The College From the Dean Summer 2002

Why graduate programs must be a priority for the College

"Why does the College have graduate students in the first place?" That was the question one of the College's most devoted alumni put to me not long ago. It's a very good question because the role of graduate students in a research university isn't immediately obvious. When we think of IU, our first mental image is usually of undergraduates and their professors; we imagine the lecture halls, libraries, and laboratories where teaching and research take place. But the picture would not be complete - or even possible - without the College's 2,700 graduate students. It is only with the help of those students that we have top-quality undergraduate education, cutting-edge research, and a first-class faculty. It is only by training those students for academic and professional careers that we fully meet our responsibility to provide for the future of higher education and serve the state and the nation.

Dean Kumble R. Subbaswamy

For all these reasons, the support of graduate students is always a high priority for the College. But at the present time, it must be our highest priority. More than ever before, potential students - already saddled with large debts for their undergraduate education - worry about the cost of graduate studies, and about their job prospects after earning the PhD. As the pool of qualified graduate applicants - especially those born in the United States - has declined, the competition among universities for this declining pool has intensified. Outstanding students are being recruited with ever-increasing packages of fellowships and signing bonuses. Before the reader gets the wrong idea, let me hasten to add that even the most lucrative packages involve near-poverty stipend levels of $20,000 or so annually!

Graduate education is at the heart of every research university. The doctoral degree (and for the studio disciplines, the master of fine arts) is the highest level of formal education that an American university offers. It is really an apprenticeship, at the end of which the candidate is expected to join the ranks of scholars, scientists, and professionals who advance human knowledge through original research and creative work. Equally important, it is from these ranks that the next generation of college-level teachers is spawned. It is because of the presence of these teachers-in-training that a large research university like IU is able to offer high quality beginning-level undergraduate courses in small sections. How well graduate education is carried out at research universities has far-reaching consequences for our country's long- term well-being.

The quality and reputation of a research university is intimately connected with the success of its graduate programs. One of the important factors in attracting the best faculty to a research university is the quality of the graduate students who choose to go there. An outstanding faculty benefits undergraduates directly by exposing them to those working at the frontiers of the disciplines and through opportunities to participate in research. Likewise, top-notch graduate students, under the tutelage of master teachers, make excellent instructors for first- and second-year basic skills classes.

Pursuing a doctorate calls for a strong commitment and some personal sacrifice on the part of the student. First, the graduate student must be willing to devote seven or eight years beyond the baccalaureate degree to intensive study. Even after that, it is a relatively small fraction of students who find employment fully commensurate with their training, and even fewer who achieve financial success on a par with those who might have pursued a standard professional career path. Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford University, describes the graduate student's experience in his book Academic Duty in these terms:

"[It] depends heavily on the good will and conscientiousness of a single mentor. It requires total immersion in a demanding scholarly discipline, yet often involves the distraction of fulfilling a teaching assistantship, in which the student is responsible for undergraduate instruction with varying degrees of help and guidance and the chances of failure are dauntingly high.

"Nationally, only about a quarter of the students who embark on the PhD actually finish one. The experience is often lonely and may be profoundly alienating. Yet, at its best, with an inspiring and compassionate mentor, it can be positive and even transforming."

The College has excellent graduate programs, with many of the core departments ranked in the top 20, and in some specializations ranked in the top five. These programs are not resting on their laurels, though. As a partner in national dialogues - such as the Preparing Future Faculty program sponsored by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, and the Responsive PhD project sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation - IU is constantly looking to improve its graduate offerings and mentoring responsibilities. At the same time, offering competitive assistantships and fellowships is crucial to IU's success as a research university. As the home of a majority of IU's doctoral programs, the College is placing a high priority on maintaining the competitiveness of its graduate programs. "Why does the university have graduate students?" Because Indiana University wouldn't be the great university it is without them! C