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May 2, 2013

Report looks at future of graduate education

“To talk about graduate education as a single topic requires a bit of courage,” said Alberta Sbragia, vice provost for graduate studies, in a special report to Faculty Assembly on graduate education at Pitt.

Sbragia, a political science professor and director of the European Union Center of Excellence and European Studies Center when she was named vice provost for graduate studies, admitted she experienced culture shock when she joined the provost’s office in 2010.

“I knew I was venturing onto foreign territory when I joined the Office of the Provost. What I had not realized was how many foreign territories existed within the University,” she quipped. Sbragia said she quickly learned: “Never assume that a discipline works like my own discipline.”

Graduate education at Pitt, she said, “encompasses a very wide range of cultures, assumptions and decision-making styles.” Among the variations are differences in departmental cultures, the role of teaching, funding patterns and the percentage of international students in various areas.

She said international students make up about 40 percent of Pitt’s engineering graduate students; about one-third in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, and about one-quarter in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

The biggest differences, she said, are between lab-based and non-lab-based disciplines. In humanities and social sciences, students typically receive fellowships and are supported through teaching assistantships or fellowships. In contrast, students in the sciences often are supported by faculty grants as members of a research lab, she said.

In addition, most students who earn graduate degrees in the social sciences and humanities enter the academic job market, while engineers with PhDs mostly go into industry, she said.

Nationally, the time to earn a degree varies by discipline. In 2010, she said the median was 9.3 years in the humanities, 7.7 years in the social sciences, 6.8 years in the life sciences and 6.7 years in the physical sciences.

“Before we can really think about how we’re going to move forward, we have to be very, very sensitive to the tremendous differences in play” across the University, she said. “We tend to assume that everybody else operates the way we do.”


Kathleen Blee, associate dean for graduate studies and research in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, agreed there cannot be a cookie-cutter approach, even within the arts and sciences areas.

Blee identified what she called “critical conversation points for departments thinking about graduate education as it’s going to unfold in the next decade.”

At issue, she said, is “how to position ourselves well against a very rapidly changing structural and intellectual environment.”

Blee said many disciplines are seeing “profound changes in the intellectual content” with team-produced knowledge, hybrid and interdisciplinary changes arising in many areas.

Likewise there are “enormous structural shifts” that will affect graduate education in the coming decades: financial shifts that affect how students are supported; demographic shifts as the number of high school students is falling, and the quality of graduate schools outside the United States is rising.

“The days in which we could tout ourselves as the importer of the world’s best graduate students is not something we’ll be able to rely on,” she said. “We’re in a different kind of market, a different kind of intellectual environment,” Blee said.

“What we need, at least as much as anything else, is some really innovative thinking.” Simply “replicating the academy” is not going to be effective, she said.

Blee outlined some common points for conversation. “These are all kinds of issues that every department, every graduate faculty could productively be engaged in,” she said.

High quality

Scholarship, teaching and placement are critical elements in thinking about quality. In today’s competitive market, “we need to make sure our programs are putting students at the forefront of research or interpretive and critical scholarship or creative activity,” she said. “It also means that we need to be thinking about how our programs in the departments can create students who are excellent teachers.”

Programs must provide meaningful teaching experiences and mentor graduate students in their understanding of teaching.

And, Blee said, programs need to examine where students are being placed after graduation: “Are they going into the kinds of positions that we have geared our programs to produce?”


Clusters, opportunities and balancing are important. “How does a graduate program create a definition of itself?” Blee said. “It really goes to being able to discern what’s a cluster of excellence that we currently have and what’s an opportunity to which you could move into the future?”

There must be a dynamic balance between the present and the future, she said. “Where are we best now and where are we able to move into a new direction?”


What size should a graduate program be, viewed from the standpoints of education, mentoring and placement? “In many fields, the size of the graduate program has been driven by how many labs or recitation sections of undergraduates need somebody to stand in front of them,” Blee said. “Is that a good thing or not?

“Has that created the size of department we want? Are we able to create the quality of educational experience and the placement success for our PhDs that we want, given the size? Is this the right way to meet our undergraduate teaching needs or not?”

Responsive to diversity

“We are in an extremely heterogeneous environment in the United States and our population is going to become ever more heterogeneous in terms of race and ethnicity,” Blee said. “We need to think about ways in which our graduate programs are appropriately diverse and appropriately responsive to the diversity of our population.”

Another question is how programs will compete for students internationally. “It’s not automatic that the best international students are going to flock to the United States in the future like they’ve done in the past,” she said.

Cost effective

“This is a question of how we make our programs fit within the financial realities that we’re in,” Blee said.

Among the hidden costs of graduate education is attrition. “Graduate education is expensive to the University and it’s particularly expensive if we’re losing people at points where we don’t want to lose them,” she said.

“It’s not that we don’t want students ever to exit, but we want students to exit the program at milestones.” For instance, if a student has finished a master’s degree and decides not to pursue a PhD, that’s an appropriate milestone. In contrast, “If they’ve worked on their dissertation for four years and they lose interest, that is a loss of financial resources to the University and faculty time and effort. And nobody’s happy. The student’s not happy, the faculty’s not happy and that’s the cause of an emotionally negative experience.”

Blee said that admitting the best students possible — matching them well to the program — reduces attrition.

Having clear milestones so students understand how to move through the program and reducing time to degree also help, she said.


How do graduate students and graduate education fit into the University’s mission?

“What is the place of graduate students at a place like Pitt?” Blee asked, suggesting that helping graduate students take on new tasks in the changing Pitt environment should be considered. “For example, not just being teachers to undergraduates but being mentors to undergraduates. That’s commonplace in science; it’s not common in the social sciences and the humanities. There’s new effort on how to integrate graduate students into the undergraduate world.”

More broadly, Blee said, it’s important to consider how to make the case for the value of graduate education outside the University: “How to voice to the larger community — to the state and society as a whole — the importance of graduate education,” she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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