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Research & Teaching

STEM Graduate Students’ Development at the Intersection of Research, Leadership, and Innovation

Journal of College Science Teaching—November/December 2022 (Volume 52, Issue 2)

By Cindy Lenhart, Jana Bouwma-Gearhart, Douglas A. Keszler, Judith Giordan, Rich Carter, and Michelle Dolgos

Researcher innovation and leadership skills are fundamental for creating implementable solutions to pressing societal and market-based global problems. The Research to Innovation to Society (R2I2S) program is a transformative approach to graduate education, training students at the intersection of research, innovation, and leadership. In this article, we detail the design of the program and a 3-year exploratory investigation of its impact at one research university in the western United States. We found that, overall, students who participated in the program realized the value of thinking about their scientific research from a market-need perspective. Students had an enhanced interest in and understanding of societal and market insights related to their own and others’ research. Students also developed professional skills in communication, collaboration, and innovation, as well as entrepreneurial skills. We situate our findings in frameworks concerning the development of emerging professionals and argue for programming for STEM graduate students that extends the deep discipline knowledge-based model of professional development into one inclusive of leadership, communication, and innovation goals.


While essential to advancing fundamental knowledge, basic research alone does not typically warrant solutions that address our most pressing societal challenges, such as how to offset the effects of climate change and global warming (Giordan et al., 2011; National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, & National Institute of Medicine, 2007). Meaningful and timely solutions for modern problems necessitate researcher innovation (Demirkan & Spohrer, 2015). We define innovation as the translation of scientific discoveries into products or know-how for practical use and solving societal challenges, including (though not limited to) those solutions with commercial potential. Innovation requires professionals with deep disciplinary knowledge coupled with the analytical, collaboration, and communication skills and abilities needed to develop and implement entrepreneurial and business solutions (Demirkan & Spohrer, 2015).

Although universities have historically helped prepare graduates for employment realities (e.g., in professional programs such as teaching, nursing, and engineering), they continue to struggle to identify and integrate the programs needed to develop student researchers who can translate disciplinary knowledge and research into innovations and marketable products. Traditional science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education develops professionals around disciplinary knowledge and skills toward the creation of a discipline-focused workforce (Kruger, 2015), yet this privilege of disciplinary knowledge and expertise occurs at the expense of training well-rounded STEM innovators (Jain et al., 2009).

While workforce patterns indicate a critical need for university students to develop the skills required for innovation, only 8% of STEM graduate students (masters and doctoral) assume positions at 4-year academic institutions, while only 6% assume “other” educational positions (National Research Council, 2015). In comparison, the industry welcomes almost 70% of these graduates (Langdon et al., 2011). A recent study showed that 44% of executives in manufacturing perceived today’s university graduates, even those with graduate degrees, as lacking adequate skills in communication, collaboration, and entrepreneurship (U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, 2014, p. 2), and 14% perceived a skills gap in leadership abilities of those graduates. Finding the option of on-the-job training of employees less optimal, employers have indicated a need for other means to develop professionals’ 21st-century skills (Langdon et al., 2011), critical thinking, teamwork, communication, and work ethic (Hora, 2019).

Given all of this, how might postsecondary programming better serve students? Data from the National Academies report on the “science of team science” (National Research Council, 2015) describe one approach: the need for early orientation of students toward transdisciplinarity within the context of disciplinary training. This is reflected in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) calls for convergence research, which is driven by a specific and compelling problem that requires deep integration across disciplines (National Science Foundation, 2019). Programs that promote inter- and transdisciplinarity may help students recognize commonalities and overlaps among disciplines and various ways to approach problems (National Research Council, 2015).

Yet, in the case of graduate education across STEM, considering and integrating research within a broader understanding of other disciplines, as well as associated societal and market needs, is most often left to students without guidance from their graduate mentors or programs (Hayter et al., 2017). Simply put, many graduate faculty and programs do not see the development of students’ knowledge and skills for innovation—including leadership, teamwork, and entrepreneurial skills—to be their responsibility. Instead, training around innovation for graduate students often consists of discrete professional development events not directly integrated with graduate students’ primary program- and discipline-related training in research (Wendler et al., 2012). These discrete events may include offering a series of optional professional development courses or symposia and encouraging students to explore commercial options with local or university-located accelerators, usually at the end of their research graduate study. This extracurricular approach creates barriers to participation for students with constrained financial and time resources.

