Over the past two decades, national data show that an increasing number of Ph.D. recipients secure jobs outside of academia after graduation, suggesting a national need for more intentional preparation for a broad range of career outcomes for doctoral students. Other studies have suggested that professional development opportunities can help master’s students, who often do not receive financial support in graduate school, better understand how to leverage their degrees for successful careers.
Rackham Graduate School offers a wide range of professional and sociocultural development opportunities to its students. This year, Rackham staff members Laura Schram and Emma Flores co-authored an article with recent alumna Paula Clasing-Manquian to investigate who takes advantage of this programming and to share how their findings can contribute to student support nationally. Their article appeared in Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, and Schram and Flores discuss their project in this Q&A.
What were your main findings about who attends programs at Rackham?
Laura Schram: In our models of both domestic and international students, we found that female students, U.S. citizens, and first-generation college students were more likely to attend Rackham programs. When we narrowed the sample to just U.S. citizens, we found that female students, students from U.S. historically marginalized racial groups, and U.S. Pell Grant recipients (i.e., low-income students) have a higher likelihood of attending programs at Rackham, controlling for other variables. Taken together, we find that several groups who are often on the margins in doctoral education—females, U.S. historically marginalized racial groups, low-income students, first-generation college students—are more likely to take advantage of the offerings at Rackham.
What does this mean about the role of graduate schools like Rackham in students’ graduate education journey?
Emma Flores: Our research study looked at one institution, but I believe that it demonstrates the type of value a graduate school can bring to the experiences of our graduate students. We know that Rackham Graduate School is a key administrative and financial partner on this campus, but we are also able to offer students an additional space for professional development and community building. I have always loved working in the graduate school setting because it is uniquely positioned to bring students together from across the entire university and facilitate conversations about the graduate student experience and the shared needs of graduate students in an interdisciplinary environment.
What was surprising to you?
LS: Given that we found that students from historically marginalized groups in graduate education were more likely to attend Rackham programs, I was initially surprised that this wasn’t the case for international students. Domestic (U.S. citizen) students are more likely to attend Rackham programs than international (non-U.S. citizen) students. We discuss several possible explanations for this in our paper, but one I would highlight is that we know several other units and organizations also offering excellent programming for our international scholars, including the International Center, the English Language Institute (ELI) and the Graduate Rackham International (GRIN) student organization. We at Rackham want to be sure that all the units and organizations at the University of Michigan who aim to meet the unique needs of our international students on campus work together. I meet regularly with GRIN’s professional development committee to make sure we are doing just that.
EF: When we looked at attendance, depending on the term, only 4 to 11 percent of all enrolled students attended at least one of our programs. I was initially surprised by this number, but we really don’t have a point of comparison, making it difficult to judge. As we mentioned in the study, we know there are many other spaces on campus where graduate students can access co-curricular student programming, like the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching or Sweetland Center for Writing. At the same time, now that we have this baseline, I am eager to continue analyzing our attendance. In particular, during the recent COVID-19 pandemic all of our programming was offered virtually, and I am curious to see in what ways this may have impacted who participates in our programs.
What changes did Rackham make to its programming after you learned who is attending these offerings?
LS: When we first did this analysis several years ago, we were struck that students often considered to be on the margins in higher education are more likely to attend programs at Rackham. We wanted to make sure that we as Rackham staff educators were intentional in serving those students’ unique needs. We started a staff learning community to discuss the “hidden curriculum” of graduate school, which refers to the unwritten norms and rules of higher education. We read A Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum by Dr. Jessica Calarco together and brainstormed about ways to ensure that our programs make the unwritten rules of grad school explicit and clear to students from all backgrounds. For example, we talked about how in some departments, there is a lack of formal curriculum on how to publish or present your own research. In the wake of these discussions, we developed new workshops on starting your authorship journey and how to design and present effective conference posters. We also created a new Canvas course for all incoming graduate students, called Grad School 101, that shares information and links to resources that are valuable for new students.
Based on what you learned, how can faculty and Rackham work together to support students?
LS: As Emma noted, we found that in any given semester only a small percentage of students attend any Rackham programs. I know when I was a doctoral student, I only went to the graduate school for paperwork! So we know that students spend the vast majority of their time in their home departments, and anything they do at Rackham is in addition to their core responsibilities in their home programs. Given that, we believe it’s critical to partner with faculty to support students’ development. One promising model for faculty-Rackham partnership is the Advancing New Directions initiative. Through Advancing New Directions, Rackham deans and staff educators guide and support faculty in reimagining the academic experience in graduate programs. Participants join a cohort of faculty teams working on similar issues, through which they exchange ideas and learn from each other. Advancing New Directions is in its third year now, and we currently focus on the early doctoral experience and integrating professional development into the graduate curriculum. Based on what we learned in our research on who attends graduate school programs, we think it’s critical that faculty and Rackham staff explore together how we can uncover the hidden curriculum of doctoral education and ensure that students from all backgrounds are successful in their graduate studies.
What future research is Rackham hoping to do on this topic?
EF: Recently, Rackham established the Rackham Strategic Evaluation and Assessment Team (R-SEAT), for which I am now serving as its inaugural director. This new team was created in order to foster a culture of continuous improvement by conducting high-quality, data-informed evaluations of Rackham’s academic initiatives. When you are doing day-to-day programming, it is difficult to find the time to oversee a comprehensive evaluation. R-SEAT provides a tremendous internal resource to be able to systematically assess our academic initiatives and make recommendations for how our initiatives can grow or pivot to best support the needs of our graduate student community. This research study is just one example of how Rackham can be a leader in developing, implementing and evaluating academic initiatives as we all work towards our mission to advance excellence in graduate education.
I also have to add that it was tremendously rewarding for me to partner with Laura and conduct this research. Many of us at Rackham are not just practitioners, but we are also scholars and researchers. This study is one example of many, where professional staff at Rackham are leading innovative programming and facilitating critical conversations at a national level. This is possible because of supportive leadership and the recognition of the wide range of expertise of all of those who work at Rackham.
Laura Schram is Rackham’s director of professional development and engagement. Emma Flores is the director of the Rackham Strategic Evaluation and Assessment Team, and she previously served as the graduate school’s director of access and inclusion.