What’s On My Mind: Educating the whole graduate student and postdoctoral scholar

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"What's On My Mind" illustration of Chancellor Nicholas S. ZepposResearch and discovery can always be traced back to ideas and creativity. Each major breakthrough, innovative concept and careful analysis of the world around us is the result of someone pursuing a bold idea, often for years at a time. Research universities provide an environment where those ideas—and the people behind them—can thrive.

Many of these bold new ideas have their genesis while researchers are in graduate school or conducting their postdoctoral research. Developing the next great researchers, scholars and leaders is essential to our mission, and it is a responsibility that is evolving. Over the past 50 years, the career paths for graduate students has changed dramatically. The expectation used to be that most Ph.D. graduates would spend their career at a university. Fewer do so now, due to decreased growth of long-term academic positions compared to the number of new Ph.D.s.

There are also more new opportunities in many industries beyond academia. A new report found that the time span in academic positions for astronomers, ecologists and robotics scientists was at least seven-fold shorter now versus those starting careers in the 1960s, as these scholars follow paths that take them in different directions. At Vanderbilt, we are working to provide the very best training for the graduate students and postdoctoral scholars who are so integral to our community and to develop opportunities for them both within academia and in other sectors.

Our graduate programs train students in their respective fields of study, and we are also intentional about developing creative and trusted thought leaders. Just over a year ago, we launched the planning for the new Russell G. Hamilton Leadership Development Institute and welcomed the first cohort of more than 100 Russell G. Hamilton scholar graduate students in the fall. The program focuses on recruiting and supporting a new generation of students to be future faculty members, pathbreaking researchers and national knowledge leaders. And Vanderbilt’s approach is being noticed nationally: the Russell G. Hamilton Leadership Development Institute was recently recognized as a model for graduate education.

I am proud of the culture that Vanderbilt is creating to support graduate students and trainees, particularly through the leadership of Dean Mark Wallace and the Graduate School. The journey to becoming a leading expert in a field can be long and mentally taxing; the encouragement that a university can offer along the way is critical. A keystone of our Academic Strategic Plan is fostering graduate student success through leadership development programs, student support systems and a career counseling network that understands that academia might not be the right fit, ultimately, for every student. Success can come in many forms, and the most important outcome is that our graduates feel fulfilled in a career that is the best match for them.

The Graduate School also emphasizes mentorship. Research universities across the country are recognizing the importance of mentorship and advising for doctoral students across disciplines—and we are no exception. Dean Wallace has created a formalized structure for training faculty on how to mentor and recognize issues that could be a barrier to success for any student. One great example of mentoring is Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan R. Wente, who has personally mentored more than 20 Ph.D. candidates in the laboratory she still runs in the School of Medicine. Her focus on mentorship is widely evident; she recently chaired the 2018 Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science.

Beyond mentoring, we are working to enhance the sense of community and support for graduate students and postdocs. As part of the FutureVU plan, we are developing campus housing communities for graduate students. We moved the offices of the Graduate School into Alumni Hall to develop a space for graduate students to convene and connect, creating more chances for cross-disciplinary interactions and social support. And the Graduate School created the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs to focus on providing a collective set of resources for postdocs across Vanderbilt.

Mental health is also critical. For our doctoral students, graduate school can be a time of significant change—both in terms of finances and life situations—and graduate programs must recognize that. The Strategic Plan for Vanderbilt’s Mental Health and Wellbeing, released just over a year ago, resulted in the development of the Student Care Network and increased resources for studying well-being, including boosted support for graduate students. We also need our faculty to know what resources are available so that, when appropriate, they can help students and postdocs connect to additional support.

With nearly 2,000 graduate students and more than 600 postdocs at Vanderbilt, we are working to create a community that fosters success, inspires cross-disciplinary collaboration and develops the next generation of world-renowned thinkers, leaders and intellectual pioneers. As a leading research university, supporting graduate students and postdocs is critical to the future of research and innovation at Vanderbilt and far beyond.