We argue that an evolution in STEM graduate education is needed to promote deep disciplinary knowledge and skills and an ability and desire to apply that disciplinary understanding in different situations and in collaboration with different disciplines. We advocate for programs that educate students to experiment with emergent leadership roles toward positive societal changes (McIntosh & Taylor, 2013). In this article, we detail the design and impact of one university-based program that trains graduate students at the intersection of research, innovation, and entrepreneurialism.

The Research2Innovation2-Society program: Goals and structure

Research2Innovation2Society (R2I2S) is an education model sponsored by the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) program that is designed to train STEM graduate students as innovators. The program guides students through the lens of STEM research and markets, wherein markets reflect societal needs. The program integrates training in basic research knowledge and skills, societal and market insights, and collaboration and communication to create professionals with the skills needed to advance economic development and excel in any type of organization—academic, government, or private.

R2I2S addresses the NRT program goals by building on the Lens of the Market (LoM) program (EcosVC, 2022), which was originally developed in an industrial science and engineering context. R2I2S goals seek to provide STEM graduate students with skills considered critical to career success in the ever-changing world of translating research into innovations: (i) awareness and ability to continuously inform and augment research with validated societal and market needs and insights, and (ii) expertise in critical research translational skills to communicate clearly, lead confidently, and work effectively in teams (EcosVC, 2022). The R2I2S program, as delivered per the NRT grant, includes two of the three stages of the LoM program. During Stage 1, lasting between 1 and 3 months, students are introduced to the vocabulary, skills, and tools needed to translate their research into innovations. During Stage 2, lasting between 5 and 6 months, students work in teams to (i) construct a market hypothesis, (ii) collect data aligned with specific market-aligned questions, (iii) develop a script and protocol to conduct interviews with market stakeholders, (iv) analyze market-based data, and (v) conduct Star Market and Market Gap analyses. The delivery mode for both stages was a series of 1-day, team-based workshops supported by regular check-ins on work progress. The workshops were subsequently adapted to a full academic-year course sequence offered in a hybrid mode with online content.

The R2I2S program intends to develop innovation and professional skills by scaffolding students’ science and engineering research frameworks via experiential learning. The program is delivered by instructors with advanced STEM degrees and demonstrated track records of STEM innovation and entrepreneurial success. The program platform encourages participation of faculty from students’ home departments, and attending to faculty research interests hopefully further eliminates potential barriers for graduate students’ participation and helps sync their program obligations.

Conceptual framework

A typical goal of postsecondary education across the disciplines is what McIntosh and Taylor (2013) refer to as I-shaped professionals, or developing students’ understanding, skills, and practices within a discipline, shown as the vertical component in Figure 1. Many educators, practitioners, and researchers expand this approach and promote the development of T-shaped professionals, who also can exhibit the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are essential for greater ability to solve complex problems (Demirkan & Spohrer, 2015). Figure 1 shows foundational research skills and depth of knowledge within a discipline as key components of successful professionals. The horizontal leg represents the second component of the T-shaped professional, including leadership and communication skills, along with insight into societal and market skills. T-shaped professionals can work synergistically with others across multidisciplinary, multifunctional, or multicultural contexts to allow faster adaptations of research and ideas (Demirkan & Spohrer, 2015). Ability for innovation is predicated on individuals’ possessing these numerous interacting skills (McIntosh & Taylor, 2013).

Figure 1
Figure 1 T-shaped professional.

T-shaped professional.



This exploratory study was conducted over a 3-year period at one research university in the western United States and examined graduate students’ experiences with the R2I2S program. Prior to R2I2S, the LoM program had been run as workshops for graduate students and postdocs at more than a dozen universities aligned primarily with other NSF-funded projects. Over the period of this grant, three cohorts of students participated in Stage 1 and/or Stage 2 of the program. Participants in the study were primarily graduate students pursuing either a master’s or doctoral degree from across the physical and natural sciences and engineering. Forty-six students participated in at least one stage of the program and completed associated study surveys. A subset of six students in the final cohort in Year 3 also participated in one-to-one semistructured interviews.

Research focus

Our research adds to the limited literature on graduate programming intended to help students develop collaboration, innovation, and entrepreneurial skills (Giordan et al., 2011). Our research question was the following: In what ways do graduate students perceive the R2I2S program developing collaboration, communication, innovation, and entrepreneurial skills?

