What comes to mind when you mention the Office of Graduate Studies? Bureaucracy? Rules and regulations? Fees? Dissertation margins? These associations may be changing as UT focuses on how the centralized structure of the Graduate School can be used constructively to enhance the education of graduate students. According to Dr. Rick Cherwitz, associate dean of graduate studies, "The question we continually pose is: In what ways can the Graduate School provide intellectual leadership and help build community?"
Office of Graduate Studies offers array of programs
The Graduate School may have found at least one answer to this question by first identifying a problem: Top research universities like UT long have excelled at training graduate students to do research - to work in labs or archives and to generate new ideas and knowledge. A productive intellectual community, however, demands much more. Its members must be able to explain their ideas to their colleagues, as well as to those outside of their discipline. Knowledge must be transmitted to students and it must be applied and organized to meet the needs and challenges of society at-large. Yet, at many institutions of higher learning, these latter skills are ignored or are assumed to be acquired by osmosis.
Not so at the University of Texas. Over the past several years the Graduate School, the administrative unit that oversees all graduate programs on campus, has taken the lead in initiating an array of programs that provide graduate students with important skills - skills that supplement knowledge acquired in a student's discipline.
Workshops and Seminars
These professional development programs are delivered in several forms. The Graduate School regularly sponsors half-day seminars and workshops on issues crucial to graduate student development - issues such as finding a job, publishing research, developing grant proposals and completing a dissertation.
"These seminars are some of the only times when grad students are told the basic information that everybody seems to expect us to know," explains Hillary Warren, a Ph.D. candidate in journalism.
"For example, at the Academic Job Market seminar a few years ago, Dr. Terry Sullivan (vice president and dean of Graduate Studies) held a session where she critiqued vitas. She took one look at mine and said, 'Hmmmm, your vitae . . . First question: Is this a vitae?' How was I to know it wasn't in correct form? No one had ever told me how it should look . . ."
The demand for all of these workshops has been staggering. The dissertation-writing seminar that was held for the first time last February, for instance, originally was limited to 100 participants. Three times that many tried to register. The Graduate School upped the limit to 150 and secured a larger room. Still, more than 200 people attended the event.
Preparing Future Faculty
In addition to seminars and workshops, the Graduate School sponsors a nationally recognized program called "Preparing Future Faculty" (PFF). PFF provides students nearing completion of their doctoral degree with the opportunity to learn about faculty life at non-Research One institutions. UT's PFF program is run with four "partner" schools whose missions are different from UT (Austin Community College, Huston-Tillotson University, St. Edward's University and Southwest Texas State University). More than 300 UT students, representing nearly every college and school on campus, annually take part in PFF initiatives.
UT's PFF program began as part of a national initiative to develop model programs that better prepare those graduate students interested in an academic career. The national PFF project was jointly sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Council of Graduate Schools, and funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. In 1995, Sullivan and Dr. Marilla Svinicki, director of the Center for Teaching Effectiveness, were awarded a two-year grant to start a PFF program at UT. Through their efforts, UT's program became one of the most successful in the nation.
UT students participate in PFF in several ways. Students may elect to visit partner schools for a few hours to meet with faculty, students and administrators. In addition, students may enroll in a semester-long PFF internship course in which they work closely with a faculty "mentor" at one of the four partner schools.
According to Cherwitz, who conceived of and administers the internship program/course, "Interns' duties vary: some interns are asked to lecture or lead lab sessions (and receive instructor and student feedback). Others are asked to advise and mentor students. Some interns spend time sitting in on faculty meetings and other administrative committees." Whatever the tasks, however, interns report that they are made to feel as though they are a valued part of the community. "During my internship," says Maureen Casile, a doctoral student in Business Management, "I really felt like an insider."
Moreover, many interns report that PFF is a major turning-point in their career preparation. For the first time, say many students, they see opportunities to do work that is different from what gets done at a Research One school. Teaching at St. Edwards' New College, Maureen Casile discovered a love for teaching adult learners. Working with the Physics Department at Southwest Texas State, Elizabeth Watts was fondly reminded of the camaraderie that existed at the smaller school she had attended as an undergraduate. Engineering Ph.D. candidate Eric Matsumoto reflects on his internship this way, "Nothing could be more valuable to a future academic than a prolonged period of time to consider, actively discuss and, in some measure, participate in engineering education at a teaching-oriented institituion."
Last year mathematics Ph.D. candidate Benjamin Shults turned down a job offer at Stanford to teach at a small liberal arts college - a decision prompted by a rewarding PFF experience at St. Edward's.
