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Scholar: Graduate Research Internships a Resource to Fill STEM Workforce Gap

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the U.S. workforce will continue to experience a need for workers trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the future. Continuously advancing technology requires that employees learn new skills. While some jobs will require training that can be achieved in secondary, vocational and undergraduate schools, others will require expertise in research and innovation beyond the bachelor’s degree.

Erick C. JonesErick C. Jones

Fortunately, this trend in employment opportunities overlaps with another trend: recent statistics show that many students who receive graduate degrees in STEM have an interest in careers outside of the academy. The likelihood that a significant proportion of graduate students will be employed outside academia creates a conundrum: What is the role of the academy in offering training for students for employment in industry, government or non-profit sectors outside of the academy? What are the tools available to faculty members to provide training that they themselves may not have experienced? In what ways do the needs of the workforce intersect with the curriculum of graduate education?

Expanding opportunities for more students to take advantage of graduate research internships might address future workforce needs in the U.S. and alleviate some of the pressure that faculty face to supplement their rigorous research training with the teaching of, and exposure to, technical and professional career skills and opportunities.

Underrepresented minorities are a critical domestic population to consider for staffing these future U.S. STEM jobs, and all domestic graduate students, especially underrepresented minorities and women, should consider internship programs.

Workforce of the Future

The recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ January 2017 publication, “STEM Occupations: Past, Present, and Future,” reports that there are over 8.6 million STEM jobs in the current workforce.

This publication also projects the above-average growth of these jobs when compared with other occupations. Examining the future of individual STEM fields, the bureau also predicts growth of over 28 percent in jobs in the mathematical sciences in the decade between 2014 and 2024.

How can the U.S. address the projected need for employees with high levels of STEM expertise? Many efforts are currently underway at the Department of Energy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to address the question of increasing this pipeline. One could also include the list of agencies participating in the Graduate Research Internship Program (GRIP), which includes U.S. Geological Survey, Smithsonian, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, to name a few, in order to address the issue of the STEM pipeline through professional development activities such as internships and apprenticeships.

Programs encouraging broader participation in STEM from an early age serve as one way to increase the number of people equipped with the STEM skills needed for our future workforce.

Beyond K-16, however, how can these workforce gaps be addressed? How can the top U.S. talent be tapped to fill the needed research and technology positions beyond academia?

Moreover, many of these agencies are seeking diversity in this pipeline knowing that the future U.S. STEM workforce will need this domestic population to staff many federal jobs.

Increased opportunities through diversity

In a conference paper to be presented at the 2017 ASEE Annual Conference, R. Bates and I describe a professional development model through internships as a means to support diversity in academic careers that integrate work experiences outside of academia.

Although there have been many efforts over the last few decades to address the “leaky pipeline” in order to build a professoriate that better represents the face of the United States, the fact is that it has not yet resulted in a diverse faculty population in STEM, particularly in engineering.

Statistics show that in 2014, underrepresented minorities earned up to 8.7 percent of engineering doctorates, an increase from 6.2 percent in 2004, and women earning doctorates in engineering went from 11.9 percent in 1995 to 22.8 percent in 2014. Also, 6.8 percent of respondents with engineering doctorates reported having a disability in 2014. And 15.5 percent of engineering faculty were women in 2013, and 8.3 percent were underrepresented, compared to about 6.2 percent women and 4.8 percent underrepresented minorities in 1993.

These numbers contrast with all science and engineering faculty, where 53.1 percent are women and 14.7 percent are underrepresented minorities in 2013 in both community colleges and four-year programs. Although women are slightly overrepresented in college science and engineering faculty, they are nowhere near parity in engineering programs.

In 2016, Kenneth D. Gibbs suggested that early interventions must be coupled with strategies that address the entire career development pathway, including doctoral education, postdoctoral training, faculty appointments, grant making and promotion and tenure criteria.

Through additional professional development in graduate school, diverse populations are able to increase their workforce opportunities even in academic settings. The students gain access to networks, equipment and facilities they would not have had access to in smaller colleges, including historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and minority serving institutions (MSIs).

National labs and MSIs

There have been several internship programs that support diversity that have been funded by federal agencies and national labs, including U.S. Department of Energy’s Minority Serving Institutions Partnership Program, the Department of Homeland Security’s HS-STEM Summer Internship Program, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority Educational Institutions (MEIs) program.

Though these programs have been instrumental in providing opportunities for internships, most programs fund undergraduate student research experiences. Some programs support faculty performing research at these labs with mostly undergraduate students.

