Assistants, or might have been accepted without the promise of financial aid. Even if we could provide Teaching Assistantships and tuition waivers for all qualified students, there is still the need for the underlying support for their research programs: travel and support for field campaigns, costs related to sample preparation (e.g. thin sections), analyses (beam time), procurement of equipment and computer software, opportunities to attend national meetings, short courses and workshops....These are real costs, and faculty are increasingly hard pressed to provide the resources needed to support graduate research. Student loans could possibly cover the costs of tuition and fees (as is the case in other liberal arts and professional degree programs). But this still does not cover the costs related to graduate student research projects. So, graduate students in my own department, as is the case with my recent REU students, are in a real bind as they have few options to look for funding to support their basic research.

Something has to give: federal or state governments, the private sector, or a combination of sponsors must step up and take responsibility for support of graduate training in the STEM disciplines. Beyond tuition waivers and TA assignments, a stable source of funding is really needed to support graduate research, if we believe that a research experience is central to the training of future geoscientists. We are in danger of wasting an incredible human resource if adequate support is not forthcoming to support graduate research, and in so doing, we are jeopardizing our country's economic health and security.

As a closing thought, I wonder if the current model for the Master's degree is still viable. The MS degree is really the professional degree in the geosciences, and it is fair to ask: Is a research project, as represented by a traditional thesis project still needed for students who are on a career path directed towards either industry or public service? Yes we want our graduate students to be adept in the methods of geoscience, including a solid knowledge and skill base. But perhaps we could better address these goals, and serve our MS students, by reconsidering what constitutes a training program that can better meet the needs of the modern technical workforce. I'm not recommending non-thesis Masters of Arts (MA) degrees of an earlier generation that commonly were based mostly on coursework and were perceived as being "non-rigorous". But there may be effective alternatives. Consider the training grant programs supported by the NIH in which graduate students participate in a rotation between a number of labs to acquire needed skills (e.g. 4 different lab rotations in 2 years). Perhaps we would better serve our MS students by providing opportunities to acquire knowledge and technical skills, that are allied with a given career path. By spending focused, immersive work in labs with a particular focus (e.g. towards oil and gas exploration, mineral resources, water resources, geohazards) graduate students could earn a certification of mastery in their chosen professional career path. An independent program could be set up for each student to pursue their own career goals by doing intensive work in 3 or 4 allied fields to provide a more directed path towards future employment. And such a program could also emphasize other professional development in areas required for the workplace beyond technical expertise: e.g. intensive training in communication (writing, public speaking, graphical representation), quantitative skills, use of technology (GIS, other computer modeling programs, analytical or other measuring instruments), and integrated data analysis. Perhaps such a course of study would help to validate the MS degree as the "professional degree" (perhaps with some sort of national certification), and the PhD degree would continue to be the pathway towards an academic career, including truly novel research outcomes that are expected of the PhD.

I'm not sure what the answer is. But we simply must find a better way to support the continuing professional development of our best young students in the STEM disciplines.

Posted after the original submission in response to Kim Kastens'  reply.

Graph of projected employment trends for different sectors in the geosciences for 2008-2018. This graph is from the American Geological Institute's Geoscience Workforce Program Reports, accessed at: https://www.agiweb.org/workforce/reports.html 

 




Buddy Can You Spare...Support for a Graduate Student? -- Discussion  

Hi Dave,

I think you have opened up discussion of a really important problem, for the field and for the country, and I appreciate your bringing up basic assumptions for examination. Two thoughts:

First, what do we know about how many MS and PhD geoscience graduates the economy needs or can absorb? The implication of your post is that more are needed than the current funding model is supporting. Do we actually know this? How would we measure this? I suppose one indicator would be whether MS and PhD geo graduates been having an easy time finding appropriate jobs after graduation in recent years.

It is arguable that if the nation produced more geoscience graduates than are needed in traditional jobs, they would find ways to use their systems thinking ability, problem solving ability, and collaborative skills to accomplish important and rewards things in non-traditional career paths. But if we go this route, we should be clear to ourselves as the gatekeepers to the profession and to students that that's what we have in mind, and that collectively there are more geo-grads being produced than will fit into the traditional jobs in academia and industry. This has been happening in journalism education--more talented and excellently-trained graduates are being produced than the traditional job market can absorb--and the results are patchy. Some are indeed using their talents and education to accomplish amazing things in new media and other invented-from-scratch ventures, but others are marginally employed and struggling to pay back student loans for an education that didn't noticeably move them towards where they wanted to be.

