Strengthening Graduate Education in Science and Engineering:
Promising Practices and Strategies for Implementation
Acting Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
June 29, 1998
Thank you, Ginger, for a kind introduction. I'm very
pleased at being asked to lend an NSF perspective
on the important work you will be doing for the next
couple of days. The fate of graduate education, the
focus of our attention, is nothing short of central
to the future vitality of science and engineering.
NSF is eager to hear your findings.
It is heartening to see the eclectic set of participants
in attendance. It is fun to share the stage with my
colleague and National Science Board Chairman, Eamon
Kelly, whose diverse perspective is critical to providing
a reality check for the discussion. For all of these
reasons, let me extend a special thanks to the University
of Wisconsin's National Institute for Science Education
and the Graduate School, as well as all the institutions
that have helped to make this forum possible.
Some might question the workshop's premise -- exploring
whether graduate education in the United States should
change -- but I laud it. Undeniably, our system, the
focus of your intensive study here, is a model to
the world and an ingredient in our national prosperity.
The health and future of this national resource is
especially important to all of us who care about the
human dimension of science, engineering, and technology.
A basic tenet of NSF's mission is to ensure the vitality
of the human resource base of science, mathematics,
and engineering in the United States, and to reinforce
We are all aware of the criticisms of the past decade's
discussion of our system of doctoral education. This
forum has a pedigree of past workshops and reports
upon whose proverbial shoulders we stand. We can thus
see further because of what went before. Among these
is the 1995 report, "Reshaping the Graduate Education
of Scientists and Engineers" -- better known as the
It took a balanced look at the topic, noting challenges
our graduate schools face in times of rapid change.
The litany of concerns it raised are familiar to us:
Our system is too rigid, too standardized, too compartmentalized,
too narrow, too reticent about realistic career options
of students. Yet, it is not the concerns that should
demand our attention; rather, our vision of the future
should guide our actions.
The COSEPUP report noted that over half of new doctorate-holders
work outside academe -- a fraction that has gone up
over the past quarter-century or so, and continues
to grow. The report's authors recommend that the future
doctoral process should produce more versatile graduates
able to embrace a wider spectrum of career options.
Now we're moving to focus on the viable, the specific-innovative
practices that really work. Let's first step to a
higher dimension and consider the context, the transformations
in society and universities that are the envelope
for this workshop.
Change is a constant -- albeit a cliched one -- yet
I would venture that two singularities of current
change make it more critical than before that we master
its course. Two characteristics that define our current
pace of change are its rapidity and its complexity.
One study by Don Kash and Bob Rycroft -- two visionaries
in science and technology policy -- found that the
most successful commercial technologies have indeed
become more complex in recent decades. In the 1970s,
nearly 60% of the world's top exports were simple
products. Today, it's just the reverse: 60% are complex
products, requiring complex processes to produce.
To make a long analysis short, the future belongs
to those who can make sense of the complex. It's our
task to prepare science and engineering students to
shape a world now driven by that type of change. We
need to look forward to enabling and molding what
is to come, even when we don't quite understand that
As Tennessee Williams put it, "There is a time for
departure even when there's no certain place to go."
This is one of those times, and this workshop can
help NSF to guide the frontier of excellence in human
capability into the future -- with your help.
Let's acknowledge forthrightly that one challenge
to our efforts is, paradoxically, the very excellence
of what our graduate education system has been for
the past half century. I was reading through Roger
Geiger's paper, "The Old Era in American Graduate
Education". I don't want to steal his thunder since
he's featured on a panel this morning, but I was struck
by his observation that, "it is exceedingly difficult
to 'reform' successful institutions" -- such as graduate
He adds that it is not the success or shortcomings
of the enterprise that is the crux of the question;
rather, and again I quote, it is "that the current
era has grown old...that we are ripe for significant
change." There is no question that our graduate education
system has done great things -- but there is also
no question that the world is becoming a different
place now. In these times of extraordinary change,
incremental and reductionist approaches, business
as usual, simply will not work.
I know Terry and many of you have worked hard to identify
and describe "featured practices" -- creative programs
that are already illuminating new pathways not trod
by our graduate system before, ideas that will no
doubt inspire many more during the forum.
