Graduate Program Data Based Decisions
To address our specific learning objectives, we have made the following accomplishments in the Biology Graduate Programs:
(1) To comprehend a broad body of biological knowledge generally related to the student’s area of interest, the students work with their major professor/advisor to select appropriate members for the supervisory committee to guide their training. A minimum of annual meetings with the committee provide the input/feedback forum to support ongoing progress of the student in gaining the broad body of biological knowledge they desire to meet the needs of their degree program research and preparation for desired career interests. Successful completion of the comprehensive exam provides evaluation of meeting their knowledge and training goals. Successful completion and defense of the MS thesis or PhD dissertation will complete their graduate training program.
Since we initiated the Professional Developmental Plan, 95-100% of students feel their research (command of literature, presentation skills, writing skills, and collaboration skills) have met or exceeded their expectations, and 95-97% of supervisory committees feel that students are meeting or exceeding these research accomplishments. Additionally, 100% of students feel they are on-track with meeting expectations for progress in coursework (following their program of study, completing/planning to complete courses that will meet their training needs), while 97% of supervisory committees feel that student coursework is on-track.
(2) To master the student’s specific area of interest to the degree necessary to conduct independent research in that field, the student receives guidance and support from their advisor and supervisory committee to gain the research skills needed to accomplish their research project. In addition to coursework, participation in workshops and other training sessions are a common way for a student to meet their learning goals.
As reported above, the vast majority of students and supervisory committees feel that student research training programs are on-track.
(3) To acquire the essential skills for conducting such research, including the use of appropriate instrumentation and analytical methods, the student is again guided by their committee and participate in targeted training opportunities to gain the experience needed in methodology and instrumentation.
(4) To achieve proficiency in written and oral communication, as applied to the student’s area of specialization, the student will participate in annual committee meetings where updates on research progress are presented, participate in the comprehensive exam where written and/or oral presentation skills are developed and tested, present research results at university and professional conferences/meetings, and present their thesis or dissertation defense in an open public forum to interested parties upon the completion of their degree program
Since Fall 2019, the Department has gathered and summarized output data from the annual Professional Development Plans. Although the Department Administration and Graduate Programs Leadership has informed faculty and students that an annual PDP is required, we are still only at 61-66% compliance. At the Fall 2021 retreat, the Department leadership emphasized the importance of students scheduling at least an annual meeting with their committee and completing the PDP. We anticipate greater compliance rates in the coming year.
Comments that students provided regarding their progress and goals in their annual PDP reports include:
- Working to improve writing quantity and quality
- Working to improve communication skills
- Coding/programming skills have improved
- Try for a summer internship
- Present at a conference or symposium
- Finish thesis/dissertation proposal
- Apply for candidacy (doctoral)
- Read more literature
- Pass comprehensive exam
Comments from supervisory committees mentioned many of the same topics, and additionally:
- Form a reading/discussion group
- Form new external collaborations
- Take advantage of temporary instructor position openings
- Submit revised proposal
- Increase communication with committee
- Investigate NSF postdoc funding opportunities
- Work on time management skills
As we gather more results from the annual PDP reports, we will expand our comparisons of progress for our students in research and coursework. Additionally, we are revising our PDP to break out more specific scoring subcategories under research and coursework, and will launch the revised Biology PDP in AY21-22.
Additional goals of the Biology Graduate Programs include:
Increase the size of graduate programs (subject to the acquisition of additional funding) and the diversity of its student population
Following several years of modest enrollment in 2010-2012, the Department has gradually expanded its enrollment to 58-59 students in 2019-2020. Recent impacts of the pandemic have once again taken a toll Although we have not returned to our higher enrollments of 70-95 students seen in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the current enrollment is in line with the number of research faculty available to mentor the students. Recent increases in student numbers was facilitated by an infusion of graduate stipend funding and tuition assistance. Challenges remain in increasing stipend salaries and tuition support to compete for students in the national arena.
The Department has made important progress toward increasing diversity in its graduate programs. Special programs such as the Martin Luther King Fellowships and the Presidential Doctoral Research Fellowships, both of which are funded by ORGS, have been used to improve recruitment of members of groups underrepresented in the biological sciences. In addition, the Department has continued its efforts at minority recruitment through regular attendance at the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), and it was active in the establishment of a local chapter of that organization at USU. Nonetheless, the Department continues to attract only small numbers of applications from members of underrepresented groups. We are hopeful that recent efforts to hire faculty with strong visions and actions in justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion will aid the Department is recruitment of students from underrepresented groups.
Enhance graduate programs’ global reach
The Department continues to accept strong international students into its graduate programs, but it has not made substantial gains in this area. Recent challenges with the global pandemic and export control issues continue to negatively impact our goal to expand global reach in graduate programs.
Enhance the already strong mentorship of students
Increased opportunities have been made available for students to receive training in skills critical for their future careers, both inside and outside academia. Students are strongly encouraged by faculty members to participate in graduate training programs and symposia offered by the ORGS, including the Research Scholars Certification Program, teaching-assistant training, grant-writing workshops, thesis/dissertation workshops, and Graduate Training Series (topics include data management and archiving, oral and written/graphic communication, career development). The Biology Graduate Student Organization (BGSA) also provides opportunities for the acquisition of leadership skills.
With the assistance of our faculty, some Biology graduate students have received significant grants and fellowships from federal funding sources in recent years. These have included Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation.
We have introduced important new graduate courses following the hiring of faculty members with expertise not previously available within the Department. These include, most notably, courses in Bayesian statistics and in advanced computer programming methods for biologists
The Department continues to identify opportunities for doctoral candidates to offer courses of their own, to prepare them for faculty careers and to improve their competitiveness in the academic job market.
Enhance its web presence and tracking of student progress and productivity
The Department established new and more effective procedures for tracking students through their graduate program. A thorough review of current students several years ago led to the identification of individuals in need of special encouragement. An enhanced system for tracking student progress was implemented, which resulted in the rapid completion of nearly all students whose progress had previously slowed.
A newly designed graduate program database was completed in 2020. That database will allow the Graduate Programs Directors and Graduate Program Coordinator to monitor more efficiently completion of program benchmarks by our students, and it will also assist us in maintaining current data on student demographics and information on the employment of program alumni.
Expand mentorship beyond preparation for careers in academia, but to also include student career interests in government agencies, NGOs, private businesses, etc.
The annual Professional Development Plan process is supporting students in clarifying career interests with their committee, and identifying priority skill and experience components they want to achieve during their graduate program. Additionally, diverse career interests of graduate students is an ongoing discussion in the Department (at faculty meetings, fall retreats, etc.), and has increased the visibility of the desire for training and preparation of graduate students for diverse career opportunities.
Seek additional sources of funding for stipends, graduate research, travel, and recruiting
With strong support from the College of Science, the Department increased its stipends for Graduate Teaching Assistantships 4 years ago, and we are assessing if we can do so again despite flat funding for stipends and tuition waivers. We have also sought opportunities to increase the availability of scholarships, both for general graduate support and for specific purposes such as field travel. The Department has been successful in increasing scholarship opportunities in recent years with the addition of several new scholarships and research awards (Ecology and Whitworth). In addition, Biology is among a number of departments at USU whose faculty and students are participating in a National Science Foundation Research Traineeship program on climate adaptation.