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July 13, 2017

Vice Provost Looks Forward to Building Relationships With Grad, Professional Students

Nathan Urban

Nathan Urban

Nathan Urban began his new role as vice provost for graduate studies and strategic initiatives on June 1. He takes on this position after having joined Pitt’s faculty in 2015 as a faculty member in the School of Medicine and vice provost for special projects. Urban’s efforts in the Office of the Provost have centered around personalizing the student experience at Pitt.

What do you expect to focus on first as you assume the position of the vice provost for graduate studies?

My initial thoughts are that I want to focus on building upon the existing strengths of our graduate and professional students and programs in two areas – professional development and communication. Graduate education is one of Pitt’s key missions. Our students arrive with talent and ambition, and our goal is to help them develop the skills and knowledge they need to make an impact on their fields and on the world. Much of the training for graduate students – and especially for PhD students – is disciplinary training that occurs in the departments and schools. However, increasingly being successful requires more than just the skills that one learns in the classroom or by doing research. Success in many fields requires the ability to communicate, to build a network of mentors and collaborators, to write effectively and to work in and lead diverse teams. I am interested in working to better equip our students with these kinds of skills, which I think will enhance their success in the future. I also want to provide support for students exploring and pursuing non-academic career options.

A second issue focus is improving communication with the graduate and professional students. There are many programs and opportunities supported by the University, including our programs and those of various graduate student-led organizations. We need to do a better job letting students know about all of these opportunities. We are updating our graduate resource websites, and I will likely send occasional emails to try to help students be more aware of what is available. In addition, I hope to provide more opportunities to recognize and highlight the accomplishments of our graduate students.


What do you think will be the biggest challenges in your new role?

I think that one important factor is that graduate and professional students are a heterogeneous group – approximately 9,500 students span 14 different graduate and professional schools across the University. The issues facing law students and those facing PhD students in physics are quite different, and they are different now than they were five years ago. I will be looking to students and faculty members to tell me about their challenges and the opportunities that exist for the University to improve the overall graduate experience.

One of the things that I have discovered already is that there are many opportunities for graduate students to be engaged, to lead and to help make Pitt a better place – and specifically a better place for graduate students. Whether it is through their schools or at the University level, students can make an important difference. Students and faculty members should feel free to contact me [at] and set up a time to meet and chat.

Another big challenge is working on issues of diversity and inclusion in our graduate student population. Our goal must be to recruit the most talented individuals in the world to Pitt. We will then be better positioned to provide an educational experience that allows everyone to engage with ideas and points of view that are different from their own, which ultimately strengthens our educational mission. This is not an easy or quick challenge to address, but few important things are.


What do you think about the recent activities of some students to collect union cards as a step to establish a graduate student union at Pitt?

Graduate student unionization is a complex issue and is being discussed on campuses across the country. I think of graduate students first and foremost as students and so my primarily concern is with how the University is preparing them to be successful as they go out into the world.

Regarding union cards, I would say that students should remember that signing a union card is more than just a general show of support. It is a legal action that may be difficult or impossible to reverse, so students should be sure to understand the implications of signing. Just as with any important decision, students should learn as much as they can before deciding which side to take. A union would likely affect different students in different ways and to different degrees, so it is important for each student to evaluate what they think is in their best interest.


How does the University support graduate and professional students? What new ideas do you plan to implement?

Again, it comes down to creating opportunities for students so that they thrive after they leave Pitt. One recent development is creation of the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative at the University Center for Teaching and Learning, which provides a variety of resources to help graduate students develop their skills in teaching, creating assessments and designing lectures. We believe that this kind of training and certification can be critical in the job search process. The center provides orientation for new teaching assistants workshops, an achievement in pedagogy, a ‘digital’ badge, individual consultations and a three-credit university teaching practicum.

Another area that I would like to explore is helping students learn about and write fellowship applications. Fellowships can offer a generous source of financial support, sometimes provide opportunities to network outside of Pitt and are also an important credential that provides recognition for students as they later apply for positions. I would like to look at how we can better use the expertise of faculty – many of whom serve on fellowship review committees – to help our students be more knowledgeable and successful in applying for fellowships.


What advice would you like to share with graduate students?

I was a graduate student at Pitt and at that time, I would have said, “always be on the lookout for free food.” But seriously, based on my time as a graduate student and from mentoring students in my lab, I would emphasize the importance of seeking out mentors – not just from the faculty, but also more senior students, postdocs and your peers. Graduate school is stressful, but building a network of mentors will serve you well when you are navigating challenges, exploring new options and celebrating successes.

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