Secondly, about the necessity/utility of a research project in masters' programs: In thinking through the value of such a research experience, an important relatively new factor in the mix is that so many students are now having an excellent research experience during their undergraduate years, through REU's and/or senior theses. For students who aren't aiming towards a primarily research career, maybe this is enough to give them a feel for what geoscience research is all about, especially if it is accompanied by some purposefully-fostered metacognitive reflection on the nature of the science. Then graduates could be considered employable with a BS rather than an MS, or the MS time could be used to foster a broader range of skills, as you describe in your post above. I taught for a semester at Monash University in Australia in the late 1980's, and that was the system there at the time: students did 3 years of undergrad coursework in geology to get the basic degree, and then could stay on for a optional 4th year, a research year, to get an honors degree. The honors undergrad degree, with substantial research project no masters degree, was welcomed in industry. There were other problems with that model (no liberal arts courses), but it was a more economical model for the student and the nation than expecting everyone who wants to work in geo to get at least a masters degree.

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This post was editted by Arafat Akinlabi on Jul, 2013
Hi Kim, thanks for the responses. First, regarding the number of geoscientists that the economy needs has been addressed by the AGI Workforce Reprots [see: https://www.agiweb.org/workforce/reports.html]. I've appended one of their graphs to the original blog post. It appears that in the decade 2008-2018 there is expected growth of 10-31% in geoscience jobs in a variety of sectors. Of course we have to be careful here. Geoscientists of a certain age will recall that the oil and gas companies were hiring full tilt as we were earning our graduate degrees, and all was rosy on the job horizon up until about 1982 when there were wholesale layoffs, the oil and gas cohorts largely migrated to jobs like environmental consulting, and many just drifted away. Geo-departments, of course, were strongly affected for the past 15 years or so as we have been whipsawed with too low enrollments for a decade or more(which resulted in consolidation or closing of some departments) and now we have surging enrollments typically without sufficient human and material resources needed to accommodate these students--all in response to changes in the spot price of oil, and hiring practices that have been reflexive rather than planned, strategic, and sustainable. This is why I suggest that if research is a required part of graduate training, then the recipients of those students, the industry that will ultimately hire them, really does have an important responsibility to support the students, their research, and the institutions that need help in providing the infrastructure (equipment, instruments, computers and software, travel...). I do think that with burgeoning human populations, that we (geoscientists) will play an essential role in the coming century to address the issues of geohazards and resources.

In my own advising of undergraduate students, I do alert them to the reality that the professional degree in the Geosciences is really at the Master's level, and to expect to go to graduate school as part of their life plan. I do note that taking a year or two off is commonly a good thing, as is getting ground level job experience to see if a career in that sector is to their liking. But, I also encourage them to think broadly about possible career paths that may take them into "non traditional" careers such as planning, law, education, business, journalism, public health. A solid base in the knowledge, skills and ways of thinking developed in an Earth Science degree, coupled with training in another discipline, may well be a pathway to success. We know we need ~10,000 Earth Science teachers in our public schools right now. Combining a knowlege of resources (oil, metals) or climate (and impacts on agriculture) coupled with a business degree may lead to a very lucrative career in dealing with commodities. But my main interest in having students consider alternate career pathways is we really need workers who are knowledgeable about Earth to reach out to sectors of the society that either are ignorant or ignore what we have to offer. These students/workers can be our best ambassadors to help elevate the relevance and importance of the Earth sciences as we address the grand challenges of then next century.

Finally, the recent PCAST Report to the President ENGAGE TO EXCEL: PRODUCING ONE MILLION ADDITIONAL COLLEGE GRADUATES WITH DEGREES IN SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY,ENGINEERING, AND MATHEMATICS [see: http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/pcast/docsreports] does indeed recommend direct research experiences in the undergraduate curriculum. And, yes, there are many programs out there that promote research experiences for undergraduates, and perhaps this is being done in some programs,departments, classes (see the module we did as a collaboration between the On the Cutting Edge program and the Council for Undergraduate Research on [see: http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/undergraduate_research/overview.html 'Undergraduate Research as Teaching Practice']. But this is not a universal condition for geo-students. Not yet. An alternate proposal for the MS degree, applied already at some institutions, is to have students complete a 5 year MS program, largely by doing a significant research project starting at the undergraduate level.

Please don't get me wrong: I'm not advocating to not have students participate in authentic research (hopefully early and often). But the current funding model is simply not sustainable.

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