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Finding and Preparing A Diverse Research Talent Pipeline: Part 2

Diversifying the talent development pipeline needs to be on the radar of higher ed professionals to prepare up and coming researchers, policy analysts and leaders to take on the learn-and-work ecosystem.

The Non-Degree Credentials Research Network held spring conference on March 27-28, 2023 to consider priorities and challenges in seven areas: 1) global developments; 2) federal industrial policy’s implications on academic research; 3) noncredit higher education, 4) work-based learning; 5) non-degree credentials, socioeconomic mobility and labor market; and 6) innovations in research and data infrastructure. The seventh focused on preparing a diverse research talent pipeline. The following conversation, abridged and edited from the transcript of the panel discussion, is the second part of a two-part series.


Holly Zanville:  How can we create a more diverse pipeline of new researchers?

Kathleen deLaski: We have to take new approaches but I don't have a good answer how we structure this. But if you have the mechanism that allows you to bring students and faculty from across different disciplines, it's going to help us take a very different approach, a multidisciplinary approach to addressing some of the research questions and issues. One reason I agreed to teach a course at the undergraduate level starting next year at George Mason, which is a minority majority college, is to help expose students to this and that speaks to the cross-sector group at Harvard, which I hope there will be writing about how that is more well developed. The faculty and students will likely impact changes in the traditional programs.

Mark D’Amico: I think about two avenues. One is McNair Scholar programsthere are 151 nationwide—through the federal trio programs. We're talking about first generation college students, low-income students and students from underrepresented groups being mentored toward advanced degrees. I would begin building and filling the talent pipeline now, and I would go to those 151 places to do it.

Another one, thinking about talent development, whether cross-disciplinary or just providing those additional intentional experiences, is the example of North Carolina State University’s CTE (career and technical education) Postsecondary Fellows program, which is funded by a grant from ECMC. They've brought together four different cohorts over the last four years where they're identifying scholars in doctoral programs or postdocs from around the country and providing them a yearlong intensive experience where they receive both internal and external mentorship, and they receive a stipend. It helps guide them through the dissertation on CTE-related topics, if not beyond. They bring them together around two national conferences a year, provide them with wraparound conference experiences where they're learning additional research methods beyond what they're getting in their respective doctoral programs. In addition, they are with folks from different places to have cross-pollination. This is a positive.

I've had three dissertation advisees go through these different cohorts over the years. They joined us with valuable work experience, developed their research interests, developed new capital through networks, and expanded their knowledge and skills, which opened new opportunities for them. When you think about my point earlier around boundaryless careers, this underscores the reality that one cannot learn everything they need to know within the boundaries of any particular setting. Multiple paths are important and talent is developed in different ways —gaining experience not just through the graduate programs but coupling with other avenues.

Michael Fung: Building a more diverse pipeline of folks is a big challenge because our universities are structured predominantly by academic disciplines. That really shapes and clouds the approaches we take. Not many universities have a setup like mine, where we are able to bring faculty from across various disciplines and take a wider view. I think that we do need to take such an approach. Kathleen, you mentioned creating research groups, centers or institutes, to bring people together. I think that's a great way of doing this. I recently reviewed our hiring plans with our research lab director. And when I look at the disciplines we're hiring for, it's across various disciplines. We're looking for data scientists in AI and computer science,  but we're also looking for educational psychologists, people with labor policy background, economists and design thinkers from the humanities as well. We have to center our attention around the grand challenges we are tackling, and figure out the disciplinary expertise needed to work on those challenges. I’m also seeing a wave of undergraduate students becoming interested in our work. We have an undergraduate major in educational innovation, and those students are also very interested in getting exposed to our work.

Holly:  We put our panel questions to ChatGPT to see what we could learn from AI (see slides).  

Chatbot responded that an academic degree is important for providing a foundation, and work experience is also vital.  This response suggests the two-part scenario for preparation is prevalent —school and work.

ChatGPT responded that multi-disciplinary approaches have grown in popularity in the US over the past decade but the pace varies, from institution to institution. It is moving more quickly in data science, entrepreneurship, and public policy. Our take away may be that innovations n graduate level programs is moving slowly except in disciplines driven by rapidly changing industry sectors.

The diversity question was interpreted by ChatGPT in a STEM education context. We can draw from this that the wealth of material AI is drawing from shows that a lot of the good jobs are occurring in science and data-related areas. ChatGPT finds that approaches are to put more funding into programs, foster inclusion in the workplace, and encourage entrepreneurship.

