Written by, Carlyn Scott, Science Communication Assistant at USF CMS
The first year of graduate school can be a bumpy ride. The coursework is challenging, the hours are long, and then there is what many call the “hidden curriculum” of grad school: navigating student-advisor relationships, combating imposter syndrome, authorship expectations, and more. Some students end up dropping out when left to figure it all out on their own. It’s a particularly acute problem for the geosciences, which suffer from lack of diversity and are thirsty for retention efforts.
Courses and orientation programs aimed at fostering open dialogue about these challenging topics can help, according to a publication in Nature Geoscience called “First-year graduate courses foster inclusion.” The publication outlines the need for universities to develop these courses, which promote equity and inclusion. The study, led by Dr. Michele Cooke of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, included co-author Dr. Mya Breitbart, a professor at the USF College of Marine Science (CMS), and features a compelling graphic called “Navigating Grad School” by Makenzie Kerr, who works in Breitbart’s lab and is a CMS alum.
Ahead of the curve
Ten years ago, Breitbart developed the Professional Development course at the CMS when she noticed students struggling with the nuances of graduate school. She said she, too, has faced several of the unspoken challenges of graduate school like illness, imposter syndrome, and learning to navigate challenging advisor relationships. In her early years as a female professor, she said she noticed quite a few students coming to her for advice. A lot of their issues stemmed from a lack of guidance and structure that often happens in the transition from undergraduate degrees to graduate school, she said. It seemed a structured course could help.
“When I became a faculty member, I realized how variable experiences can be from lab to lab and just how different grad school is from undergrad,” she said.
Thus, the Professional Development course was born, now a staple for first year CMS students, which she currently teaches with Dr. Kristen Buck. It is an example of the kinds of courses that help students succeed.
“Teaching the course with Kristen has been really eye-opening, as we have different perspectives on a lot of issues – I think this is valuable to the students in the course to see that there is no one ‘right’ way,” she said.
The publication, which states that the most successful orientation programs last an entire semester, all started with a random conversation on social media, said Breitbart.
“A geologist had asked for advice on Twitter about developing a crash course on uncovering the hidden curriculum of grad school and a CMS alumna Dr. Ryan Venturelli brought the thread to my attention,” said Breitbart. “I offered to share resources and that led me to connecting with these geoscientists. We collaborated on a paper that outlined the need for these courses and what should be included.” Now the author group is compiling what they hope will be a growing library of resources with the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT) that professors can use to strengthen their student programming.
Breitbart reiterated that the courses are not meant as a substitute for mentorship, but rather as a supplement.
“We teach the students how to ask the right questions of their mentor and build the relationships with their advisor and in their lab,” she said. “Grad school is hard - these are the highest degrees that are offered that anyone can undertake, so they should be challenging! But more and more I started seeing students going through toxic situations that could have been avoided if they had the right resources or knew the right person to talk to. I was lucky to have a well-mentored experience and wanted all students to have the same opportunity.”
The Professional Development course at the CMS is meant to provide a baseline so incoming students can all have the same knowledge. “There are so many things, like correcting and resubmitting a rejected paper, that if no one takes the time to tell you, you have to figure out on your own,” said Breitbart. “The longer we are faculty members we forget that we, at one point, didn’t know these things!”
Breitbart is pleased with the tools the course has provided incoming students. “Regardless of their background, we wanted everyone to have an equal playing field and more support in their first year,” she said.
You can find Breitbart on Twitter under the handle virome_girl.