Let me cite some favorite "featured practices" of
One is NSF's Science and Technology Centers. They
commit, among other requirements, to providing a variety
of education and research opportunities for both students
and faculty. In tandem with this, they create linkages
to foster the transfer of knowledge among universities,
industry, government, minority institutions, and so
on. They also offer industrial and international internships
or other experiences to broaden careers.
Another is NSF's set of Engineering Research Centers,
which have melded the vision of academe, industry,
and government to create next-generation systems that
have impact industry-wide. Most to the point here,
the centers are producing a new generation of more
productive graduates with high potential to lead future
industry. It took us a decade of experience before
we really knew we were making an impact. That provides
just one example of how we stepped off into the unknown.
Our new flagship effort for graduate education, the
Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training
Program, melds over experiences with STCs, ERCs, and
a variety of other experiments, and fosters a generic
holistic approach. Its goal is to graduate Ph.Ds with
broad preparation, with multidisciplinary backgrounds,
and with the technical, professional, and personal
skills to meet the varied career demands of the future.
The proposed projects center a multidisciplinary research
theme. They target critical and emerging areas of
science and engineering, provide hands-on experience
on with instrumentation and methodology, and offer
work experience on and off-campus. We will be keeping
a close eye on the types of graduates who emerge from
Several of the featured practices for our gathering
today have also caught my eye. Our first theme, that
of highlighting practices that serve students and
society, is brought to life in a program created by
Rice University for underrepresented groups in the
The program challenges archaic admissions policies,
noting that some students with marginal GRE scores
have become research stars. It views standardized
tests as preventing "the nation from tapping into
a large part of its human resources, creativity and
intellect...We have learned to put great value on
what we measure and have forgotten to ask if this
measure is flawed concerning what we value...These
tests are far from God-given. Here we need to play
philosopher more and mathematician less..." [p. 23].
So playing philosopher, let us ask: How can we help
universities to reward diversity -- not the somewhat
vacuous, amorphous rainbow, but a truly valuable resource:
diversity of intellect? What inspires faculty to serve
most effectively as mentors for all students? Which
universities' efforts are especially successful at
attracting and nurturing members of underrepresented
groups? How can NSF challenge our grant review panelists
to think broadly and inclusively about indicators
of promising talent?
You can help us cultivate this critical resource,
help us to face the future with all parts of our society
engaged, with full participation in science and technology
by all citizens.
We will also value your advice on enhancing the links
between graduate education and business and industry.
As NSF invests more in shaping the workforce of the
future, we need all of your ideas on how to foster
integration between academe and the commercial sector.
Some of the favored practices concern creative new
topics for degrees that embody this linkage. Masters
and Ph.D. programs for industrial mathematics at the
University of Minnesota, for example, require an internship
at a company. Another example is the doctorate in
industrial technology management based at Indiana
State University in conjunction with a consortium
These are the kinds of ideas we seek, in a world where
the marketplace is racing ahead, while our educational
system is in danger of lagging behind. Again, our
colleagues from industry who are here can give us
particularly valuable feedback on how NSF and our
graduate schools can generate a scientific and technological
workforce that can keep pace with a fast-changing
As you survey your own multiplicity of perspectives
over the next two days, I'd like to ask for help in
one other extremely important activity. You may already
know that NSF, like the entire federal government,
is being asked with increasing specificity to account
for its stewardship of the public's investment in
science and technology. The Government Performance
and Results Act has compelled us to take a comprehensive
look at NSF programs. This is much on the minds of
our Congressional overseers, which by extension keeps
it on our minds.
Our programs in advanced education are not exempt
from this requirement to demonstrate measurable results.
As you focus your discussions on specific successful
practices, I'd like to challenge you also to invent
strategies to measure and document that success --
how to express in concrete terms the results of a
given investment in graduate education.
I would like to leave you with one last thought. As
you share ideas on the creative strategies gleaned
from the grassroots of graduate education, do take
the risk of opening your own minds and those around
you, and let us know what you find. We want to listen
carefully. In the words of Erich Hoffer, the union
leader and social philosopher, "In times of change
learners will inherit the earth, while the learned
will find themselves well-equipped to deal with a
world that no longer exists."
Since we are gathered here as a learned group of learners,
I guess this means we have our work cut out for us.
Help us to fashion a system that shapes graduates
who can indeed imagine what might be.