Holly:  Audience, we’re turning to you to weigh in on these issues, especially to the question—are graduate schools addressing these issues?

Matt Linton, Council of Graduate Schools: Graduate schools are enthusiastic about the cross-disciplinary and  nontraditional credentialing space but  movement has been uneven. The CGS has been working on a project for about 18 months with the support of ETS looking at the relationship between post-baccalaureate certificates, digital badges, and the master's degree. One of the interesting things we found is that the new boss is the same as the old boss for many programs. This work is going to be faculty-directed, and depends on the enthusiasm of faculty—do you  have  a faculty champion  willing to push new ideas and bring the corporate partner to the table? The graduate deans are relying on their faculty to drive the conversation and act as champions within the faculty to say, ‘Listen, I  created this this data analytics certificate. It wasn't hard to do. You can and should do it too. Look at our enrollment. Look at our corporate partner we brought in.’  This is a lot of what we found in terms of cross-disciplinary movement. A lot is happening.

Our report (coming out this summer)  will include the finding that many of these certificates feed into multiple programs. The most popular case is data analytics. The set up is a “hub and spoke model.” Institutions have created 4-5 course certificates in data analytics. They are not bringing in many students who are solely enrolled in that certificate. Instead they’re advising students to look at  5 or 6 masters programs. The master's students are advised to gain additional skills and data analytics to be more competitive on the job market, have more career diversity and opportunities, or in many cases be more competitive for the PhD program they're looking for after their masters is done. This is one way interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary partnerships have been working.

Another effort is the National Name Exchange which the Council of Graduate Schools took over from the University of Washington last year. The Exchange focuses on DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) for graduate programs. We work with more than 50 member universities to identify underrepresented undergraduate students interested in pursuing a graduate degree. We encourage students to submit their information, indicate the fields they're interested in, the types of programs they want to go to, and whether they are thinking masters or PhD or both. We put them in contact with graduate programs looking to diversify their student bodies. These programs then present targeted recruiting materials, as well as listening sessions where they hear what barriers students are facing, as well as special materials about how to apply to graduate school to erase some of that hidden curriculum. It’s a partnership of these types of different resources that help create a more robust diverse workforce coming through graduate programs.

Diamond Williams, PhD student; Corporation for a Skilled Workforce: I participated in a high school to college Upward Bound program—it was the first time I remember feeling smart and that college was something  I could do. Fast forward to me going to college to be a dancer but then finding out I wanted to do something else. I ended up in hospitality because I needed a job while in school. I really liked it and was good at it. I wanted to be taken seriously and move up so decided to get my master's degree in hospitality management. I didn't need it but did it anyway. When I was furloughed during Covid, I researched doctoral programs and found the best program  for my interests and experience would be a doctor of business administration. I wanted to apply real-world situations to my studies and had always been interested in succession planning and training and development. I am in a DBA program for Human Resources and working on my dissertation. I'm very interested in how work and learning can be applied to human resources but wouldn't necessarily say this is a path anybody would take. Mark D’Amico’s earlier  points ring true. All my experience got me here. So while the actual doctoral program is on labor relations and management in the twenty-first century and this isn’t exactly what I wanted to learn, the dissertation is my opportunity to take what I am learning and put it to my interests again. This is helping me get to what I want at the end of this.  

Madeline Rowe, PhD student: I knew that various credentials exist at the undergraduate and graduate level, and that people are pursuing various credentials in lieu of graduate level degrees. That being said, I did not find a lot of interest in that at my university, at least within my department. Students in my department are mostly working fulltime on campus—they get a great deal at the university to work and be a student. There's a small number of us who are fulltime students. We have different emphases in Education Policy, Leadership, and Comparative and International Education so there are lots of people doing lots of different things which makes for great opportunities for collaboration, especially with some of the other large programs on campus—like at Humphrey, the business school and law school. But it's mostly student-directed with faculty guidance to get you there. But you have to be the one pushing for that—the faculty are not. They're supporting you but aren't leading you to those opportunities if that makes sense.

Ethan Ellis, PhD student: Having applied to a mix of traditional economics PhD programs, applied economics PhD programs, and cross-disciplinary public affairs PhD programs, it came down to a couple of schools that I got into, was interested in, and was the best fit for a variety of reasons. I developed interests in non-degree credentialing through my advisor who does a lot of occupational licensing research. He encouraged me to look  at the intersection of occupational licensing and non-degree credentials and alternative education programs. Another faculty member also encouraged me toward this area. My coursework has been traditional economics so am pushing myself to work with scholars from other disciplines and working with practitioners. This really does have to be self-directed and that includes attending conferences like this, and making sure that I’m not working in order to take advantage of these opportunities.