Data collection

Survey questions (both quantitative and qualitative) focused on students’ perceived levels of knowledge about specific terminology and concepts before and after the stages and their perceptions of the value of the program. Surveys were conducted online using Qualtrics. Responses to quantitative survey items were measured using a Likert scale from 1 to 5 (1, 2 = low; 3 = medium; 4, 5 = high). Semistructured interviews were conducted following the completion of the course or workshop and focused on students’ perceptions of the benefits, challenges, and general experiences with the program and delivery mode of the course.

Data collection and analysis of findings were performed by independent researchers who were not involved in program development, implementation of the program, or interactions with students. Both interview transcripts and open-ended survey questions were transcribed verbatim. Coding was done in two phases, an inductive phase followed by a deductive one. The first author initially created inductive codes from a first read of the verbatim transcripts, drawing perspectives from interviewees’ own words to determine emerging concepts and themes in the responses (Auerbach & Silverstein, 2003). The second deductive phase was performed in light of the T-shaped conceptual framework to capture the experiences of students associated with the development of knowledge and skills related to innovating their program and gaining experience in collaborating and communicating their research. The second author reviewed 20% of the transcripts to ensure reliability and consistency of coding and emerging findings. In both phases, the two analysts discussed emerging concepts and themes based on their critical reflections of the data (Zhao et al., 2016).

Study limitations

We acknowledge limitations based on the data collected and analyzed in this study. First, the data were only collected at one university over a 3-year period and are not generalizable beyond the experiences of participants. Also, assessing students’ self-reported understanding and knowledge on surveys and via interviews may not determine the extent to which students actually gained the skills and abilities attributed to the program. Nevertheless, we contend that our exploratory study may still enlighten the emerging field concerning the development of innovation and entrepreneurial skills in graduate education and the benefits of fostering graduate student development as innovators and entrepreneurs via a novel and targeted program.


Students’ perceived gains in understanding elements of market analysis

Via engagement with the program, students perceived gains toward understanding the elements of the market analysis process and how to conduct interviews about market analysis. Specifically, they reported that the activities they engaged in via the program challenged them to think beyond their research-centered perspectives and consider how their research could translate science into social, economic, and environmental markets. Table 1 reflects students’ felt levels of knowledge in understanding the elements of the entire market analysis process and how to conduct interviews about market analysis before and after training.

Students reported gains in understanding the elements of the entire market analysis process. Student responses showed how this knowledge might help them communicate their research perspectives to a larger audience outside their research area. As one student stated, “It [the program] provided the entire framework of how to perform a market analysis, with examples and assistance.” Another student said, “Learning how to navigate understanding how a market works and finding meaningful information … going into this, I had absolutely no idea where to even start on this and was surprised to learn it wasn’t as arduous of a task as it seemed initially.” A third student stated, “Describing a value chain is a skill that helps to pin down the addressable market of an offering. I believe this narrows the focus of a team of innovators, making the process of bringing an offering to market less overwhelming.”

Students also reported gains toward having a working knowledge of how they conduct interviews with experts in the field related to their research innovations. One of the activities in Stage 2 of the program required students to interview experts in relevant fields about the marketability of their potential research innovation. One student said, “The mock interviews were by far the most valuable. It forced us to get over the fear, angst, whatever you want to call it, when it comes to contacting people and doing interviews.”

Students’ perceived gains in innovation and entrepreneurial knowledge and skills

Reflecting on their realities before and after training, students claimed an increased knowledge of terminology and methodology, the value of conducting a market analysis, how to develop value propositions and value chains, and how to apply market analysis to their research. Table 2 reflects students’ self-reporting in a postprogram survey in which they claimed the increased knowledge across all other categories, with the greatest gains in “having a working knowledge of the value of conducting a market analysis.” Students acknowledged that after engaging in the program activities, they “have a sense of how to do market research.” They saw the content as a way to build a “bridge” from their research to a business or market perspective, and the class activities provided a “tool set” that helped them think about the process. One student reported, “I definitely lacked a tool set for how to apply certain things as far as the business aspect of it. So, it was really awesome taking this class and coming up with ‘Here’s how you can methodically go through this business problem and create this business use case from research.’ [Is it] a good idea to build this research tool or build this thing? Does the market need something like that?”


Table 1. Students’ knowledge and understanding of innovation and entrepreneurial skills.


Scored “high” before training*

Scored “high” after training*

Understand the elements of the entire market analysis process



Have a working knowledge of how to conduct interviews about market analysis



Note. *Percentage of students’ self-reported knowledge and understanding in
Stage 2 (n = 16).

