Skip to main content
Email Print Share
NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Science Committee Hearing on Graduate Education

April 1, 1998

Cultural Changes and a More Diversely Educated Student Body Required to Prepare Students for 21st Century Careers, Lawmakers Told

This is the fourth in a continuing series of hearings held by the House Science Committee's National Science Policy Study, and the second hearing on science, math, engineering and technology education. This hearing addressed what new approaches may be required in undergraduate and graduate education in order to prepare American science and engineering students with the kinds of careers they desire in a technologically demanding workplace.

Dr. David L. Goodstein, Vice Provost, Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, California Institute of Technology. Dr. Goodstein noted that since about 1970 the number of PhDs produced each year has more or less stayed steady at about 1,000, and top students going on to graduate school has been declining. At about this same time, foreign students, recognizing the excellence of American science, began coming here for their education, accounting today for about 50% of students enrolled in graduate schools. He said institutions of science are not adapted for the future we are facing. He stressed that increased federal funding is not the answer, however, some government leadership may be necessary. He stated that the problem is that science education is designed to select an elite few. He calls for a reform of both education and society with realistic career opportunities in industry, government and education, k-graduate. New curricula and new degrees may be necessary. He said the workplace and attitudes of managers; administrators and citizens need to change.

Catherine E. Johnson, Graduate Student, Department of Biological Chemistry, John Hopkins School of Medicine. Ms. Johnson stated that the current system of graduate education and postdoctoral training is not designed to adequately prepare young scientists for a future driven by technological research and development. With divisions among scientific disciplines deteriorating, graduate education does not presently encourage scientific breadth. She noted that the current system, largely sustained by federal funds, provides the primary source of labor, through students, for faculty advisor's publications, rather than student needs or interests. To pursue these interests students must stay in school longer thus increasing the time-to-degree. She said graduate education today is designed to keep research students in academia, and lack of faculty acceptance or support keeps students from exploring other opportunities. Another major concern, she noted, is that graduate students work long hours, earn little pay, no pension, are granted poor benefits and are not contributing to social security. Especially for women wanting to have families, this scenario is not very inviting. She said in order to recruit and retain young scientists, graduate studies must better compete with other satisfying, lucrative professional options. Her suggestions for improvements: expand the career paths of young scientists beyond academia; re-validate the masters degree; and increase scientific flexibility and decrease time-to-degree and employment. Ms. Johnson noted that increasing the number of foreign students studying in America would only make it harder to implement the changes needed to attract more U.S. citizens.

Dr. Earl H. Dowell, Dean, School of Engineering, Duke University. Dr. Dowell stated that the challenges and opportunities for science and engineering are attracting young people, preparing them for careers in academia and industry, giving them the depth and breadth of understanding necessary to work in multi-disciplinary teams, and cultural awareness and people skills to work in a global economy. He noted that currently about 80% of PhDs, both foreign and domestic, remain in the U.S. with 1/3rd entering academia and the other 2/3rds entering industry or government. While enrollments in engineering are stabilizing, he said, they had declined 15% after having peaked several years ago. He said engineering programs need to improve. Specifically he spoke of the establishment of a new engineering program, Engineering Criteria 2000, under the auspices of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). ABET and others supported by NSF organized the National Conference on Outcomes Assessment for Engineering Education to assist engineering colleges with the new accreditation system emphasizing the outcomes of engineering education for students and continuous improvement of faculty. He also mentioned the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)/NSF Visiting Scholars Program where outstanding scholars were sent to selected engineering colleges to conduct two-day workshops designed to enhance the quality of engineering teaching. This year NSF is launching a new program called The Action Agenda for Systemic Engineering Education Reform which seeks to develop significant advances in teaching and learning methods; curricular content; and creating constituencies and networks in engineering education.

Mr. Michael Peralta, Executive Director, Junior Engineering and Technical Society (JETS). Mr. Peralta said the key to an improved education system is to have students understand how problems are solved and what academic and personal skills are needed to solve them, which, he said, is the essence of JETS. He said engineering education is shifting to accommodate industry needs by training college students to work in multi-disciplinary, team oriented environments, and that JETS has taken a leadership role in supporting this through innovative high school courses designed to give students an opportunity to apply their knowledge of concepts to real engineering situations. Mr. Peralta said that to ensure a talented workforce will be available to meet the ever-changing complexity of the global economy, partnerships among corporations, schools, and organizations are essential for providing quality programs. He noted that the poor performance by American students on the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMMS) was due to an overemphasis in American schools on the breadth of knowledge, rather than the depth, and a focus on learning what the teacher tells them to remember rather than helping them to understand concepts and their relationship to real problems.

Dr. Phillip Griffiths, Chair, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, Director, Institute for Advanced Study. COSEPUP produced a report in 1995 on how best to prepare students to maintain American leadership in science and engineering. Myths about graduate education, according to Dr. Griffith, include that most PhDs go on to careers in academic positions; there is high unemployment and underemployment among PhDs; and that we train too many PhDs. He noted that more than half of PhDs go on to jobs where research is not the primary activity, that unemployment rates have actually declined slightly in the last several years and, according to most recent data, enrollments in graduate science and engineering programs are declining. Dr. Griffith stated that, as the 1995 report suggested, there is no need for a major restructuring of graduate education but, rather, a reshaping is required. One serious problem, he noted, is that there continues to be more new PhDs entering postdoctoral study, working in temporary research positions, or taking non-regular jobs. The study also showed that there was a misalignment between the way students are educated (single, narrow specialty) and the jobs many of them are expected to perform, especially in multidisciplinary settings (teamwork). Before 1970, he said, PhDs were trained in fields necessary for the national interest, and today the PhD education system has come to be shaped by the research system. He also reiterated Ms. Johnson's point that federal funds for research support a principal investigator's research needs rather than student desires. His recommendations for improving graduate education include: make graduate education programs more flexible and provide more options for students; experiment with various kinds of education and training grants; and provide better career information and guidance for students. He noted further that we need to take a look at how graduate education is supported through federal funds, and if this is the best use of these funds. Since the 1995 report more attention is being paid to graduate education, he said. He went on to explain some of changes and noted the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training Program (IGERT) at NSF which provides the opportunity for more innovative and creative graduate education, opportunities for inter- and multidisciplinary research, increased breadth, linkage to industry, and professional and personal skills development.