Isabel Cardenas-Navia, Workcred: In my previous work I focused on how to build a STEM research workforce. Billions of dollars have been spent on a STEM research workforce and one of the things to think about is the difference between building a research work workforce and a diverse research workforce. While both have to be intentional, they’re intentional in different ways.  Money is a part of the solution. I don't think that's been explicit enough in our conversations today. When you think about the large number of biology biomedical postdocs now, it's because there is a boat load of money to go to graduate school in the Biomedicals, biological sciences, and to postdocs. Those credentials matter to get up to the levels needed. I’m not saying it's the only path but it's part of that gatekeeping. In the short term, that's part of what the NCRN is going to have to grapple with. If we’re thinking about this in the long term, there has to be an investment to build this workforce in an intentional way, in addition  to those other pieces which have to come together to bring folks exposure to cross-disciplinary programs. There are lessons learned to be from other disciplines which have focused on building up a research base.

Julie Uranis, UPCEA:  Many of us in this work completed PhDs. We researched something we knew about. But to continue that research once working, we’d have to be in a position to do so, and most of the folks at our organizations don't do ongoing research because it's not part of our charge. We're practitioners. So when we participate in research, we’re very active where we can be but we don't earn anything more by participating. We don't get tenure or promotion as an administrator. So there's a different perspective at play when you're in this work. I agree with Isabel that this is both a resource perspective as well as finding those opportunities. Finding incentives for folks to do research, when you think about PhD programs, are mostly offered at the R1s. They are the universities least likely to have incremental credentials or microcredentials. It's the R1s as that starts to shift where we will likely see more research in this space simply because there will be more people interested because they will be exposed to it more and because the data exists at these institutions. So it will be a slow slog in some ways that might need more money behind it, but aligning those incentive factors will have a huge impact.

Holly:  Panelists, what is one best idea you heard today?

Mark: I don't know if there's one best, but I do like what we were just talking about in terms of an incentive structure. Incentives play out in multiple ways. There could be incentives through opportunities for undergraduates to be exposed. And incentives for graduate students to gain those additional experiences. And an incentive structure around faculty, faculty incentivized to do cross-disciplinary work. In my experience, there have not been many incentive structures around creating an environment to help develop this talent pipeline.

Kathleen:   In  design thinking we often use mental models where we think about a traditional model and then flip the model based on changing circumstances. When I heard the graduate students talk about what they were not getting in their coursework portion of their PhDs and what they were getting at the places they are working on the side, it made me think that what we need to suggest is this type of scenario: Start your PhD at an approved workplace, for example, intermediaries like Jobs for the Future or Education Design Lab where you're setting the stage for the research you then want to do for your PhD. Then you have all the contacts you need, and maybe you get training in the quantitative methods at the university, and badges that may be increasingly available for different skill sets coming from different providers along the way.  This may ruin the business model of the college because who is getting paid in this more decentralized model? That is a problem. But in design thinking, we’re supposed to think about what would serve the learner and the organization before we worry about how to prop up the college. That's my probably unhelpful suggestion for what might happen. Some of the intermediary organizations like mine need to work harder to get the scholarship dollars, or even see ourselves as tracks of talent development.  I have had two people go into PhD programs from the Lab, and they continued to work while they were in the programs. It is hard but they were able to do it.

Michael: I'm thinking about incentives from a different perspective. If the university or a community college is innovative, and we're trying new things in terms of transforming how we are educating students, the models that we're adopting creates a strong incentive for faculty and students to really want to do research in that space. At Tec de Monterrey, we’ve transformed to a completely competency-based education model. It was a difficult journey, and we lost faculty in the process. The new educational model is also a challenge-based model. It’s our version of a work-and-learn continuum where we bring industry-relevant problems into the curriculum, with employers actively designing parts of the curriculum with us. This is sparking a lot of interest among our faculty and students to do research in these spaces because these are novel areas in educational innovation.  I think they can see that the university is being proactive and transformational, and that creates interest across multiple disciplines to be involved. In addition to addressing funding, budget and resources issues, having that guiding light and innovation push is helpful as well.

Holly:  Diversifying the talent development pipeline is an issue the NCRN and many other networks could be/should be writing and talking about more. There is a power in collaborative voices — we know we will need up and coming researchers, policy analysts, leaders, and others to take positions in the learn-and-work ecosystem.

To read part 1, click here.