Graduate students benefit from political experience (opinion)


Efforts are taking shape across the country to involve more scientists in policies at the local level. However, an approach that many other academic disciplines use effectively, but which is lacking in the pure sciences, is largely missing from this process: courses that provide students with real local political commitment for college credits as part of their programs. graduate studies.

Experiential learning opportunities offered in graduate courses are generally referred to as synthesis programs. They are structured according to the board model, with students presenting project clients with their final work products, which effectively serve as their thesis. The key to these types of arrangements is that students receive academic credit from their institutions in exchange for applying their technical and critical thinking skills to real-world challenges.

In the pure sciences, the integration of these synthesis projects might be distinct from, but in addition to, the traditional research-based dissertations that students present to complete their graduate degrees. Such a setup would give these graduate students the opportunity to gain first-hand policy experience by working on projects for local government clients while remaining engaged in scientific research. This type of experience beyond the lab would help cultivate an understanding of the government context and practitioner expertise that is not generally available in such academic settings.

An academic institution can build this type of program and create its own synthesis projects without having to guess the research needs of public agencies in the process. For example, one of us, Terri Matthews, runs Town + Gown: NYC, a city-wide research program based at the New York City Department of Design and Construction, the lead manager of the city’s capital construction project. T + G works with experiential learning programs, faculty and students from academic institutions to develop projects with municipal agency members from its community of practice, continuing these collaborations through to completion. of the project. An example of student-led research is that of the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs’ Synthesis Program for the New York City Housing Authority. Another is from New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering Center for Urban Science and Advancement Synthesis Program for T + G’s Urban Resource Recovery Working Group. The actionable knowledge it creates not only provides invaluable support to the department itself, but also makes it a research resource for all agencies in the city.

The other of us, Nancy Holt, heads Science for New York, which also works to bring policymakers and scientists together through project-based interaction. Recent and ongoing collaborations between Sci4NY and T + G are supporting food waste public awareness efforts for the nonprofit foundation of the New York Department of Sanitation, as well as the development of ways in which scientists could work more closely with the city to address challenges in local communities.

The benefits of such an experiential learning program for graduate students who wish to pursue a career in politics are significant.. This allows them to complete the missing piece of the puzzle they need to successfully apply for jobs and other professional pursuits: experience. Completed projects count as jobs on resumes and project clients can serve as professional references for students. Since pure science graduate programs are currently structured, obtaining such experience is difficult to say the least.

Additionally, experiential learning in this sense gives graduate students the time to pursue their interest in policy issues. Most research advisers expect their graduate students to stay in the lab for many hours beyond the standard work week, which in particular hinders students’ ability to engage with decision makers. Dedicating a formal classroom to experiential learning gives these students the opportunity to work on these projects as part of their university courses.

These programs also provide students with general policy knowledge, a skill that cannot easily be learned through policy seminars or certificate courses that career development offices are beginning to offer students in pure sciences. This kind of knowledge is especially important in today’s political climate, whether or not a graduate student pursues a career in politics.

Graduate programs must evolve

Colleges and universities that create these programs should keep several points in mind: local government is particularly difficult to effectively apprehend as a foreigner. One of the main reasons is that information about local government is more sparse than at the federal level, and the avenues for direct interaction with government are generally more limited. Thus, recruiting policy-savvy instructors with established government relations and professional experience to teach policy skills to graduate science students can greatly enrich the process.

It is also essential to provide academic credit for these programs. Today, granting academic credit for work that is not part of a student’s direct research path is not standard practice in pure science graduate programs. Yet from a municipal perspective, working with synthesis classes is a commonly accepted method of collaboration. From a government perspective, this is not a purchase of services, but rather an exchange in kind. In other words, students provide their academic skills, and in turn, the government provides real-world research questions and associated data, as well as practitioner expertise that supports students’ professional development.

Thus, academic credit is at the heart of this type of transactional exchange from a local government perspective: such an arrangement allows students to participate in projects in easily demonstrable ways that show compliance with various labor laws. Seen through the prism of synthesis, creating this option would improve the overall student experience and overcome a key logistical hurdle that arises when trying to work with local government.

At present, higher education institutions seem to be largely staying the course of doing what they know best by producing more academics. University professors and administrators may find advancing non-university career paths beyond their goals. But that would be missing the point, because the scientific enterprise cannot succeed without offering new programmatic opportunities that help recruit the best students. In Darwinian scientific parlance, institutions that do not evolve will disappear.

Moreover, the fact is that experiential learning benefits not only graduate students, but also institutions that offer these programs. The main selling characteristics that many graduate programs use to attract applicants are their post-graduation placement rates and other professional development opportunities. Particularly in these times, when many scientists no longer find their way into traditional academic career paths, students are beginning to consider measures for post-graduation placement when choosing a graduate school. International students may be particularly attracted to institutions that offer such programs, as participation in project-based work as part of an integrated university course does not usually require citizenship.

In addition, students who are able to engage effectively with policy makers and the public will not only be better advocates for strengthening the role of science in society, as well as scientific funding, but also likely to be more generous donors to their work. alma maters. And we must not forget in this equation the public, to whom science is supposed to benefit and policy is supposed to serve. Dramatically increasing the opportunities for scientists and policymakers to work together through experiential learning at the local level in graduate programs would help create healthier and more resilient communities for all of us.


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