“Transformative changes in graduate education are needed to ensure the long-term health of geoscience graduate programs and professions and to produce geoscientists with the skills and competencies needed to address global societal challenges.”
That’s according to a newly released report by the American Geosciences Institute titled “Vision and Change in the Geosciences: Shaping the Future of Graduate Geoscience Education,” authored by Sharon Mosher of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, Jeffrey Ryan of the University of South Florida and Christopher Keane of the American Geosciences Institute.
The report is the culmination of a four-year effort, supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, that brought together more than 300 geoscientists – a third of whom were drawn from geoscience employers outside the academic community – to discuss what skills and competencies the next generation geoscientist needs to be successful and how graduate geoscience education needs to evolve to meet those objectives.
Graduate Programs in Jeopardy
In my March and June columns I touched on the challenges facing geoscience education and the profession, drawing on “The Geoscience Workforce – Today and Future Trajectories,” a February 2023 AGI webinar by Keane that was sponsored by the AAPG Foundation.
The report amplifies the message Keane delivered in February: total graduate enrollments since 2019 are down nearly 50 percent, with master’s degree enrollments down by 32.3 percent and doctoral degree enrollments down 48.4 percent. Undergraduate enrollments also saw declines of roughly 30 percent from 2015-19, but since the pandemic have seen a rebound.
While there are jobs for geoscientists with bachelor’s degrees, many non-academic professional geoscience jobs require master’s degrees. Absent qualified candidates, these positions are now being filled by non-geoscientists, with “as of 2022, 22 percent of all U.S. geoscience employment held by non-geoscientists.”
This trend represents an important call to action to the geoscience community. As the report makes clear, “the long-term health of geoscience graduate programs is in jeopardy unless recruitment, admissions, and retention of graduate students improves.”
The recommendations presented in the report reflect a consensus of both geoscience employers and the academic community on what skills and competencies the next generation of master’s and doctoral students need to be competitive and successful in their careers.
That is good news! But now it’s time to get to work.
An overarching theme in the report is that solving this challenge requires a community response. From students to faculty, deans to alumni, and the employers and professional societies – all of us have a role to play.
A big shift for me between undergraduate and graduate school was the transition from being a student – learning facts and figures, theories and concepts and feeding those back to my professors on a test – to conducting independent research to apply that knowledge to a particular research problem. Thankfully, I had advisers willing to teach me how to do that.
Today, as the recommendations make clear, that shift is even more pronounced as the practicing geoscientist of the future must have facility that extends beyond domain-specific knowledge:
- Data analytics, computer programming and coding is as much a tool of the trade today as the colored pencil of yesteryear.
- The ability to communicate what you’re researching and why it matters, both to technical and lay audiences
- Opportunity to learn how to evaluate problems and develop solutions or approaches to solutions – the critical thinking and problem-solving skills needed in today’s workplace
- Cultivating a “leadership and innovation mindset” in graduate students and equipping and empowering them to take responsibility for their own development
If I thought the shift from undergraduate student to graduate researcher was daunting, accepting this level of personal responsibility, even while I was trying to define my career goals would have been downright terrifying!
Requiring each graduate student to develop an Individual development plan under the guidance of their faculty adviser and other mentors is an important recommendation in the report. It can help set goals, develop a pathway for the student to follow and expand their network through mentorship to support them in achieving their set objectives.
Supporting students in a systematic way will require change by geoscience departments, and the report authors recognize how difficult that will be. Communicating with faculty the need for change is a first step, but departments also need to provide them with the tools and skills to effectively shepherd these graduate students in a new era.
Some of the recommendations include:
- Graduate geoscience education must be student focused with faculty accepting the responsibility to foster the development of well-rounded geoscientists, not just exceptional scholars.
- Emphasize that the geosciences are a preferred career path for students who want to make a difference for humanity and the planet.
- Faculty need resources that equip them to be more effective advisors and mentors for their students.
- I particularly liked the concept of developing a cohort for incoming graduate students, since I experienced something similar during my MBA. Our class was together for 21 months, and it generated a sense of camaraderie that remains nearly two decades later.
There is a significant role for professional societies in all of this, to communicate and support these efforts to improve graduate geoscience education. You can read the entire report online or download a PDF at graduate.americangeosciences.org.
“Geoscience graduate students need more and more current information to help them identify career options and develop the necessary skills and competencies for success in their chose career paths.”
That’s where we come in.