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November 16, 2000 - VOL. 27, NO. 23
Graduate students work across disciplines as part of cutting-edge portfolio program at UT Austin
Laura Grund, Office of Graduate Studies
|One of UT Austin's best-kept secrets has existed since January 1997. Graduate students are able to earn "portfolio certification" in a number of areas while completing a Ph.D. in their chosen field.
UT's cutting-edge Graduate School portfolio program enables students to gain breadth of knowledge across an issue, as well as depth of knowledge in their disciplines.
Whether in gerontology, Mexican American studies, or women's studies, these programs augment traditional disciplines with considerations of broader questions and give students the opportunity to interact with faculty in a number of different disciplines on issues of mutual interest.
One of the reasons for developing the portfolio program was to enrich the research experience and expand the scholarly credentials of graduate students. Associate Graduate Dean Rick Cherwitz, who created and oversees the portfolio program, hopes that portfolio certification will increase the marketability of new Ph.D.s, as well as enhance their intellectual training.
"I proposed the concept of the portfolio program to allow graduate students to capitalize on the vast and disparate intellectual resources available at UT, and to debunk the myth that interdisciplinary study is administratively impossible to accomplish," Cherwitz said. "Portfolio programs permit students, in addition to earning a degree in a particular discipline, to obtain credentials in a cross-disciplinary academic area of inquiry -- one involving research conducted in several disciplines."
To obtain portfolio certification, doctoral students must take four thematically related, doctoral-level courses from a variety of pre-determined disciplines or programs offered by at least two different outside departments. In addition, students are required to prepare a scholarly essay to be presented at a research colloquium attended by faculty and students from the various academic programs comprising the particular cross-disciplinary area of inquiry.
Upon graduation, students are issued a certificate documenting their completion of course and other requirements. In addition, a student's transcript indicates certification in one of UT's doctoral portfolio programs.
Portfolio programs are developed and proposed by members of the faculty and are reviewed by the Graduate School and the Academic Committee of the Graduate Assembly. Currently, there are seven doctoral portfolios available to students: gerontology, interdisciplinary European studies, Mexican American studies, presidential studies, urban studies, women's studies, and the newest portfolio, dispute resolution.
Other portfolio proposals that soon may be offered include African and African Diaspora, cultural studies, technology and communication, Islamic studies and performance studies. There also has been research into developing portfolio programs in ethics, environmental studies and health studies. Beginning this fall, the University also has available a master's portfolio mechanism, with the first program being offered in dispute resolution.
Dr. Gayle Acton, director of the doctoral portfolio in gerontology, believes the portfolio program's major strength is its interdisciplinary nature.
"Gerontology itself is interdisciplinary subject matter, and the gerontology portfolio program allows students to get a real flavor of gerontology through other disciplines," Acton said. "For example, a nursing student can get a very different perspective by taking a course at the LBJ School of Public Affairs on health policy. This is a real advantage, because everybody gets enriched by learning another perspective."
While many of the students currently working toward a gerontology portfolio have a nursing background, others are doctoral students studying kinesiology, health education and educational psychology. One former graduate student, Oma Morey, received her doctorate this past May in adult and human resource development from the College of Education and completed a gerontology portfolio.
She plans to teach aging issues to adults, so she decided to focus her Ph.D. on adult education. Today, Morey holds a faculty position at Stanford Medical School. "I was fortunate to find exactly the position that would allow me to put my degree and portfolio together," Morey said. "At Stanford, I coordinate the geriatrics in primary care program, which reaches physician educators across the world and helps them better understand their own geriatrics programs."
Without completing a portfolio in gerontology at UT, Morey would not have been qualified for this position. "Completing a portfolio truly allowed her to study a different discipline so that she could go forward with her career in a broad way she wouldn't have otherwise been able to," Acton said.
Porntip Malathum, a graduate student currently in the adult health nursing Ph.D. program, also is working to complete a portfolio in gerontology. Malathum came to UT to focus on gerontological nursing as her home country of Thailand is in great need of health care professions to serve the rapidly growing aging population.