Federal response

The U.S. government has already recognized the need to address the workforce of the future. The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2017 authorizes educating STEM teachers, supporting computer science education and supporting STEM fellowships and workshops. In addition, the Pathways Programs authorized by Executive Order 13562 clearly delineates opportunities for students at various stages of their education, including postgraduate, to apply their skills to the federal workforce and address federal agencies’ needs for talent.

Preparing graduate students

Workforce needs extend well beyond the federal government. Are there ways to prepare STEM graduate students for careers in other sectors? One possibility that has already shown success is creating research internships specifically for graduate students. The Council of Graduate Schools, along with ETS, published Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers in 2012, a report that offers several recommendations to ease the transition for graduate students from academia to the workforce.

The report speaks highly of the ways in which internships can provide a vital link between employers and students. Among the specific programs mentioned are the America COMPETES Act Reauthorization Act of 2010, authorizing federal agencies to prepare graduate students for a 21st century workforce and the possibility of creating professional development opportunities for graduate students to learn professional skills.

One example is the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Internship program (GRIP), launched in 2014, which provides a model that industry and non-profit sectors might wish to emulate. Recipients of the prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program are invited to apply for the one-year GRIP.

Applicants may select one of several federal agencies for their research internship, lasting two to 12 months, and interns work closely with both their academic advisor and their mentor at the federal agency or national laboratory to design a research project related to, complementary to, or parallel to their academic work. Students learn about conducting research in a new setting and also learn communication, project management and team building skills in a work environment.

Exploiting collaborations

While the enhanced graduate internship programs may enhance a student’s understanding of employment opportunities outside academe, perhaps a more interesting outcome is that the students will be able to demonstrate their ability to “do” science. Skills including how to manage a research budget and research project portfolios are valuable for both academic and non-academic research positions.

Conversely, some in academe might fear that internships could take time away from training in research that is the hallmark of graduate education, though internships may enhance, not diminish, this training.

Enhanced view

This enhanced view or model of graduate student internships requires collaboration between the academic mentor at the university and the research mentor at the respective federal agency. Thus the internship partnership is not only between an individual student and a federal researcher but also a broader partnership between academia and the federal agencies.

This enhanced graduate student internship model would include: an agreed upon individual professional development plan (IPDP) from the intern, clearly defined scientific research opportunity from the agency or organization, and a clearly defined scientist who will commit to being the scientific research advisor for the intern.

The IPDP focuses on what professional skills would be developed outside of academia that supports the student entering a STEM career. This plan should generally be communicated to both the academic research advisor and the agency scientific advisor by the graduate student, to ensure timely graduation and to ensure the internship supports understanding of science-related activities.

A clearly defined opportunity is important so that the organization can maintain clear knowledge and control over what the scientific team is defining as an internship experience. Finally, the commitment from a scientist, engineer or innovator at the organization is essential, so that effective knowledge transfer occurs.

Though these components require some preparation from the organization to support STEM graduate student internships, the benefits of hosting a future STEM researcher should be exciting.

The organization has the opportunity to market their organization innovation to the public. They have STEM talent available to address complex projects with newly acquired, high-end skill sets attained in graduate school — big data analytics and cybersecurity training, to name two — and they have an opportunity to engage with top academic talent who will support their future workforce needs.

The Workforce of the Future

Could the success of the enhanced graduate internships such as the NSF’s GRIP program be replicated to include industrial and non-profit organizations? Could these be expanded to include more federal agencies and more graduate students?

As the recent BLS report illustrates, there will be a growing need for STEM talent in the U.S. workforce. As more STEM graduates will be looking at multiple sectors for employment, it would be ideal to expand and replicate a program like GRIP to address both of these trends: helping employers with their workforce needs while simultaneously exposing graduate students to the possibilities of employment in multiple sectors. Furthermore, such opportunities for individual students provide greater opportunities for partnerships between academic and employment sectors. Such partnerships can easily be seen to lead to innovation and future discoveries.

At the undergraduate level, many researchers have found that students who have participated in internships have benefited greatly. While graduate students have different needs — in particular, they need to have rigorous training to become solid researchers — a carefully-designed research internship can be seen as complementing and enhancing their training. Considering an enhanced graduate internship model as an exemplar, it may be possible to offer professional development opportunities for more graduate students in more employment sectors in the future.

— Dr. Erick C. Jones is the George and Elizabeth Pickett Endowed Professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering and Associate Dean of Graduate Affairs in the College of Engineering at the University of Texas Arlington. He is currently on detail at the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

  • This story also appears in the July 27, 2017 print edition of Diverse.
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