University News

Committee recommends increased support for grad students

Report prioritizes health care, financial aid and professional support in pursuit of excellence

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, January 28, 2013
This article is part of the series Planning in Progress

The Committee on Doctoral Education released an interim report Friday with recommendations for improving the University’s commitment to graduate studies.

The report highlighted initiatives specifically centered around achieving two objectives — excellence and distinctiveness — for graduate programs.


‘Bottom line’ of excellence

One of the committee’s central recommendations for excellence suggested removing constraints the report said inhibit graduate students from performing at their best. Such initiatives include offering more financial support during the summer and improved health care packages.

“While we do offer summer support, some graduate students receive less money than students on (Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards) do, and it’s not enough to pay the rent here sometimes,” said Peter Weber, dean of the graduate school and chair of the committee.

If graduate students have to get jobs over the summer to support themselves, it takes time away from potential research opportunities and skill-building activities, he said.

Samuel Franklin GS said he is glad the committee recognized that excellence is the “bottom line” of graduate education and is linked to material support from the University.

The report also recommended allowing students to use their studies for more than just the “traditional goals,” said Elizabeth Harrington, associate dean of biomedical graduate and postdoctoral studies and a member of the committee, perhaps by permitting graduate students to pursue off-campus educational experiences, like traveling abroad, in order to help them acquire skills outside of their research.

Another initiative looks to provide graduate students with more professional skills, like leadership and writing, though the specific methods of this program are yet to be determined, both Harrington and Weber said.

“How do you handle personal encounters? How are you an effective boss?” Harrington said. “These sorts of things are valuable to students both inside and outside of academia.”

The last two parts of the effort to bolster excellence are reviewing graduate studies — which would focus on gathering more data on students’ careers after they graduate — and boosting mentoring through initiatives like the Early Start Program.

The Early Start Program would offer a transition period for students who are qualified to enter the University but are not at the same level as their peers, Harrington said. “The idea is to give them a sort of boot camp in the summer to bring them up to the same point as someone with a stronger background,” she said.


Staying distinctive

The other aspect of the report focused on maintaining the program’s distinctiveness from those at peer institutions through pilot programs like the Open Graduate Education Program, which allows students to gain expertise in a secondary discipline, and the Integrative Studies program, through which students can design their own fields of study.

Feedback from students and faculty members for the Open Graduate Education Program has been very positive, and the number of applicants exceeded the number of spots available last year, when the program began, Weber said.

The final initiative focused on identifying “curricular bridges,” through which students could engage in doctoral studies different from those that they pursued as undergraduates.

Weber said students sometimes feel constrained when choosing an undergraduate concentration because it “locks them into a track.”

“Sometimes students might want to break out of that mold, which is perfectly valid,” he said. “The question is how the University can enable students to do that.”

Some students said they are happy to see the University recognize the interdisciplinary needs of their studies.

“I’m in an interdisciplinary program, so I was glad to see them breaking down disciplinary silos or boundaries that have been erected over the past hundred years,” said Franklin, who is in the American Studies program.


Graduate students concerned

The report stated the committee is “mindful” of the University’s commitment to doctoral support for five years, with a possibility for a sixth, which raised some student concerns.

Franklin said while he is appreciative of the current support he receives from the University, each program is unique and requires a different amount of time for completion. He added that he is nervous about the possibility of running out of funding if he spends more time completing his degree.

“Many degrees simply take longer than (five to six years), and pretending that they don’t — trying to cram everyone through in the same amount of time — will only come at the expense of excellence, which is a tenet of the report that I wholeheartedly support,” he said.

“Shortening the length of our programs may be all very well and good in theory,” wrote Brooke Lamperd GS in an email to The Herald, noting that she does not want to drag out her time in school. “But how are we going to compete in the job market if we don’t have the skills that are at the core of our fields?”

The average completion time for a PhD in the humanities or social sciences is 10 years in the U.S., Lamperd wrote.

According to a survey conducted by the National Science Foundation, the average time to complete a doctorate degree across all fields is around 10 years. Given this statistic, Lamperd wrote that she is concerned about competing with peers at other institutions who may have had more time to attain their degrees.

“How can I produce an excellent dissertation good enough to rise above all of those qualified applicants if I’ve spent my entire time in graduate school trying to meet a deadline that is both arbitrary and nearly impossible?” she wrote.

Doctoral students in good academic standing are guaranteed health insurance and financial support from the University for five years, Weber wrote in an email to The Herald. “In short, we believe that our financial aid for doctoral students is very strong,” he wrote. “But it is true that there may be room to develop a stronger support during the summer months, as the interim report points out.”


‘The best university we can be’

The committee noted in its report that nothing they recommended is final, and all proposals will be subject to further consideration and approval.

The changes suggested in the report do not necessarily mean detracting from the undergraduate experience, Weber said, adding that it is important to remain focused on both graduates and undergraduates.

“It’s not a competition but rather about being the best university we can be,” he said.

Having great graduate students can help improve the undergraduate experience, he said, citing examples of undergraduate students participating in research led by graduates.

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