This article is the third in a series documenting the efforts of Rackham graduate programs to reimagine graduate education as student centered and faculty led. In developing the work described in this article, the mechanical engineering department partnered with a team of Rackham experts through the Advancing New Directions in Graduate Education initiative. The initiative represents a significant investment by the graduate school to facilitate faculty leadership in rethinking what graduate education looks like at the program level. Its guiding principle is that solutions to the current challenges in graduate education must be worked out by faculty in their own programs and in relation to practices within their own fields.
Before Kazuhiro Saitou was a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, he was certain that he would be taking his Ph.D. education with him into an industry-focused career. “I was interviewing for industry positions, but when an opportunity at the University of Michigan came in, I took it,” he says.
“I’m very glad that I took the job at U-M, but there is a stigma about non-academic careers that I’m trying to change. A non-academic career is a positive choice for anyone to make.”
In addition to his work in the lab and in the classroom, Saitou, who is currently serving as an Associate Chair for Graduate Education in the mechanical engineering department, is a member of a three-person team, with fellow mechanical engineering professors Katsuo Kurabayashi and Wei Lu.
Together, the team is committed to enhancing the experiences of early doctoral students by fostering richer professional development opportunities for those with industry-focused career goals.
“About 50 percent of our Ph.D. students will pursue and accept industry positions,” Saitou says. “It should be highly, equally important for our program to prepare our students to be ready for such positions.”
Centering Student Feedback
A survey and town hall focus group for current Ph.D. students and recent graduates affirmed Saitou’s belief in enhanced career prep for non-academic paths. Respondents expressed interest in meaningful professional development and networking opportunities with alumni working in industry and in national labs.
“The students also wanted more opportunities to talk to their peers about career prospects,” Saitou says. “This is likely somewhat influenced by the COVID-19 situation, as many have experienced more limited interactions with the larger student body outside of their lab mates.”
With these needs in mind, Saitou and his teammates made some significant adjustments to their department’s proseminar for new doctoral students.
“We organized five proseminar panels this year,” Saitou says. “Before our interventions, there were only two: the ‘professor panel’ and the ‘non-academic panel.’”
The expanded ‘non-academic’ proseminar content features four panel sessions. One includes recent Ph.D. candidates who are midway through their degree program discussing career preparation. The second includes Ph.D. candidates who just passed the dissertation proposal exam—about six to 12 months away from graduation—discussing their confirmed career plans. Two alumni panels feature individuals working in national labs and others working in industry, respectively.
Saitou hopes that exposure through the proseminars to national lab and industry careers early on in the program will help students maximize their time within the program.
“Alumni networking and peer-to-peer panels are equally important to the students,” Saitou says. “We ask how Ph.D. candidates prepared for their careers—and advice they have for students at the start of their programs.”
Connecting with New Audiences
In addition to proseminar enhancements, Saitou is connecting current doctoral students to industry alums through a 3MT®, or “three minute thesis,” competition.
Developed by the University of Queensland, 3MT® competitions provide doctoral students with an opportunity to speak about their work to general audiences. Communicating to non-specialist audiences is a skill that Saitou is particularly interested in building within his department—and a skill that he’s had personal experience with as well.
In addition to his professorial work, from 2007 to 2012, Saitou was the founding member and CEO of a start-up. He describes his experiences of communicating with people outside of the research labs as “eye-opening.”
“I needed to talk to bankers and investors, employees and job candidates,” Saitou says. “It’s a totally different mode of communication and not something that is usually taught within academic programs.”
For the mechanical engineering department’s 3MT® competition, alumni will serve as the judges, awarding cash prizes and enjoying a post-competition networking dinner with student participants. Doctoral students can win prizes ranging from a $100 People’s Choice award to the $500 grand prize. For the doctoral candidate category, prizes are awarded as research scholarships, up to $5,000.
“The prizes are little ‘carrots’ to incentivize trying something different,” Saitou says. “Our usual style is writing a long conference paper and doing a 30-minute presentation. We need to prepare people in different ways.”
How Rackham Helps
Saitou credits Rackham’s Advancing New Directions initiative for giving shape to the process of change-making that his team underwent to enhance the mechanical engineering department’s professional development opportunities for early doctoral students.
“Advancing New Directions workshops helped us identify the goals of our program, the gaps in our program, and the approach that we took to address both, starting with the student survey,” Saitou says. “It’s my dream that this work continues in our department and in our college—this was an important time for concept verification and buy-in.”