Rackham symposium addresses transforming graduate education

Wednesday, September 18, 2019 - 6:22pm

Researchers discuss their work with attendees at the Rackham Symposium: State of the Graduate School conference Wednesday evening.

Researchers discuss their work with attendees at the Rackham Symposium: State of the Graduate School conference Wednesday evening. Buy this photo
Michael Bagazinski/Daily

Michael Solomon, dean of Rackham Graduate School, hosted a talk on rethinking graduate education Wednesday afternoon. About 200 community members, including graduate faculty and staff attended the event.  

Solomon began by defining the traditional apprenticeship model of graduate education, which is based on an intellectual connection between faculty and students. While acknowledging the successes of this model, Solomon identified building pressures he believes need to be addressed. Displaying a number of headlines on the projector, Rackham listed some of the controversies facing graduate education, including the tightening job market for doctorate degrees, mental health concerns and instances of sexual harassment.

Solomon proposed Rackham could be a leader in transforming the model of graduate education in order to address these issues. He summarized his vision for the future of graduate education, identifying three main components: student-centered, faculty-led and Rackham-supported. 

He also outlined the major goals Rackham has for the next two to three years: reimagined academic experience, strengthened diversity, enhanced partnerships and community, strengthened organizational culture and climate. He believes that by reshaping graduate education, students will have the freedom to pursue careers outside the traditional scope and become more prepared for professional opportunities within a more inclusive space. 

 Solomon identified some current initiatives within Rackham which have already begun in the school and urged attendees to take part in helping it grow. 

 “When you look at them as a whole, you can realize that this is a movement that is already underway,” Solomon said. “What we want to do here today, and going forward in Rackham, is coordinate that movement, and give it shape. We need something to connect and support these efforts so they can be amplified in a way that can benefit all students and programs in Rackham.” 

Solomon concluded his talk by urging attendees to contribute their ideas for how best to move forward. He emphasized the importance of graduate students, faculty, staff and deans working together to achieve the efforts he outlined.  

The talk was followed by a 30-minute discussion session, during which faculty, staff and students asked questions about how to tackle certain issues and highlighted issues of importance. 

The symposium was followed by a reception where attendees could explore 19 current Rackham initiatives working towards Solomon’s goals, with representatives standing by informational posters to explain each initiative. The programs ranged from the Rackham Mental-Health Task Force to the Rackham Professional Development DEI Certificate and a number of research and internship-based initiatives. 

One initiative Solomon highlighted was Rackham Internships: Responding to Professional Development Needs in the Biosciences, Humanities, and Social Sciences. Joe Cialdella, program manager for public scholarship at the University, explained the program emerged in 2014 to give students skills to explore different kinds of careers.

“It was partly a response to graduate students who wanted to go out and do work with community partners and really make their research matter in the context of working in the public interest and public good,” Cialdella said. “They also kind of responded to an ongoing academic tenure track jobs crisis in helping students develop skills for working in different fields like nonprofit, government, and even industry to some extent.”

Gina Shereda, program manager of STEM Professional Development, explained the program expanded to biosciences in recognition of a similar need for expanding career options for STEM students.

 “(The expansion) really allowed them to explore a diverse set of careers and have them be able to engage deeply and gather new skill sets and make connections in areas where they might be interested in exploring different career trajectories,” Shereda said. “I would say for all the disciplines it meets a need for students to engage in more experiential learning.” 

Rackham student Jeremy Ray, who is in the accelerated master’s program in transcultural studies, said he appreciated the symposium’s focus on supporting student needs. 

“I appreciated the greater focus on interdisciplinarity, and trying to think about alternative paths for students,” Ray said. “They mentioned students dropping out of the program, I thought that it was great that they were looking at ‘what can we do better when Plan A doesn’t work out.’ I like the attention to student issues rather than just general politics.”