Transparency in graduate and postdoctoral outcomes: VAI joins the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science

Van Andel Institute is a proud member of the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science, a collaborative effort to enhance transparency by publishing outcomes data for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

We spoke with Dr. Erica Gobrogge, program director of VAI’s Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, and Dr. Steven J. Triezenberg, dean of Van Andel Institute Graduate School, to learn more about the Coalition and VAI’s participation.

Q: Could you explain the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science for those who may not be familiar?

Erica Gobrogge, Ph.D.
Erica Gobrogge, Ph.D.

EG: Leading up to the Coalition’s creation in 2017, and in the years since, there had been a national call for more in-depth data about graduate students and postdoctoral fellows — degree completion data, demographics and career outcomes, to name a few. The National Science Foundation and others provide a good amount of data, but not at the institutional level.

The idea behind the Coalition is that graduate students and postdocs who are considering these institutions can look at the data for each and make an informed decision on where they would like to go. When the Coalition first began, it consisted of nine universities that came together to compile this data, so you could compare apples to apples as much as possible. Now, there are 55 institutions participating.

ST: When that initial group of universities came together, they announced it in Science, to say to the rest of the research institutions that it’s time for us to be honest and transparent about the outcomes of our programs.

Q: How did VAI decide to join the Coalition?

Steven J. Triezenberg, Ph.D.
Steven J. Triezenberg, Ph.D.

ST: We’ve been working on this actively for about two years. From the Graduate School side, the transparency is driven by our accreditation standards. The Higher Learning Commission expects that we’ll make clear to prospective students the outcomes they can expect from joining our program. We’ve been publishing data like that for a while, so the Coalition requirements are simply an expansion of that.

EG: Similarly, we had already been publishing data about our postdoctoral outcomes, but we’ve expanded what data is included to fit what the Coalition wants. VAI is committed to being transparent about all this data, and we want people to be able to make informed decisions. It’s nice to be able to see other institutions’ data, and to know that collectively we’re empowering students and postdocs.

Q: What impact do you think the Coalition, and VAI’s participation in it, will have in the coming years?

ST: It will expand people’s awareness of the opportunities, both here at VAI and at other universities and institutions they may be considering. If they happen to land on a page of an institution that is part of the Coalition, they’ll see VAI right alongside schools like Johns Hopkins, Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and a variety of other big-name institutions. For example, on the Coalition page, Van Andel Institute is tucked in between Wisconsin and Vanderbilt. It becomes another avenue for raising greater awareness for VAI’s programs with students, postdocs and even other peer institutions that we might not otherwise reach.

EG: Awareness is certainly a huge reason we put so much time and effort into it. On a national level, I hope it empowers grad students and postdocs to make informed decisions. All programs have pros and cons, and their participants have the best experience and outcomes when they can make informed decisions.

Q: What are some areas in postdoc and graduate education that still need to be addressed?

ST: There are some things that aren’t captured in the data sought by the Coalition. The success of trainees in getting individual fellowships, for instance, is one measure of success that isn’t captured, as well as how many of the postdocs get individual postdoc fellowships. It’s one of many indicators of the quality of the training environment.

EG: Another good indicator that isn’t currently captured is an examination of the participant’s experience and outcome. When they complete our program, were the goals they set when they first entered the program met? Do they feel equipped to pursue their chosen path or to explore new paths? People come to these programs for lots of reasons. The data we’re collecting is extremely useful, but it doesn’t include the human side of the story. We certainly want to explore it at VAI. 

Q: What does VAI’s participation in the Coalition mean for the future of scientific training at VAI?

ST: This is one more way in which the Institute is taking its place among the top biomedical research centers in the U.S. We aren’t going to be the biggest, but we can be working as one of the best — using best practices and showing the results honestly and comfortably because we’re confident in what we have to show. Looking at the data encourages us to continue to improve.

EG: Additionally, there are plenty of U.S. institutions that aren’t part of the Coalition yet. We’re one of the early adopters of this level of data collection and sharing in the country, and we’re proud to be able to say that.

For more about the data collected by the Coalition, and to see VAI’s data, visit vari.vai.org/coalition-for-next-generation-life-sciences/.