"The courses that I took for the gerontology portfolio program have stimulated my idea to conduct more research in the future about aging health, my major area of interest. I am a faculty member of a university in my country, so my job will get involved with teaching graduate students. The body of knowledge and the teaching methods that I have learned from this program will be useful for my career," she said.
Similarly, students working on their Mexican American studies portfolio also are from a wide range of fields. The five graduate students currently participating in the Center for Mexican American Studies (CMAS) portfolio program come from diverse fields, including theatre arts, ethnomusicology, social work and higher education.
"Mexican American Studies is a creature of liberal arts, so it is rather surprising that the students in the CMAS Portfolio program are from disciplines outside of liberal arts," said Dr. Jose Limon, director of CMAS.
According to Limon, the portfolio program serves two major functions: first, it offers students a structured way to specialize in an area different than their discipline, which they could incorporate into their teaching. Second, it offers graduate students a stimulating situation aside from their main focus of study in which they can meet students from all over the campus who share similar interests.
Professor Madeline Maxwell, who oversees the new dispute resolution portfolio program, agrees that one its main goals is to bring together people from across campus; in this case, people who have a similar interests in conflict management but no way to find each other.
"Dispute resolution is an important topic, practically, philosophically and intellectually," Maxwell said. "The idea that students in the dispute resolution portfolio program will bring back knowledge to their individual discipline is very exciting. Students feeding each other knowledge which will grow, be disseminated and be tested; this is what universities are all about."
Maxwell also emphasizes the unique opportunity that the research colloquium, one requirement of the portfolio program, offers students. This forum occurs once a semester and allows faculty, doctoral students and outside speakers to share their research and knowledge. "It provides a real dialogue across the issues," she said.
Katherine Zilkha, a communication studies doctoral student focusing on language and culture, is working toward a dispute resolution portfolio. Reporting to Maxwell, Zilkha has been the associate director of the UT Conflict Resolution Center for the past two years, where she helps train students in mediation and related services.
After graduate school, Zilkha plans to continue teaching interpersonal and intercultural conflict management and develop a center much like UT's at another university campus. "My long-term research program addresses the role of communication style as mitigating or exacerbating conflict communication. The courses I am taking through the portfolio program are directly relevant to all of these interests."
Another popular portfolio is the women's studies portfolio. Beverly McPhail will earn her Ph.D. in social work and is pursuing a portfolio in women's studies.
"The connection for me is that my dissertation is gender-focused, looking at the intersection between hate crimes and gender," she said. "My long-term career goals blend social work and women's studies, as well. (I plan) to teach both social work and women's studies, and perhaps one day even head a women's studies department. I believe having a portfolio in women' studies will be an asset when that opportunity arises."
Overall, graduate students value the unique opportunity to meet professors and students whom they would have never met had they stayed within their own disciplines. "I would encourage other students to explore the portfolio options. I think it can really expand their worldviews, offer new challenges and exposure to many different disciplines and points of view, as well as being an asset for a curriculum vitae," said McPhail.
A networking opportunity
Both former and current doctoral students are finding the Portfolio program to be a great networking opportunity. Students appreciate learning more about their area of study from multi-disciplinary approaches and being able to exchange knowledge among disciplines.
The main advantages are exposure to a wide variety of faculty, new ideas, and other doctoral students. "It's a good lesson in working across disciplines and bringing a fresh perspective into your work," said one doctoral student. "I would recommend the portfolio program to other graduate students. The multi-disciplinary perspective and integration of knowledge is such an advantage."
As an integral part of UT's unique Graduate School Professional Development Program, which also includes 14 interdisciplinary classes and numerous workshops, Associate Graduate Dean Cherwitz believes portfolio programs "are an important vehicle for enabling graduate students to become citizen-scholars by maximizing the value of education for themselves and for society at-large."
For more information on the portfolio program, visit www.utexas.edu/ogs/docport, or contact Cherwitz at (512) 471-4511.
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