Three Covid-inspired innovations shed light on what needs to change in graduate education
The pandemic forced many graduate schools to innovate on the fly — revising longstanding policies and creating new procedures — to keep their students on track. In reflecting on what all of those changes mean for the coming academic year, we are reminded of that old quip: “This is all very well in practice, but how does it work out in theory?
In our recent study, released in January, we documented the many challenges that confronted graduate STEM education in the wake of Covid-19: Graduate courses moved to virtual classrooms, doctoral advising shifted to videoconferencing, laboratories operated under hastily devised safety rules or, in some cases, shuttered entirely.
Those sudden shifts did not come without problems and shortcomings, but here we highlight key successes — innovative practices that eclipsed existing theories on graduate education. By theories, we mean the traditional rules or principles dictating the way graduate programs have operated. By practices, we refer to the host of efforts, birthed or fueled by the Covid crisis, that universities scrambled to adopt to keep students and programs afloat.
What follows are three systems that shifted during the pandemic and that point toward much-needed changes in graduate training:
How we admit students to graduate school. For more than 40 years, the theory driving graduate admission posited that, by identifying and utilizing key indicators, institutions could identify the best students for their programs and maximize chances that those students would succeed and contribute to their field of study. Grades and standardized test scores — GPAs and GREs — became enshrined as the critical metrics. They were adopted by regional accreditors, incorporated into state guidelines for new degrees, and enshrined in guidebooks on applying to graduate school, all toward the goal of improving program quality and student success.
But with the growth of graduate education and swelling numbers of applicants, these “objective” metrics have often been used (both explicitly and implicitly) to establish minimum standards or cut-offs for graduate admissions. While effective at culling an applicant pool, they represent an overly simplistic measure of merit and fail to capture the full range of talented candidates.
As a reaction to those shortcomings, many leading figures in graduate education — including the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service, which owns the Graduate Record Examination — have promoted the use of holistic review as a better approach to graduate admissions. Holistic review, sometimes called whole file review, gives increased consideration to a candidate’s personal attributes (reflected in personal statements, recommendation letters, evidence of experience) to accompany traditional quantitative metrics such as grade-point average and GRE scores. Solid empirical research by Julie R. Posselt, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, moved this discussion even further by finding that the absence of holistic review has an adverse impact on applicants from demographics who remain underrepresented in doctoral programs and on the faculties of most institutions.
Still, the use of holistic review in graduate education languished and “GPAs and GREs” remained the dominant operational theory — until the pandemic forced institutions to adapt.
Our survey of 300 graduate institutions, conducted in August 2020, found that the proportion of institutions using holistic review in graduate education doubled during the pandemic, from 39.5 percent prior at its onset to 79 percent during the outbreak. Covid-19 had forced their hand: Standardized tests had been canceled en masse and a plethora of pass/fail grades were appearing on applicants’ transcripts. The GPAs and GREs theory was no longer viable.
The implications of this shift are potentially profound. Although the evidence is not yet in on the extent to which this growth in holistic review will enrich the diversity of the graduate population, evidence from the most recent cycle of undergraduate admissions indicates that a more holistic approach to admissions not only may encourage more students to pursue admission to top programs but may also produce more diverse cohorts of students generally.
How we mentor graduate students. The basic operating principles guiding the mentorship of graduate students are well documented. The theory holds that the foundation of mentoring includes the effective communication of expectations, guiding students toward key milestones, and sharing resources to advance their careers. The problem with that theory is not that it produced dysfunctional outcomes during the pandemic, but rather, that Covid revealed new opportunities for mentors and students to connect in ways they hadn’t before.
Virtual advising is a case in point. After universities closed campuses in March 2020, they used technology to try to reproduce in-person graduate advising in virtual settings. Sometimes that meant virtual meetings to review a student’s progress toward a plan of study or to provide updates on their research. Our survey found widespread dissatisfaction with virtual advising: Less than 12 percent of graduate deans felt that it was an adequate replacement for in-person contact.
Still virtual advising had its advantages. For some students and faculty members, Zoom and other technologies enlarged the opportunity for new kinds of understanding between adviser and advisee. Advice guides on graduate school rarely talk about things like empathy, which has long been seen as critical to the mentor-mentee relationship but elusive to achieve. In our survey, however, many graduate students and faculty members said that seeing one another’s homes in virtual meetings proved surprisingly effective at building empathy.
A dean in our study shared this example: A faculty member, working from her kitchen, made periodic adjustments to dinner on the stove as she advised her graduate student. Afterward, the student reported feeling a greater sense of commonality with that adviser than would have been possible in a face-to-face meeting in a campus office. Likewise, faculty members were often able to witness firsthand how their students managed personal and familial responsibilities during the pandemic while balancing academic and research requirements.
In such cases, empathy — the heart of effective mentoring — emerged in a practice — virtual advising — that our existing theories of graduate advising would not have predicted. Going forward we might consider ways to supplement in-person mentoring with virtual experiences that can further “humanize” graduate study.
How we improve fairness, equity, and inclusion. Sometimes theory fails because it provides no guidance on how to carry it out in practice. For decades, graduate schools have publicized “diversity and inclusion” as a principal goal. The theory behind most such pronouncements was to focus on being fair and equal: By enacting common policies and treating everyone the same, equity would be achieved. Many graduate students and professors who are BIPOC — Black, Indigenous, and people of color — have long questioned that theory, and its shortcomings were further underscored by the dual crises of Covid-19 and last summer’s protests over the murder of George Floyd.
Here, too, our survey provided many examples of the gap between theory and practice: A dean at a large research university reported that, as the pandemic surged and the racial protests intensified, graduate students of color on his campus routinely complained that their concerns either went unheard by white faculty members or were dismissed altogether. When the dean communicated those complaints to professors, some of them reported feeling that they were “walking on eggshells” when interacting with students of color — for fear of being misunderstood or accused of perpetuating racism.
The graduate dean put his finger on the problem: Many white faculty members simply did not know how to interact with students of other racial identities. The “fair and equal treatment” theory failed to provide any guidance. How can a graduate school be inclusive if its faculty members are uncomfortable engaging or including someone from a background different from their own? In this case the dean consulted with the professors and the students in an effort to help each perceive the situation from the other’s point of view. But, while that was important and valuable, the dean clearly recognized that better “perspective taking” was not the ultimate answer.
Rather the message here was: Efforts to promote racial equity in graduate education must go beyond campus policies and statements, and will require systemic, institutional reform.
As our examples have illustrated, the pandemic laid bare the inadequacy of operating theories that have long guided practice in graduate education. Another famous quote — variously attributed to Albert Einstein, Yogi Berra, and Richard Feynman, among others — goes: “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.” To achieve meaningful and necessary reform in graduate training — and, indeed, to make it more inclusive and just — institutions must commit to learning from their experiences during this once-in-a-lifetime crisis. If graduate education is to truly innovate and evolve, now is the time for practice to drive theory.