May 29, 2018


Report Urges Improvements to Graduate Education in STEM Fields; Incentive System in Academia Must Shift to Strengthen Emphasis on Teaching and Mentoring

WASHINGTON – A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends substantial changes to U.S. graduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in order to meet the evolving needs of students, the scientific enterprise, and the nation. The report describes an ideal graduate education and identifies the core competencies that Ph.D. and master’s students should acquire.

Achieving this vision will require the graduate education system, whose incentive system is now heavily weighted toward rewarding faculty primarily for research output, to increase the value it places on best practices of teaching and mentorship, the report says. To promote this kind of culture change, federal and state funding agencies should align their grant award criteria to help ensure that students experience the type of graduate education that is recommended in the report. Once that happens, it will be much more likely that higher education institutions will include teaching and mentoring as important considerations in promotion and tenure decisions, said the committee that wrote the report. 

The U.S. graduate education system has served the nation extremely well, the report notes. But recent changes -- dramatic innovations in research methods and technologies, changes in the nature and availability of work, changes in demographics, and expansion in the scope of jobs needing STEM expertise – raise questions about how well the current system is meeting 21st century needs. Recent surveys and studies suggest that many graduate programs do not adequately prepare students to translate their knowledge into impact in a range of careers.

“A central element of our strategy is to make the graduate education system more student focused while maintaining the central attributes that have made the system the gold standard for the world,” said committee chair Alan Leshner, chief executive officer emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Implementing these recommendations would produce a graduate education system that better enables graduate students of all backgrounds to meet the highest standards of excellence in 21st century STEM fields and to use their knowledge across the full range of occupations essential to address societal and global needs.”

The report identifies nearly a dozen characteristics of ideal graduate education. For example, students would be able to select their graduate program aided by fully transparent data about viable career pathways and successes of previous students in the department and institution. They would acquire broad technical literacy coupled with deep specialization in an area of interest. Students would be given multiple opportunities to communicate the results of their work and to consider ethical and societal issues associated with their work.  They would also be encouraged to create their own project-based learning opportunities – ideally as a member of a team – as a way to develop transferable professional skills. Experiences where students “learn by doing,” rather than simply through lectures and coursework, would be the norm.

The report also identifies a list of core competencies that should be acquired by all Ph.D. students in STEM fields, and a list of core competencies that should be developed by all master’s degree programs as well. For example, all Ph.D. programs should help students develop deep specialized expertise in at least one STEM discipline, and also acquire enough transdisciplinary literacy to suggest multiple conceptual and methodological approaches to a complex problem.

Bringing the report’s vision of graduate STEM education to fruition will require shifting the current system, which focuses primarily on the needs of institutions of higher learning and those of the research enterprise itself, to one that is more student-centered, the report says. The current system heavily rewards faculty for research output in the form of publications and the number of future scientists produced. It must be realigned to increase the relative rewards for effective teaching, mentoring, and advising. Unless faculty behavior can be changed – and changing the incentive system is critical in that regard – the system will not change.

Achieving the report’s recommended changes will require firm commitments from all stakeholders in the nation’s STEM graduate education system. Federal and state funding agencies – and their policies and grant award criteria – will have a particularly important role to play since their funding and support policies are often cited as being critical to the context and climate in which academic institutions are situated, the report says.

Most of the changes recommended by the report, however, will need to be implemented by higher education institutions. Institutions should increase the priority of teaching and mentoring and reward faculty members for demonstrating high-quality teaching and inclusive mentoring for all graduate students, including recognition of faculty teaching in master’s degree programs, the report says. Institutions should include teaching and mentoring performance as important considerations for reappointment, promotion, annual performance review, and tenure decisions. And to improve the quality and effectiveness of faculty teaching and mentoring, institutions should provide training for new faculty and should offer regular refresher courses for established faculty.

Graduate programs should collect and update information on master’s and Ph.D.-level educational outcomes and make it easily available to current and prospective students. Federal and state funding agencies should require institutions that receive support for graduate education to develop policies mandating that these data be collected and made widely available in order to qualify for traineeships, fellowships, and research assistantships.