Table 2. Students’ knowledge and understanding of innovation and entrepreneurial skills.


Scored “high” before training*

Scored “high” after training*

Have knowledge of terminiology and methodology



Have a working knowledge of the value of conducting a market analysis



Can develop sample value propositions and value chains for specific market applications



Understand how to apply market analysis to applications derived from innovations



Note. *Percentage of students’ self-reported knowledge and understanding in
Stages 1 and 2 (n = 40).

Table 2 reflects students’ felt levels of knowledge and comprehension in Stages 1 and 2 related to developing applicable terminology, methodology, and elements of market analysis applications. Students claimed the least growth in their “knowledge of terminology and methodology” concerning vocabulary, concepts, and processes related to market analysis and applications. Students also indicated more limited growth concerning their understanding of the value of conducting market analysis and how to apply that analysis to applications derived from innovation.

Students’ relative difficulty with gaining knowledge of terminology and methodology emerged in interviews as well. Students reported that conducting basic research, informed by market and societal needs, required them to develop technical vocabulary. For one student, “understanding language like value proposition and differentiators and applying these concepts to my field” were seen as challenging. Another student noted the challenge of “learning the nomenclature of market analytics as well as how to take a step back and critically analyze our areas of research and how they can be applied to specific areas outside of science and academic settings.” 

Students’ perceived challenges did not seem to lessen the value they saw in thinking about their scientific research through a lens of innovation and entrepreneurship. The distinctive approach to innovating research through a market- and societal-need lens motivated them to consider how their research might be valuable to people outside of their discipline or research area.

Students’ perceptions of the value of recognizing diverse types of research and work

Students stated that the program promoted the value of thinking differently about their research and hearing diverse perspectives about theirs and others’ research interests. Students claimed they were encouraged to listen to alternative ways of thinking about their and others’ research and challenged their inculcated ways of thinking about scientific research. One student said, “It was definitely challenging to get out of the engineering mindset of, ‘I’m just going to build this thing and it’s going to work.’ But then having to step back and see the big picture and like, ‘Well, now, how do we kind of break out of this just mechanical engineering or just civil engineering and think about a business use case and people who actually use that tool’ and provide some value to that.” Another stated, “It was almost exhaustingly tough to get out of the ‘R & D’ mentality and into a market analytics mentality. It was humbling to fully realize the level of bias that can arise when trying to put one’s own area of research into a market-driven environment.”

Students reported that the program helped them recognize their research was developed in a scientific, academic setting within their discipline’s perspective, which is different from a market research perspective. One student said, “Yeah, the way they [people] think in market research is very different.” Another student put it this way: “My work is very isolated and narrow in a small field and it is only people in [my research area] who would be interested in my work, but when I presented to my classmates and professors, they directed me in how to make it very appealing and interesting to other people and with the potential to turn it into a business.”

Students’ perceived gains in understanding how to work in teams and how it benefited them individually

Students perceived modest growth in their understanding of how to work in a team-based environment. Even though the gains in this objective were smaller than self-reported gains in other areas (13% increase between before and after the program), students recognized the value in working with peers and discipline-specific faculty to improve their collaboration skills, as seen in this comment: “Being able to interact with our team members and familiarizing [ourselves] with each other’s personalities.” Another student said, when asked to identify what they found most valuable about working with teams, “Different types of people working as a team, it is good for me to learn not only cooperation, but new ways of thinking about my research.”

Generally, students realized the potential for expanding their research capabilities by working with team members and communicating with others to gain greater perspective on their own research and innovation potentials.

Students’ perceived value of the program

The two reasons students cited most for participating in the R2I2S program were to gain (i) collaboration and communication skills that will help with a career outside academia in the private, nonprofit, or government sector, and (ii) skills in determining the potential for market and societal impact of their research. Overall, we found that students’ interactions and responses to the program were positive in both helping to meet these goals and with respect to other skills and knowledge.

In postphase surveys, students claimed heightened interest in innovating their own research as well as understanding others’ research and perspectives. Students were asked in a Stage 1 postsurvey to rate the value of the program for helping them understand the significance of their research toward innovation and entrepreneurship. Seventy-five percent of students (n = 40) indicated a “high” score of 4 or 5 when asked if the program was valuable for helping them consider how their research can translate to innovation, and 90% (n = 40) indicated, with a “high” score of 4 or 5, a personal interest in translating their research into innovations in the future.

