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Advancing New Directions

Advancing New Directions is an initiative at Rackham to 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 currently focuses on the early doctoral experience and integrating professional development into the graduate curriculum, but can address other challenges raised by programs.

Faculty team members each receive a stipend (extra salary or research funds) for participating in the project, and Rackham provides between $35,000 and $50,000 per team to implement their reform plans. Teams also receive support from Rackham staff, whose knowledge of best practices and expertise in graduate education can help teams realize their goals.

What Can It Do?

Advancing New Directions can help faculty answer questions such as:

  • What broad knowledge and frameworks 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?
  • 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 weave a holistic model of professional development into every student’s program of study, irrespective of their 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 can graduate faculty uncover 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?
two students standing next to each other in front of a poster

How Does It Work?

Advancing New Directions represents a partnership between Rackham and graduate programs, enabling faculty-led reforms that are grounded in national conversations about the future of graduate education.

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. Kick-Off Workshop

All new teams participate in a five-hour workshop spread over a three-day period in May. The purpose is to introduce Rackham’s academic vision of student-centered graduate education and to structure the development of a reform project that fits the needs of each program. Each team attends individual intake sessions with the Rackham Advancing New Directions staff prior to the May workshop.

2. Drafting a Proposal

Over 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 and approves the proposal.

3. Learning Community Meetings

Both new and ongoing teams meet during 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, report on challenges, and troubleshoot problems.

a group of people sitting at tables in a room
Faculty members in the physical sciences and engineering share ideas at a breakout session of Rackham’s 2020 national symposium on reimaging graduate education.

What Does It Look Like?

Embedding Professional Development: English Language and Literature

Amid the declining number of faculty positions and the growing interest of doctoral students in pursuing careers outside academia, the Department of English Language and Literature (ELL) sought to rethink how to best prepare doctoral students to succeed after attaining their degrees. The ELL team collaborated with Advancing New Directions to explore innovative professional development opportunities and embed them in the doctoral program. Along the way, they worked to normalize and build support for the idea of diverse career outcomes for the department’s Ph.D. students.

The ELL team developed a unique approach to leverage the department’s size and internal diversity rather than be hindered by it. They invited students to nominate and vote for representatives from across the department’s Ph.D. tracks who would speak well to student concerns and liaise with the ELL team.

The ELL team pursued several complementary efforts to integrate professional development into the doctoral program, including:

  • designing and piloting a pre-prospectus workshop;
  • revising guidelines for the required sequence in career exploration activities;
  • funding department-sourced academic-year internships;
  • incentivizing the development of public-facing and lab-style classes;
  • proposing preliminary exam reforms, which were approved by the department at the end of the second year of the project.

The department has established internship partners like the Ecology Center, which works with policymakers at the Michigan Capitol and elsewhere to establish laws that protect communities and the environment.

“I used to hear stories of students having to prepare for alternative careers almost secretly without letting their mentors know… We are now at a position where everyone is open about the fact that we have to train our students to do all kinds of things and pursue various paths.” —Gaurav Desai, Department Chair, ELL

the Michigan State Capitol building
The department has established internship partners like the Ecology Center, which works with policymakers at the Michigan Capitol and elsewhere to establish laws that protect communities and the environment.

Community Engaged Coursework: Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering

As the dire effects of climate change are increasingly understood as touching every aspect of society, the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering (CLASP) sought to link its doctoral program’s traditional focus on physical science and research to societal problems in ways that directly impact policy and industry, and provide societally relevant solutions. The CLASP team partnered with Advancing New Directions to systematically integrate research and outreach into the doctoral program in order to teach students how to translate physical science research in space and climate science to societally relevant problems.

The CLASP team focused on creating the support structures within the doctoral program to help students interested in embedding community engagement in their graduate training through the following efforts:

  • building and receiving departmental and Rackham approval for two new certificate programs—one in Climate Change Solutions and the other in Space Technology Solutions;
  • creating a new project-based, collaborative research course that would serve as an “applied” component of the doctoral program.

