How Do Graduate Students Develop Research Skills?


It would seem a no-brainer that graduate students would develop better research skills if they could spend more time conducting research and avoid teaching obligations. But that's not the case, according to research conducted by David Feldon and published in Science

This particular study examined students' performance on 10 research skills demonstrated in research proposals they wrote at the beginning and end of an academic year. Students who had both teaching and research experiences improved more than their research-only counterparts in nine of those. The differences in generating testable hypotheses and designing experiments were statistically significant.

'To inform best practices in graduate education, we need to understand the patterns of skill acquisition over time for students studying to become researchers.' David Feldon

This research, conducted in partnership with researchers at the University of South Carolina is part of a larger CASTL-HE research effort to examine the development of research skills in graduate students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).  Feldon says, “To inform best practices in graduate education, we need to understand the Figure 1patterns of skill acquisition over time for students studying to become researchers.'

Research examining graduate student skill has tended to focus on survey data, or has analyzed measures of graduate student skill at the point of graduation, such as the publications or the dissertation.  Feldon and collaborating faculty seek to elucidate the factors that affect how students learn and develop throughout the graduate school experience with a focus on empirical data.  In fact, the current study is the largest empirical study of this type using performance-based data to date.  Other findings have been published in Studies in Higher Education and are in press in the Journal of Higher Education.

Findings to be published in the Journal of Higher Education addressed various factors affecting why faculty may or may not co-author articles with their graduate students.  Given that publication is a popular metric of the productivity and skill of both graduate students and faculty, understanding how students are initiated into the process of co-authoring can help inform best practice in this area.

In the ongoing effort to establish a potential trajectory of graduate student skill development, researchers have also found that certain skills may act as thresholds, and must be mastered before other skills can be developed.  This knowledge can be invaluable Figure 2in graduate student curricular reform efforts, as these skills can be addressed earlier in the graduate school process, helping to aid student success in mastering other research skills.

Feldon and colleagues are currently securing funding for to continue work in this area.  This research has the potential to inform graduate student educational practice across a wide variety of disciplines, and publication in journals such as Science is a specific part of the dissemination effort which enables us to connect with faculty in departments at universities across the world.  In an August 18, 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education article, Dr. Feldon said, “The findings resonate with people. Of the people I've spoken to about this study, half said, 'Of course that's what you found.' The other half said, 'There's no way that can be true. Your data must be wrong.' Everyone's got an opinion on this, but there's been little data.'  Feldon’s work hopes to change that.