A new core curriculum for grad students

I spend a lot of time thinking about what graduate school should look like these days, and I think know I’m not alone. There’s a lot of chatter and a growing movement that is gaining momentum that graduate school curricula must evolve and adapt, not just for its own good, but to address students’ needs, to adequately prepare them for the careers that lie ahead.

No more ifs, ands, or buts. Graduate school curricula MUST require professional develoment courses.

Why Don’t we Have Professional Development in the Curriculum Yet?

But what does or should that curriculum look like? There’s no real consensus yet, other than we MUST be imparting flexible and transferable skills and abilities to grad students, both for programs to remain viable and more importantly, for students to be able to successfully navigate from academic to working professional. So other than the blanket call for change, there’s ideas and experimentation at specific universities and in specific professional societies – and a lot of which are excellent – but given that these changes were needed decades ago and are only beginning to emerge post-recession, it’s an understatement to say that an alt-ac career-oriented core curriculum hasn’t come online fast enough.

There are a number of reasons for this. Higher ed isn’t exactly known for being quick to adopt something new. And since faculty hold the exact positions that the vast majority of grad students will not be doing, they don’t exactly exude the credibility that grad students seek. Graduate schools have been slow to assay and evaluate the real outcomes and needs of their alumni (and even there there’s a huge data collection bias in which those who drop out aren’t usually tracked!) Thus, it’s hard to come up with what courses grad students would need. Even once that’s ironed out, career centers and graduate schools have been slow to work together to implement such offerings, and most of the time such programs are elective add-ons, not required courses. (In fact, without doing some research, I can’t come up with anywhere that requires career prep courses off the top of my head.) And then with ridiculous amounts of student debt, nobody wants anything more than the leanest program possible; adding required courses costs students more time, more money, and so there can be an insurmountable uphill battle in getting anything added. So without belaboring the point here, you can see just some of the many thorny issues that hold back embedding a career-focused core curriculum into any program.

The Challenges Are Non-Starters. We Must Add Professional Development.

And yet, it is a battle that is well worth the fight. In fact, by focusing on the beneficial outcomes to students – and therefore the success rates to programs – “adding” to the existing program requirements is the only way to go. I am using air quotes because the model that I propose would add to a program, but only slightly, and I would strongly caution any program willing to give it a go that first they must look holistically at all other requirements and see where content-oriented courses could be cut. After all, if the majority of grad students are going on to alt-ac careers (and they are), then content specific knowledge is less important than building transferable skills & abilities, as well as sharpening their knowledge of the workplace (something many grad students know little about).

What should be covered in a Career-Focused Core Curriculum?

So what are the KSAs that grad students would need to emerge with?

Project Management

A cornerstone must be Project Management essentials. If taken first, learning to apply project management principles- identifying resources, mapping out milestones, communicating to stakeholders, and managing scope and expectations – will ease the pain points and TIME that it takes to complete a dissertation or terminal scholarly work. How much easier would my dissertation have been had I known from the get-go how to map out and stay within scope, known when the info gathering phase was sufficiently complete, and how to communicate to my committee where I was struggling or where it would delay a milestone to a ridiculous degree to agree to the suggestion to incorporate scholarly methods from another discipline, for instance?! We all think we learn project management as we go during grad school, but really we’re all mucking our way through it, when there are proven practices and tactics that I truly wish I had known.


Like others who have thought through this, I agree that Communications is one of the core courses that all grad students must take. Regardless of discipline, any academic is going to need to be able to communicate their work and modulate that message to diverse audiences. No matter the career outcome, any academic is going to benefit from being able to articulate highly-complex information in a way that is approachable and tailored to the audience. (And that’s not even to mention the benefit to that person’s employer, and the audience.)

How We Got Here: A History of Higher Ed

Leonard Cassuto and others (such as his former Dean Nancy Busch) argue that it must include an overview of higher ed, and I can’t find any reason to exclude that. Grad students need to understand the context for the industry they work in (as grad students), because they need to self-examine their reasoning and rationale for being here in order to assess the skills & outcomes they need to achieve upon completion of their program.


Maybe this could be combined with the above in terms of assignments and projects, but I would add collaboration. There has not been a workplace or job I’ve worked in – EVER- that hasn’t been interdisciplinary. I’ve needed to be able to “speak” web developer vs. designer, understand what teams upstream and downstream of me do to provide accurate and high-quality work, and worked with diverse colleagues to produce museum exhibits, technical manuscripts, websites, videos, curricula, training workshops, marketing campaigns, and I don’t even know what else!

Career Planning

Finally, I would add career planning to this required block of courses. Between figuring out what industries might employ you to how to network and why benefits matter, there are so many nuanced skills that grad students will need to succeed – both at launch and long-term.

How should this core curriculum be structured?

Of course I have thoughts here too 🙂 Here I have more of a back–of-the-envelope sketch in my mind than anything formal, but here’s what I have mapped out so far.

Required, not Electives

First, these courses must be required of all grad students, regardless of discipline or desired career outcome. And must be required beginning in semester one, from the start. Not only does this clearly send the message of “your career matters to us,” it shows that it’s more than lip service, that it matters by making it part of the required learning…from the get go. Requiring these courses – and of all grad students – ensures consistency in access to the professional development, learning objectives, content, and outcomes, and puts the burden where it belongs: on the grad school and not the individual student to opt in to electives. Finally, by requiring it of all students, each course would by definition be multidisciplinary, thus reinforcing some of the primary learning outcomes (the ability to communicate your work to others + the ability to work as a cross-functional team).

Taught by Employers

Second, at least some of these courses should be taught by employers. Heads up, Career Services! You know employers and recruiters looking for top-notch talent with the unique ability to communicate complicated concepts clearly and find themes and patterns in large volumes of information. How about you ask those executives to come teach modules in business skills like project management or facilitating collaboration? This would be mutually beneficial – involving stakeholders (the employers) in cultivating the very skills and abilities they need, and exposing students with access to learning directly about real-world workplaces and industries’ cultures, needs, tactics, and expectations.

Modules, not Semesters

Third, I’m not convinced that all of these need to be taught as full semester-length courses to reduce the burden on students’ time. Some of these could be modules (and I’m not even meaning that as online eLearning modules, but just chunked learning). For instance, were it up to me to design the career plan course, I would design it as four weeks of in-class instruction, followed by a book-club style reconvening, a flipped classroom approach every couple of weeks where the students come discuss lessons learned from readings and troubleshoot challenges encountered upon implementing assignments.

So that’s a 30,000′ view of what I would propose as a necessary change to the grad school curriculum.

I’m sure you have thoughts, too. Please let me know via email or dropping me a line on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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