“I think what we really want is the next generation of students tackling climate change and figuring out how we adapt to it at every single level, from local to international. Our students have the strong physical science skills to be able to play a central role in that, if we train them to. And that means thinking about our program differently than what we have in the past.” —Jeremy Bassis, Professor of CLASP

two people looking at a poster
Ph.D. candidate Natasha Dacic presents a poster of the CLASP team’s site recommendations for rain gardens in Washtenaw County. “No one teaches Ph.D. students how to collaborate with local governments and do projects that can best benefit a local community,” Dacic says. “We wanted to identify a problem and work closely with a partner on it instead of what we typically do, which is research, publish, and hope.”

A More Transparent and Student-Centered Curriculum: Political Science

The Department of Political Science sought to revise its graduate curriculum in an effort to meet emergent student needs. The political science team collaborated with Advancing New Directions to develop better transparency throughout the doctoral curriculum, support incoming students who want more preparation for quantitative-methods analysis, and integrate career exploration into doctoral training.

Over two years, the political science team worked on the following innovations:

  • expanding a summer math boot camp for incoming students;
  • creating a new dissertation prospectus course;
  • enhancing the program’s professionalization seminar to address the “hidden curriculum,” incorporating discussion of non-academic career paths and providing scaffolded support for career exploration;
  • improving mentoring practices across the program.

“It takes a good deal of planning to revise required course offerings. Establishing consensus calls for sincere discussions with individual faculty to hear their concerns. Rackham provided helpful advice and support to aid this process.” —Mark Dincecco, Associate Professor of Political Science

a group of people sitting around a table with laptops
Rackham staff members facilitate a career exploration workshop with the Department of Political Science.

Broadening Career Goals: Mechanical Engineering

Recognizing that more than half of its doctoral students pursue careers outside of academia, the Department of Mechanical Engineering sought to address a misalignment between the professional goals of most of its students and a Ph.D. program primarily designed to train future tenure-track faculty.

The mechanical engineering team partnered with Advancing New Directions to expand the program’s professional development offerings and support students with non-academic career goals, including:

  • expanding the career development aspects of the program’s existing professionalization seminar and adding an alumni career panel;
  • creating and launching a departmental seminar series to help students improve communication skills;
  • cultivating alumni industry affiliates with the goal of establishing a career mentoring network for doctoral students;
  • organizing a three minute thesis (3MT®) competition to incentivize doctoral students to communicate their research to non-expert audiences effectively.

“About 50 percent of our Ph.D. students will pursue and accept industry positions. It should be highly, equally important for our program to prepare our students to be ready for such positions. A non-academic career is a positive choice for anyone to make.” —Kazu Saitou, Professor of Mechanical Engineering

a student wearing a face mask holding a microphone
A student asks a question at a presentation by the College of Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship as part of the mechanical engineering department’s proseminar experience.

How Rackham Supported the Work of These Teams

  • offering significant funding to realize their plans
  • providing staff expertise on career exploration and professional development, evaluation and assessment, mentoring, and mental health and well-being
  • designing workshop sessions on barriers to academic culture change, strategies for promoting faculty buy-in, proseminars and the “hidden curriculum,” enhancing student communications skills, and program goals and course requirements
  • sharing examples of student professional development, including internships, three-minute thesis competitions, peer-to-peer mentoring, alumni networking activities, and community-engaged research courses
  • convening cross-disciplinary discussions of graduate education and academic culture change


Rita Chin

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

Phone: 734.764.4405
Email: [email protected]

Emily Swafford

Assistant Dean

Phone: 734.936.1647
Email: [email protected]

Zana Kwaiser

Program Officer for Dean's Office

Phone: 734.647.2653
Email: [email protected]

Laura Schram

Director of Professional Development and Engagement

Phone: 734.615.3658
Email: [email protected]

Join Us

Rackham’s Advancing New Directions in Graduate Education 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.

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