Susan Cozzens: Creating Professional Development Opportunities for Graduate Students

“Teams are more innovative when they work together,” Dr. Susan Cozzens says. “They’re more creative if they can put their minds together – you really come up with something that’s different.” As Vice Provost for Graduate Education at Georgia Tech, Cozzens knew that STEM graduate students did most of their research in teams with faculty advisors. She also knew that team dynamics impact research outcomes. Yet as she reviewed the literature in Science of Team Science, she realized that the field focused only on professional team science, with very little research on grad students’ teamwork experiences: “there’s just a different set of dynamics which I did not hear this field talking about.” So she is leading the charge to apply research on team science to graduate student professional development. “Because I’ve spent five years being vitally concerned with graduate students, the experience they were having on campus, and their preparation for later professional life, I was led to look for materials in the Science of Team Science to help them, and it just wasn’t there,” Cozzens explains. “So we had a nice opening to do some creative things.”

When a member of Dr. Cozzens’ staff began drafting an NSF proposal to develop teamwork skills among graduate students, working with the Effective Team Dynamics initiative was a natural fit, and Dr. Mary Lynn Realff a key contributor. The funded project has used the tools Dr. Realff developed for undergrads as well as the Science of Team Science literature to produce materials specific to grad students. A key difference between the undergraduate ETD curriculum and the graduate team science curriculum is incorporating more research literature. “Graduate students love the fact that there’s quantitative analysis out there,” Cozzens says. “They love the fact that it’s coming from the literature because they’re here for research training.” And grad students’ multi-year projects necessitate longer-term teamwork strategies: while undergrads have one-semester team projects, grad students work with the same team for four to five years.

Leading the NSF-IGE grant-funded project “Integrating Team Science into the STEM Graduate Training Experience,” Dr. Cozzens has helped facilitate trainings and evaluated student feedback. She and her colleagues developed and assessed a one-day workshop format, and they are currently experimenting with other formats. Cozzens explains that Dr. Realff and Dr. Kata Dósa took the lead on designing the materials, and Dr. Meltem Alemdar and Christopher Cappelli led the assessment. Through the process of designing, testing, and revising curricular materials, the team is honing best practices for training graduate students in teamwork skills. To better understand graduate students’ perspectives and experiences, Cozzens initially arranged focus groups with Georgia Tech students from various disciplines. She learned that while grad students are generally underprepared for teamwork, they often end up in informal leadership roles in teams with hands-off advisors. Assessment focus groups have helped the IGE team learn that grad students want to practice having crucial conversations with mentors, and that the one-day workshop should give participants portable tools and activities to incorporate in the ongoing teamwork process. Learn more about the early stages of the project here, and view the project site for the current iC⚙GS: Interdisciplinary Collaboration for Graduate Students curriculum here.

Through doing this research, the IGE team has found that communication and conflict management are key skills for grad students to learn. “Communication is really crucial,” Cozzens notes. “You really have to be talking to people, you have to be thinking about what the issues are, and willing to articulate them.” To establish a strong foundation for long-term projects, the iC⚙GS curriculum helps teams practice horizontal conflict management strategies, so they can address issues with each other rather than going to their faculty advisors. To avoid potential future conflicts, teams are encouraged to write a charter outlining co-authorship agreements and ground rules around data archiving. Because teams tend to have rolling membership (with advanced students graduating and new students joining, and postdocs coming and going), it is important to revisit the charter and rules each year: each team’s foundation should also be adaptable so that new members feel they have a voice. One of the most important tools, Cozzens says, is the “crucial conversations” module, adapted from the undergrad ETD module, which facilitates mock discussion between grad students and advisors. This module has been “riveting” for grad students, as it helps them navigate hierarchies and initiate discussion with the faculty advisors who play a key role in their careers. Teamwork training for grad students, Cozzens notes, has mutual benefits: promoting strong student teams also helps untenured junior faculty’s careers because it strengthens research outcomes with innovation and creativity.

As a trailblazer in applying Science of Team Science research to graduate education, Cozzens presented the group’s experience at the annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools this past December – “a big gathering of Graduate School Deans and staff members from all kinds of institutions across the country, and some internationally.” On a panel of three universities (Georgia Tech, University of Florida, and William & Mary), Cozzens presented what the investigators learned from focus groups about the diversity of team experiences, and discussed how she and her team changed the workshop content and revised materials in response to assessment. She emphasized the importance of grounding training methods in research, teaching skills to talk to advisors, and developing independent tools to use with teams. (View the panel’s presentation slides here.) This innovative research is poised to make a big impact in the field: “The people from Council of Graduate Schools had never heard of the research field, the Science of Team Science, so we’re making a connection there. I think it’s going to start branching out from there quite rapidly.” With these new cross-disciplinary connections, Cozzens and her colleagues are paving the way for future research to further strengthen grad students’ professional development. “The Science of Team Science people had not been thinking about graduate students, and the Graduate School community hadn’t been thinking about this body of knowledge about teamwork, and so we’re putting it together in a distinctive way,” Cozzens says. “I guess we’re almost pioneers.”

Her strengths in evidence-oriented analysis, big picture thinking, and activist persistence inform Dr. Susan Cozzens’ approach to the project work. Advocating on key issues energizes her, and she always strives to move forward from the status quo. She brings her best self to a team by connecting people with resources, helping the group formulate issues, and keeping things moving. To successfully navigate team dynamics, she makes sure the group can get together face-to-face, and emphasizes active listening. She knows and respects her collaborators’ strengths and working styles, and she is careful not to overwhelm others with her attention to detail and activist persistence. She is “fearless about relationships” and is “willing to speak up” about key issues – valuable skills she brings to any team. Her strength in bold, clear communication has certainly led to excellent outcomes for the project!

Want to partner with us? To request curricular materials on strengths and teamwork for your online course, email