Graduate students want to solve “tricky problems.” Is the university delivering?



climate change. Social inequality. Civic responsibility. The main focus of our era is “tricky problems”-complex challenges, lack of clear disciplinary boundaries, and need a unique and interdisciplinary perspective to construct and solve meaningfully.

In the words of Paul Hanstedt, director of the Washington and Lee University Teaching Center, solving these problems may require training young scholars to become “evil students.” Postgraduate education—its professionalism, close contact with faculty and staff, and opportunities for deep learning—should contribute to this kind of interdisciplinary training. However, usually not. On the contrary, under normal circumstances, the depth provided by graduate education almost systematically excludes breadth. Cultivate isolated and disconnected experts, not those who can meaningfully connect with others and their expertise to achieve common goals.

The first step in reconciling these tensions is to anchor some of these claims in the data on the student side of the equation. Do graduate students themselves want to pursue interdisciplinary goals and become “evil”?

They definitely will!

In the past two years, Ohio State University’s College Impact Laboratory has investigated upcoming PhD students. Students of all disciplines-the people who will become the next generation of researchers, scientists, and leaders. When last year’s students (n=98) were asked if they wanted to get a PhD. The plan provides them with meaningful interdisciplinary job opportunities, and 84.8% agree or strongly agree. This year (n=120) this trend has intensified, and 85.9% of people agree and strongly agree.

Those who are interested in pursuing an interdisciplinary doctoral degree. The plan found them to be transformative. For example, a student who participated in an interdisciplinary project centered on the decarbonization of the energy system told us that he encountered the views of other disciplines ” [them] Quite difficult” and make them “reconsider [their] Position on some ideas. Another student said that interdisciplinary work “changed my mindset…to a multi-domain perspective”, which helped them integrate their knowledge system and see other aspects of their research issues. In fact, Interdisciplinary training exposes students to many different perspectives, and previous research has shown that this may lead to more innovative solutions and stronger cognitive development.

Despite these benefits, the academic structure continues to create barriers to interdisciplinary research and supports traditional single-disciplinary views. Compared with traditional research, interdisciplinary research often receives less funding and is published in lower-ranked academic journals.

In addition, scholars engaged in interdisciplinary work cannot guarantee that their department will fully understand or value their cooperation. In the highly competitive academic research field, this may help others to overtake you, or cause your colleagues to reject your tenure. Therefore, it is no wonder that many scholars who have not earned tenure believe that interdisciplinary cooperation is dangerous to their careers.

Nevertheless, in an era of increasing specialization, future experts seem to be eager for a broader perspective. So what can universities do to provide interdisciplinary experiences to help train “bad students”?

One potential solution is to establish a PhD. Interdisciplinary programs from the ground up, such as those sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s Comprehensive Graduate Education and Research Training Program. Such programs, when deliberately designed, can provide the benefits of exposure to traditional subjects, while also attracting and capitalizing on students’ interdisciplinary interests.

Another option is the University Creation Program, which provides training and funding for scholars who wish to establish organic interdisciplinary partnerships to address unmet needs in their fields. These can include giving students the opportunity to work in interdisciplinary teams while gaining the skills to apply for funding and sell ideas to internal and external stakeholders. The third option is to add interdisciplinary options for ordinary PhDs. Allow natural scientists to participate deeply in social and behavioral sciences or humanities courses, and vice versa.

At a direct level, we want to know: If every student in our sample—including about 86% of students who want this experience—is required to take a course that focuses on using their expert opinions to deal with the community and the environment Or what about technically challenging courses? No matter which method is adopted, our universities urgently need to find a way to train graduate students with interdisciplinary skills and perspectives.

We don’t know what challenges we will face in the future, but we know they will come one day. When they do, we need well-trained experts who can see multiple aspects of the problem and can effectively communicate solutions across history, culture, identity, and vital disciplines.

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