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Advancing New Directions in Graduate Education

Rackham believes that doctoral programs must be responsive to the transformations reshaping graduate education, even as they advance cutting-edge research and scholarship. To support this standard of excellence, Rackham is partnering with graduate programs to develop decisive interventions to improve student success during their early doctoral experience and embed career and professional development into doctoral training. The Advancing New Directions in Graduate Education initiative represents a significant investment by the graduate school to catalyze and support faculty leadership in reshaping graduate education 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. The initiative thus emphasizes partnering with faculty and providing scaffolding for their program-level reforms.

Since May 2020, Rackham has worked closely with teams of faculty from doctoral programs across campus to implement substantive reforms in two core areas: the early doctoral experience, and career and professional development.

The Early Doctoral Experience

Students enter graduate programs with different backgrounds, levels of preparation, interests, and goals. The early stages of doctoral education are crucial for laying the groundwork for student success throughout their graduate training. The best doctoral programs strive to ensure that all students have the knowledge—both academic and practical—they need to complete their degrees and go on to fulfilling careers.

  • What broad knowledge will help students early in their programs understand and prepare for the opportunities that lie ahead in their doctoral training?
  • What is the best way to deliver core academic and research skills that can prepare students to succeed?
  • How can graduate faculty surface the premises and assumptions of doctoral education that constitute its “hidden curriculum,” and equip students with informed and practical strategies to navigate these expectations and to meet their goals?

Career and Professional Development

Rackham’s ongoing research on doctoral education indicates that students view career exploration and professional development as vital for their future success. Too often, students must seek these opportunities on their own, as an added investment of time on top of the demands of their academic program. A new standard for excellence, supported by the NSF, NIH, and national academic associations, calls for a more holistic approach to doctoral education, one that integrates career and professional development into graduate training alongside research and scholarship. What changes are needed to make professional development a core component of the doctoral experience itself?

  • What skills must students acquire to be ready for a wide range of professional and career opportunities? How might programs teach those skills? And which of those skills would be better taught outside of graduate programs?
  • What would it look like to approach broad career preparation in a way that weaves a holistic model of professional development into every student’s program of study, irrespective of their stated career goals?
  • What formative professional development opportunities might be adopted and embedded within doctoral programs?
  • Should integrating career and professional development include rethinking milestones and curriculum, as well as expectations for mentoring and advising?

How It Works

Programs are asked to constitute a team of three faculty members, who lead the design and implementation of program reforms in at least one of the core areas described above. At an initial consultation meeting, the faculty team—together with the department chair and/or director of graduate studies—explains to Rackham the challenges they seek to address in their doctoral program and tentative ideas for reforms. The deans of the graduate school review proposals and select participants for the coming year.

Faculty team members each receive a modest stipend ($5,000 in extra salary or research funds) for participating in the project. Rackham provides up to $35,000 per team to implement their reform plans and make available the expertise and support of its staff to help teams realize their goals.

This partnership with Rackham involves developing a project to reform graduate training at the doctoral level. Teams typically participate for at least two years, as most reform projects require more than a single year to develop and implement. To help programs move from envisioning a reform project to implementing it, Rackham has designed four activities to guide the collaboration process:

  1. Three-Day Workshop: All new teams participate in a three-day May workshop that introduces Rackham’s academic vision of student-centered graduate education and structures the effort to define a reform project that fits the needs of each program. Each team attends individual intake sessions with the Rackham Advancing New Directions in Graduate Education staff prior to the May workshop.
  2. Drafting a Proposal: Over the remainder of the summer, teams draft a proposal for their reform project, which they submit in mid-August. By the start of the new academic year, Rackham provides feedback on the proposed project’s feasibility, timeline, and budget.
  3. Learning Community Meetings: Both new and ongoing teams meet four times throughout the academic year as a learning community, participating in bespoke workshops designed to highlight common challenges around program reform and examples of innovation, as well as to build cross-disciplinary collaboration among the faculty.
  4. Check-In Sessions: Each team attends individual check-in sessions with Rackham to discuss progress, learn about difficulties, and troubleshoot problems.

Participating Teams

Graduate programs participating in the Advancing New Directions in Graduate Education Initiative include:


Core Area: The First-Year or Early Doctoral Experience


Core Area: The First-Year or Early Doctoral Experience

Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering

Core Area: Career and Professional Development

Educational Studies

Core Area: The First-Year or Early Doctoral Experience

English Language and Literature

Core Area: Career and Professional Development


Core Area: Career and Professional Development

Political Science

Core Area: The First-Year or Early Doctoral Experience


Rita Chin

Associate Dean for Academic Programs and Initiatives, Rackham Graduate School; Professor of History, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts

John Godfrey

Special Assistant to the Dean, Rackham Graduate School

Zana Kwaiser

Lead Program Officer for Dean’s Office

Laura Schram

Director of Professional Development and Engagement, Rackham Graduate School