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The Maker Movement and Graduate Employability

AUDIO | The Maker Movement and Graduate Employability
The maker movement could be a pathway to employability for graduate students in the liberal arts.

The following interview is with Ashley Sanders, a doctoral candidate in history at Michigan State University and blogger with GradHacker. Sanders is passionate about the employability of graduate students in the liberal arts. In this interview, she shares her thoughts on how the “maker movement” could help support that goal, and discusses the major challenges standing in the way of its wider implementation.

1. What is the “maker movement”?

The maker movement emphasizes craftsmanship, science, technology; all these things coming together to explore questions and solve meaningful, real-world problems. It also involves, at its foundation, an educational practice. It’s really based on the work of Seymour Papert who proposed that kids should learn about digital environments through doing and something called “deep learning,” which really involves understanding the theoretical principles and actually doing the ‘making.’

The maker movement has really taken off at K-12 and it’s beginning to make its way into higher ed. There’s a long way to go to really apply the principles of the maker movement and allow graduate students access to some of these ideas or even spread the word so graduate students realize there are spaces for them to create.

2. What are the biggest problems keeping the maker movement out of higher ed or slowing down its adoption into postsecondary spaces?

There are several. It’s really taken off with adults in various industries — everything from music to medicine. People from all walks of life have discovered “maker spaces” that allow people access to all kinds of tools from laser cutters to sewing machines. They offer classes on how you can use these tools to bring your project idea to fruition. These are sprinkled across the country right now and there are more being developed as we speak.

In most universities, there are spaces right on the campus where these types of tools already exist; however, you have to be a specialist in order to use them. [As such], there are some barriers to entry for someone coming out of the humanities who wants to go to the metalworking shop and construct something that either relates to their project or takes off in a new direction.

Another problem is this is a pretty new phenomenon. A lot of graduate students don’t even realize it’s an option for them.

The final challenge, and maybe the biggest challenge, for graduate students is on an individual and departmental level, that there’s just very little time. The traditional graduate program — especially if you’re in the humanities — is all about text and working in front of your computer. I don’t know if many graduate students recognize the maker movement could involve them.

3. How can more project-based, production-focused education support the employability of graduates?

Going off in [this] direction really builds a lot of skills students can use in both academic and non-academic jobs. They can show product development, they have a chance to demonstrate leadership skills, project management, collaboration —  which is also something that can be really difficult when you’re in academia, particularly programs like the humanities, where much of your work is isolated. These spaces and this type of work really is interdisciplinary, and it’s collaborative. There are lots of skills you develop and then showcase through very tangible outcomes of these products you end up building.

4. What are the biggest challenges postgraduate students face today when it comes to finding work outside the academy?

The first and probably the biggest is for graduate students to recognize they have options outside of academia. This is particularly challenging because most of us are prepared for only one thing, and that is an academic job. Part of that is because our professors, our advisors, our committee members — that is the only experience they had. They went the traditional route through graduate school and then acquired a tenure track at the end. Those positions are fewer and farther between now. There’s a lot of competition for them. Yet it’s taken a while for our universities to recognize we need to consider preparing students for other types of jobs once they complete their PhD. That brings up another challenge; many mentors who might be interested in helping their graduate students find different kinds of career paths don’t know how to mentor their students to do that because they don’t have the experience and there aren’t professional development programs for professors to help them learn how to mentor for different career paths.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the power of the maker movement to support employability of graduate students and next steps to actually making the maker movement more widespread in the postsecondary space?

In what’s called the Maker Manifesto, the author talks about making being fundamental to what it means to be human and he’s really onto something. I’ve read a number of other studies about creativity and play and that these are really essential aspects of being fully human. We lose a lot of that in graduate school. Getting involved in something like the maker movement is one way to access that creative part of our minds that sometimes get squished in education and connecting that with employability, that’s really where many of our jobs are headed. They’re headed toward being able to think creatively about problems, being able to design, to innovate. These are all scopes that, unless you’re in design-specific programs, you don’t have much access to, and yet these are the very skills we need to be able to demonstrate to find jobs after graduation.

This interview has been edited for length.

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