Chico professor, co-authors find disconnect between botany grad students, faculty, employers

When botany graduate students say, in general, that their strongest skill is in written communication, their professors and potential employers say not so fast—that’s where improvement is needed most.

The disconnect in perceptions emerged from a survey of roughly 200 graduate students, 400 faculty members and nearly 1,000 employees of government agencies, consulting firms and other organizations. Conducted as part of the U.S. Botanical Capacity Assessment Project, its findings are presented in the February 2011 issue of BioScience. Kristina Schierenbeck, a biology professor at California State University, Chico, is among 11 co-authors—all members of BCAP’s advisory board.

“We were stunned by each sector’s responses,” the authors write.

The article is titled, “Perceptions of Strengths and Deficiencies: Disconnects between Graduate Students and Prospective Employers.”

As data analysis began, “a startling revelation” emerged: The skills and knowledge that graduate students viewed as their greatest strengths – particularly in communication, ecology and field work—were seen by potential employers as the areas needing the greatest improvements.

While the survey focused in botany, the authors believe its findings may resonate with efforts throughout the sciences to align education and training with the needs for the government and private sectors.

“The discordances between student and employer perceptions of strengths suggest that college and university faculty, consciously or subconsciously, may be fostering an exaggerated sense of preparation in students, while failing to provide necessary training in some of the skills that students recognize they will need,” the authors write.

To foster the design of more effective, relevant curricula, the report calls for greater collaboration between academic personnel and leaders of government, non-profit and corporate organizations.

As outlined in its 2010 “Impact Report,” the CSU already brings faculty and administrators together with government and private-sector employers in many ways to address workforce needs and enhance graduates preparation in a variety of disciplines, including agriculture, biotechnology, forensic science and information technology.

— Sean Kearns