"I believe the experiences with (my PFF mentor) made the difference in getting all . . . my interviews," Shults told Science Magazine last year, when the magazine featured him in an article advocating mentorships for graduate students. "I believe I am a better teacher, researcher, mentor to my students, and colleague to my peers on account of the PFF program . . ."
And there has been an unexpected reward in the PFF program. As part of the internship course, all interns meet during the semester to talk about their experiences. Many interns note that these meetings are one of the most rewarding aspects of the program. Not only can students share the insights they are gaining from their internships, but getting together affords a unique opportunity to spend time with students from all academic corners of the campus.
In many ways, however, this sense of community isn't just a side benefit, but rather the impetus for the program.
"Much of what we do in the Graduate School," says Cherwitz, "is premised on the fact that intellectuals work in a community. Working in a community demands that students know how to communicate with precision and eloquence to people both inside and out of their specific spheres, to both novices and masters. Moreover, we understand that the intellectual community functions best when graduate students identify the very best place to make their contributions, and have the skills to secure these positions."
Beginning last summer, the Graduate School, with the financial support of the Provost's Office and the assistance of the Center for Teaching Effectiveness, began offering graduate students formal, for-credit courses in a number of skill areas: writing, teaching, speaking. Taught by Sullivan, Dr. Marilla Svinicki, and Dr. JoyLynn Reed, these classes bring together students from a variety of disciplines to gain hands-on experience with the communication and pedagogical skills necessary for a successful academic or professional career. In 1998, the Graduate School received approval to offer three new professional development courses specially tailored for international students.
Cherwitz is quick to point out that these classes are not remedial. Rather, he explains, "these courses are another way the Graduate School is preparing students realistically for the professional world they will inhabit. We teach them how to adapt to a variety of audiences - so that they can write scholarly articles, develop grant proposals, and secure book contracts. We teach students the principles of effective communication, enabling them to present their work clearly and convincingly both to peers at scholarly conferences, as well as to non-academic audiences-audiences to whom universities turn and depend on for support and funding. And we provide them with the skills needed to lead classrooms with energy and passion. In short, unlike other institutions, UT offers graduate students full-service professional development."
From the beginning, it was clear that graduate students were hungry for this sort of development. The first semester that the Graduate School offered coursework, three times as many students tried to enroll as space limitations allowed.
Moreover, students heralded the courses a success. The graduate students who enrolled raved about the courses on semester-end evaluations: "This is the best course I have taken in graduate school . . ." "This has been one of the most professionally rewarding and enriching classes I've ever taken." "Bravo! UT really does care about graduate students . . ." "This course fills an important void that our individual departments cannot fill in preparing us for our future careers." "This class has been one which will be crucial to my academic career." "This course was a success in bringing together a diverse group of graduate students for a wonderful interaction that almost never happens otherwise. It opened our minds to the breadth of what should be the goal of all educators: student learning."
Not surprisingly, undergraduate students already may be feeling the positive effects of these and other efforts of the Graduate School to enhance the communication and teaching skills of graduate students. In the last set of instructor evaluations surveyed, undergraduate students rated their graduate students teachers in every college and school on campus as "very good" or higher. In many cases, graduate student teachers were rated as high or higher than faculty.
One of the most important ways that the Graduate School exhibits intellectual leadership and enhances the professional development of graduate students is through its newly-approved Doctoral Portfolio Program. In 1996, Cherwitz made a proposal to the Graduate Assembly (the legislative arm of the Graduate School), calling for the implementation of a vehicle to deliver cross-disciplinary knowledge to graduate students. His proposal was approved by the Graduate Assembly and the president.
Starting in the fall of 1997, UT graduate students, concurrent with earning a doctoral degree, were allowed to earn certification in a doctoral portfolio program-a cross-disciplinary area of inquiry. To date, three portfolio programs have been implemented (Women's Studies, Gerontology, and Presidential Studies) and several others are on the drawing board. These cross-disciplinary programs, notes Cherwitz "are designed to give UT doctoral students both breadth and depth in their scholarly training and will permit some students with degrees in highly esoteric areas of study to supplement their Ph.D. with a more applied credential."
Seminars, internships, coursework, portfolio programs - the Graduate School provides an array of opportunities for graduate students to become well-rounded academics and articulate members of the community. When faculty and students talk about the Graduate School in years to come, perhaps the first image won't be one of rules and regulations. Who knows? Maybe the following thoughts also will spring to mind: professional enrichment, community building, interdisciplinary dialogue, academic leadership.
To learn more about any of the programs outlined in this article, check the Graduate School web site accessed from the UT Home Page or at http://www.utexas.edu/ogs