The United States emerged the world leader in innovation in the post-World War II era. One of the contributing factors was the GI Bill and the access to education that it enabled. Too, the Cold War drove a sense of urgency into the equation for innovation. Today, with the end of the Cold War, and the declining support for research via federal funding, we are faced with the reality that we may not be able to retain our competitive advantage in innovation.
Foundational research enables innovation. Foundational research, as the National Science Foundation states, is “activity aimed at acquiring new knowledge or understanding without specific immediate commercial application or use.” Such research may not have immediate applications, and is pursued as a step in the long and uncertain chain of discovery and innovation. For this reason, industry views it as risky, providing little support, choosing instead to focus on research that has the potential for application. Foundational research fortunately is nurtured and thrives in academic settings. Graduate education is a significant part of this foundational research. Doctoral programs and post-doctoral fellowships help augment the human capital available, interested, and incentivized to conduct foundational research.
As an AAU institution, graduate education pursued, thus, is critical to the success of our mission at the University of Missouri. We support graduate education so it grows research and so it helps groom tomorrow’s researchers. With the revival of the Graduate School led by Dr. Jeni Hart, the University of Missouri’s commitment to this responsibility has only grown. We were hence really pleased to be selected as one of eight AAU institutions to participate in the AAU PhD Education Initiative. The goal of this initiative is to promote student-centered doctoral education at AAU universities by making diverse PhD career pathways visible, valued, and viable. The eight institutions selected for this initiative (Boston University; Duke University; Indiana University Bloomington; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; the University of Iowa; the University of Missouri; the University of Texas at Austin; the University of Virginia) have committed to promoting practices that will enhance data sharing and transparency so as to identify employment trends for PhD students. The information from this data will guide the creation of strategies that focus on creating improved career pathways, hence improved career outcomes for PhD students. This exercise will also highlight careers outside academia and hence underscore the need to develop skillsets that help PhD students succeed in all career paths. Given that industry funding for research has increased as federal funding for research has declined, an expanded range of choice for careers in academia and industry can only help promote graduate education and hence innovation in general. Preparing our graduates for these careers is hence a responsibility and an opportunity.
Kudos to Dr. Jeni Hart who wrote the final proposal for this initiative and congratulations to the three participating departments– Chemistry, English and Communication. The Chemistry department places its students almost equally between academe (49%) and industry (51%) and has in place initiatives to connect doctoral students to opportunities in industry. In the case of the English department, 10% of doctoral graduates choose the non-academic career route. Predictions however suggest that going forward only 60% will find jobs in academe. Interestingly, Communications is an area where the demand for Phd graduates in non-academic career paths is growing. Today, less than 15% of MU’s Phd graduates in Communications find jobs outside academia. These numbers however, are expected to grow. In short, the three departments chosen cover a range of demand scenarios for PhD graduates within and outside academe. For this reason, the strategies we adopt as a result of our participation in the AAU PhD Education Initiative should help our students, foster research, and serve the needs of industry.
Your turn–how do we support PhD students in achieving their professional goals?