When you think of making a life-changing decision, like where to pursue your doctoral program, what factors would affect your decision? Location? Faculty? Or, is it which program provides the most funding?

According to a survey conducted by David Knight, associate professor in the Department of Engineering Education, for over 50 percent of graduate students looking to pursue their doctorates in STEM, money, surprisingly, isn’t the top decision factor. Knight’s survey results aligned with interview data collected as part of a collaborative National Science Foundation grant led by a team of researchers at Virginia Tech and the University of Texas at Austin titled, “Variation in the awarding and effectiveness of STEM graduate student funding across teaching and research assistantships, fellowships, and traineeships.” In this Q&A, Knight shares lessons learned from the grant research, impacts and publications, and what’s next for the research. 

Can you talk a bit about your grant, the team that you worked with, and kind of the impetus for this particular research?

The whole motivation of the grant is that we invest a whole lot of money in supporting graduate students in STEM (not just engineering) fields, but we haven’t really done a deep-dive into understanding how we think about funding, what it means for students’ trajectories, or how can we think strategically as programs. We don’t know a lot about the phenomenon, and there are many people in program director roles who don’t have good data on investments, on benchmarks, on best practices, those kinds of things. 

As for my team, I have a great collaborator at the University of Texas at Austin, Maura Borrego, a former Virginia Tech faculty member. And we’ve had a wonderful team of grad students and postdocs over the past six or seven years – there’s a long list of people who have worked on the grant! On the VT side, postdocs have been Dustin Grote, Whitney Wall Bortz, and Michelle Klopfer; Chelsea Lyles, Tim Kinoshita, and Abe Alsharif have been tremendous grad students working on the grant; Mayra Artiles Fonseca collaborated for part of her dissertation research; and recently we collaborated with faculty colleagues Walter Lee, Homero Murzi, and Andrew Katz. And of course, there was a whole group of wonderful people on the UT-Austin side.

What would you say are the biggest takeaways from your research findings?

One of the more interesting ones is the strategies that programs use to recruit Ph.D. students are predominantly financially driven. We see a lot of, “here’s a great assistantship offer.” And some programs will give top-up funds, moving allowances, or signing bonuses. What’s interesting is that’s the go-to strategy, but when we ask program leaders, “how do you think students should make their decisions?” they point to everything else, not the financial reasons. 

Program leaders actually say, “No, they shouldn’t make their decisions based on the money. It should be based on advisor fit, or research interests, or what can the program offer in terms of professional development.”

When we talked to graduate students, they actually say similar things – the money isn’t the draw. Yes, it’s important to have funding, but a difference of $5K as a “bonus” for enrolling isn’t going to tip the scales on where the student decides to attend. If programs would take that extra money and invest it in supporting the students they have in place, then those kinds of efforts seem to be more attractive to students, and it’s going to benefit them in the long run. Like, making sure that they are able to attend conferences, or embedding other career development things into their programs.

We did a survey and several hundred doctoral students responded from across a bunch of institutions; over half of them chose a place that didn’t give the top amount of money. But graduate students are making decisions for a variety of reasons, and so kind of bringing program strategies into alignment with what their own faculty think and what students think is one good outcome that hopefully comes out of the research.

Has your research already had any impact?

I’m really proud of this: throughout the project, any time we do a deep-dive into the data we send a report out to any unit that gave us data. And earlier in the project, we took the national scale data and we fed back individual program data with benchmarks from the national data set to about a hundred programs. A few months ago, we sent a survey summary report to programs whose students responded to our data collection request.

I just got an email back from a colleague at a peer institution saying that it’ll be really helpful for their program – it’s rich data they can actually act on. Those are the comments I really like! One of the local things here at Virginia Tech (that I didn’t even know was happening) was that a task force sponsored by the Graduate School referenced our Journal of Higher Education paper that discussed the ways that STEM programs might rethink some of our recruitment. And our own faculty members here are doing research on that! Obviously it’s nice to have journal articles referenced and contribute to knowledge development, but when I hear from program leaders or associate deans who are actually putting that work into practice, that’s where it’s great.

In the publication, “Illuminating systematic differences in no job offers for STEM doctoral recipient,” you say it’s a systematic issue that there aren’t as many, if at all, job offers for women and racially minoritized Ph.D. students. What is a viable “solution” to get more job offers?

I think it’s a couple of things. One thing that piece does is it pushes back on the narrative of, “Oh, well the supply isn’t there from those subpopulations.” Actually the supply is there, and the gap is widening, or it’s been widening over the past couple of decades, in terms of students who are seeking jobs having a solid job offer at the end of their Ph.D. programs.

The exact difference between men and women in terms of job offers gets explained away when you account for whether the Ph.D. holder is in a partner relationship or married. We need to think – industry and academia – more creatively about dual career options, as one example of a policy and practice area. It’s pretty clear from our analyses if you are a married woman, you’re going to be more likely to not have a job offer coming out of a Ph.D. program than a married man. There are good examples of institutions and companies that are trying to address that.

We saw differences in who gets job offers and who doesn’t based on how a graduate student is funded. If you compare people on a research assistantship to people with a teaching assistantship, you’re more likely to not have a job offer if you’re funded predominantly by teaching assistantships. Part of that is thinking about how we’re awarding graduate teaching assistantships, and if we’re doing anything systematic about the process. When you think about it from a socialization and prep for work perspective, faculty are trained predominantly to be researchers. So if you’re working within your research group, those are students who are going to have funding to go to conferences, be able to network, and get access to experiences. Teaching is very important, but that activity is disconnected from what faculty/advisors tend to be focused on, at least at many research institutions with large STEM Ph.D. programs, and so that’s an area that programs should pay attention to. 

The other thing that we didn’t expect: it’s really important to look at fellowships. We have money to recruit racially minoritized and women students into STEM fields, so they’re given prestigious fellowships, which are excellent and those students can have a lot of autonomy. But similar to the teaching assistantship, if those fellowships cause the students to be disconnected from faculty members or funded research opportunities, it’s hard to get experience or professional development opportunities. If we are awarding fellowships to try to broaden participation in the field, but those fellowships unintentionally cause those students to have access to fewer opportunities, our research shows this can make a difference in job offers once students wrap up their programs.

What are your next steps now that the grant has closed?

We just launched the follow-on grant. In our data collection, we learned not many programs know what to do about non-academic career pathways and how to help students reach those goals. So Maura and I are working on a new grant focused on non-academic career pathways for engineering graduate students. It’s different in that it focuses on engineering, but it’s also broadening from just Ph.D. students to include master’s students. We don’t know much about master’s students and their experiences, so that’ll be a big contribution of that new effort, too.

Beyond this focus on graduate education, I’m super excited about our new $3 million Research Hub we’ll be leading focused on low-income students in engineering. It’s pulling together a really great team–Bev Watford, Walter Lee, Jake Grohs and me from VT; Teri Reed, PK Imbrie, and David Reeping from the University of Cincinnati; Dustin Grote from Weber State University; Amy Richardson from Northern Virginia Community College; Sarah Rodriguez from Texas A&M-Commerce; and Bruk Berhane from Florida International University. A key mission in this effort is to build out capacity across a range of institutions. Our leadership Hub team is going to be working with 40 different teams at a wide range of institutions to expand how researchers and practitioners think about researching their organizational processes.

The real big pitch for the hub is that we want to help teams who are running S-STEM programs to be able to build infrastructure and institutional processes that are sustainable even beyond the grant funding. These kinds of programs all rely on organizational partnerships within and between institutions, so that will be our team’s focus over the next several years.

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