Both Ph.D. and master’s students should be provided an understanding of and opportunities to explore the variety of career opportunities afforded by their STEM degrees. Faculty advisers should discuss with their students whether and how a degree will advance the students’ long-term educational and career goals. Industry, nonprofit, government, and other employers should provide guidance and financial support for relevant course offerings and provide internships and other forms of professional experiences to students and recent graduates. Professional societies should collaborate with leaders in various sectors to create programs that help Ph.D. recipients transition into a variety of careers.

The STEM education system also should develop capabilities to adjust dynamically to continuing changes in the nature of science and engineering activity and of STEM careers, the report says. For example, faculty and graduate departments should periodically review and modify curricula, dissertation requirements, and capstone projects to ensure timeliness and alignment with the ways relevant work is conducted.

In addition, the graduate STEM education enterprise should enable students of all backgrounds -- including racial and ethnic background, stage of life, socio-economic status, gender identity, and other characteristics – to succeed, by implementing practices that create an equitable and inclusive institutional environment. Faculty and administrators should develop, adopt, and regularly evaluate strategies to increase diversity and improve equity, including comprehensive recruitment, holistic review in admissions, and interventions to prevent attrition in the late stages of progress toward a degree.

The report also calls for stronger support for graduate student mental health services. Institutions should provide resources to help students manage the stresses and pressures of graduate education and maximize their success. Institutions should take extra steps to provide and advertise accessible mental health services at no cost to graduate students.

The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Burroughs Welcome Fund, the Institute of Education Sciences, and the Spencer Foundation. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.  The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.  For more information, visit

Sara Frueh, Media Relations Officer
Andrew Robinson, Media Relations Assistant
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Copies of Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century are available at or by calling 202-334-3313  or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


Policy and Global Affairs Division
Board on Higher Education and the Workforce

Committee on Revitalizing Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century

Alan I. Leshner1 (chair)
Chief Executive Officer Emeritus, and
Former Executive Publisher, Science
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Washington, D.C.

Sherilynn Black
Assistant Professor of the Practice, Medical Education, and
Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement, and
Co-Principal Investigator
BioCoRE Program
Duke University
Durham, N.C.

Mary Sue Coleman1
Association of American Universities
Washington, D.C.

Jaime L. Curtis-Fisk
Commercialization Engineer and Innovation Leader
Silicone Emulsions & Polymers Plant
Dow Chemical Co.
Midland, Mich.

Kenneth Gibbs Jr.
Program Director
Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity
National Institute of General Medical Sciences
Bethesda, Md.

Maureen Grasso
College of Textiles
North Carolina State University

Sally F. Mason
President Emerita, and
Department of Biology
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
University of Iowa
Iowa City

Mary E. Maxon
Associate Laboratory Director for Biosciences
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Berkeley, Calif.

Suzanne Ortega
Council of Graduate Schools
Washington, D.C.

Christine Ortiz
Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and

Melanie Roberts
Director of State and Regional Affairs
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Henry Sauermann
Associate Professor of Strategy, and
Peter Pühringer Chair in Entrepreneurship
European School of Management and Technology, and
Research Associate
National Bureau of Economic Research

Barbara A. Schaal2
Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and
Mary Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor
Washington University
St. Louis

Subhash C. Singhal3
Battelle Fellow Emeritus, and
Former Fuel Cells Director (retired)
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Richland, Wash.

Kate Stoll
Senior Policy Adviser
Washington Office
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Washington, D.C.

James M. Tien3
Distinguished Professor, and
Dean Emeritus
College of Engineering
University of Miami

Keith R. Yamamoto1,2
Vice Chancellor for Science Policy and Strategy, and
Director of Precision Medicine, and
Professor of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology
University of California
San Francisco


Layne Scherer
Staff Officer

1Member, National Academy of Medicine
2Member, National Academy of Sciences
3Member, National Academy of Engineering