Discussion and implications

Postsecondary STEM programming that provides graduate students experience in taking their research through a market analysis and calculating the value of their innovations is rare, and it is potentially needed given the complexity and realities of modern problems that necessitate more than just deep research skills and knowledge. Graduates are faced with entering careers that demand more leadership and communication skills along with insight into societal and market skills. Employers demand workers who can synergistically navigate in multidisciplinary, multifunctional, and multicultural contexts and are able to make faster adaptations of their research.

The program we described in this article introduces graduate students to the language of innovation and the process of validating their research as marketable solutions and studied student participants’ perceptions of it. Students in this study indicated their interest in and need for this kind of curriculum. We found that students recognized the value and influence of innovation training and market awareness on their research and the benefits that this knowledge would bring to their future careers, whether in academe or industry. Students were particularly challenged with thinking about their research from a market-analysis perspective. Students found it especially valuable to have a new understanding of the language and know-how of market analysis; the experiences of teamwork; how to communicate their research to diverse audiences; and a view of the limitations of their own research and the benefits of understanding others’ work, which was recognized by students as important for expanding and translating their research beyond traditional programmatic and disciplinary goals.

We argue that novel programs like the one we detailed can help students build the bridge between more basic and disciplinary research and market and societal needs, as well as help them develop professional and entrepreneurial skills. Yet creating and developing such programs takes resources and care. For one, graduate students need intentional and supportive programs that help them develop the unfamiliar nomenclature, skills, and knowledge in innovation and entrepreneurship that broaden and strengthen their ability to inform their research and, if desired, develop it into market-required solutions. Developing and implementing successful programs also will likely require securing the support and engagement of program faculty who may otherwise serve as barriers for students’ participation. Furthermore, successful programs will likely benefit from tapping into the expertise and experiences of faculty who, themselves, embrace innovation as part of their own research and understand the research-to-innovation (and potentially innovation-to-entrepreneurialism) trajectory. Successful programming will also likely require the support of higher education leaders and administrators in departmental, college, and university leadership roles who can provide resources and motivations for faculty support and participation. Lastly, successful programs may also need the support of high-demand STEM-related industries and employers for helping to inform such programs, provide affordances for real-life experiences, and give continuous feedback to programs about the realities of evolving workforce and market realities.

This study adds to the limited research regarding rare graduate programming intended to help students develop collaboration, innovation, and entrepreneurial skills. Future research is needed to determine how program participants represent graduate students, writ large. In addition, more research is needed to assess knowledge and skills acquired by students beyond self-reported data. Longitudinal research is also needed to determine whether the R2I2S model affects the fraction of graduates with STEM degrees who subsequently pursue STEM-aligned employment.


Society needs postsecondary STEM graduates who can translate basic and applied research to address the needs of markets and society. Simply being effective at doing research does not go far enough in tackling the complex problems associated with climate change and global societal needs. To innovate, graduates must develop deep knowledge in their discipline and the skills to validate research and market alignment. To be effective in this work and to translate innovations to practical use, they must possess teamwork, leadership, and communication skills that allow them to effectively coordinate efforts within a broader innovation ecosystem of universities, government, corporations, mentors, and investors. We advocate for the design and implementation of programs that emphasize the skills and knowledge that support the development and relevance of graduate student research and provide a mechanism for graduate education to share in the responsibility of meeting the needs of students entering the workforce.


We wish to thank all participants for volunteering in this study. This study was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant #DGE-1633825. We wish to acknowledge the previous grants and works that made this R2I2S program’s transition to the academic environment possible. In 2009, under sponsorship by NSF, innovation training in the Centers for Chemical Innovation (CCI) Program (NSF Grant No. CHE-0926490) was introduced. It was expanded at this university in the context of chemistry research during the award period of the Phase-2 CCI: Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry (NSF Grant No. CHE-1102637).

Cindy Lenhart ( is an instructional outreach dean at Central Oregon Community College in Bend, Oregon. Jana Bouwma-Gearhart ( is an associate dean of research and faculty development in the College of Education, Douglas A. Keszler ( is a distinguished professor in the Department of Chemistry, and Rich Carter ( is a professor in the Department of Chemistry, all at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Judith Giordan ( is a professor (practice) in the Department of Chemistry at Oregon State University and the managing director at ecosVC. Michelle Dolgos ( is an assistant professor in the College of Science at the University of Calgary in Canada.


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