As fewer than 50% of STEM doctoral students complete their degrees within seven years, with lower rates of completion for those from underrepresented groups,(1) it is useful to identify ways to improve doctoral and postdoctoral education so it will support larger numbers of students and do so in a way that bolsters their professional development.
In chemistry specifically, the current system of educating graduate students focuses more on research than on student learning in a broader sense. Students learn what their advisers know and can do (e.g., synthetic chemistry; the master-apprentice model (2)). Surely, this deep immersion in learning the discipline of chemistry is central to doctoral education. However, this approach falls short in forming a professional identity or a sense of yourself as a chemist.
Developing a clear sense of professional identity in chemistry requires not only growing your knowledge and skill but also reflecting on why this knowledge and skill is important to you, important to others, and important to the world. Solidifying this sense of professional self and purpose can provide motivation to persist through challenges.
Collaborative learning communities are among the most promising approaches for developing graduate students. These groups support and socialize students within the disciplinary context, particularly because they create power-neutral and interactive teams.(3)
In this article, we describe activities that have been developed and tested with two graduate student cohorts from Chemistry and Psychology as part of an NSF-funded project titled Interdisciplinary STEM Graduate Student Learning Communities. Although these activities were implemented within a structured, academic-year-long learning community, we present them with the hope that you can infuse them into a variety of programs that target graduate student development (for example, in departmental seminars or lab meetings).
The activities that the project implemented and that we are translating here for your use are valuable because they aim to support professional identity development while intentionally holding these conversations with students and faculty from different disciplines; this allowed us to make new connections, uncover unknown similarities, and highlight different strategies and viewpoints.
Ellen J. Yezierski, Ph.D.,1,2 Stacey Lowery Bretz, Ph.D.,1 Amanda B. Diekman, Ph.D.,3 Rose Marie Ward, Ph.D.4
(1) Miami University, Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, Oxford, OH
(2) Miami University, Center for Teaching Excellence, Oxford, OH
(3) Indiana University, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Bloomington, IN