Graduate Studies Retreat looks at all parts of the student life cycle


The second Graduate Studies Retreat attracted more than 100 people — from faculty to staff to students — to discuss issues confronting graduate students and professors.

The day-long event on Feb. 1 included sessions on graduate recruiting, mental health, using GREs in admissions and mentoring.

Nathan Urban, vice provost for Graduate Studies and Strategic Initiatives, said the idea for the retreat “really started because of a realization that there’s a set of issues that graduate programs and professional programs have in common.”

“There were small scale discussions going on across campus. But we thought it would really be a useful thing to bring people together to talk about, for example, graduates and mental health and some of the resources that we have, and some of the challenges that we have in addressing and supporting graduate students in that way.”

Participants looked at questions of where do graduate and professional students come from, what do they do when they’re at the University and where do they end up.

Urban summed up the day of discussions with a few questions as the retreat wrapped up.

What do you wish we knew about students at different stages in the student life cycle, from applicant to working graduate?

One participant said she’d like to know more about what a student’s expectations are when they come into a program. “And then that allows us to look at how well we’re going to be able to meet those students’ expectations, and that might even plant this idea of who are we and knowing what groups of students we can best serve.”

Urban pointed out that “historically a lot of Ph.D. programs have focused on training people to be academics. And if we realize that a large fraction our students do not come to our Ph.D. programs in order to be academics, that should change both our brand and our vision about what constitutes success.”

Questions were raised about the efficacy of GREs and one attendee wondered if there was a better way to measure resiliency, “because I think that’s probably a far bigger predictor for success across a lot of programs.”

Urban suggested that maybe there are faculty at Pitt who could help come up with some better way to measure grit.

Rachel Coombs, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association, said she’d be interested in instituting an exit interview with students to determine their overall experience, along with how many “leave with the degree they set out to get when they came in, how many students leave without a degree, how many switch to a different track.”

Urban said there is an AAU-wide exit survey that Pitt does not currently participate in, but there is some interest in re-evaluating that decision. “If we had comparison data to other several other AAU institutions, I think that could be quite informative.”

Pitt certainly looks at how many people complete in a timely manner the programs in which they enrolled.

But then, Urban said, the University also needs to track where those students end up — “what careers they end up embarking on, what kinds of impact they have after they leave the university. … Clearly as an educational institution, the goal that we have in engaging with students and bringing students to the university is to enable them to have lives of impact in some way.

“I think we will do a much better job of understanding what we need to be doing for our students, what opportunities we need to be providing, when we have a better understanding of that trajectory that they take.”

Where are the gaps in support resources for students?

Philippa Carter, director of Diversity Initiatives and Academic Affairs in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, said she thinks financial literacy, particularly among graduate students, is a big issue. Some students may never have taken out loans before or are worrying about having to start repaying loans when they leave for their first postdoc or first. Fellows also need to worry about paying taxes even though there are no taxes taken out.

Financial insecurity also was raised as a big problem with grad students. One participant wondered, “How many students are in such severe financial, housing or food distress that it’s interfering with their day-to-day ability to take advantage of being a student. I think that’s … a much greater problem than is obvious.”

Another participant pointed out that the School of Computing and Information has an emergency loan program. “It’s not used a lot, but when it is used, … it makes all the difference. … I wonder if there could be an expansion of that, so that we would develop at the university level, some more emergency funding. We could even fundraise for that.”

Urban said the University also is trying to be aggressive about raising stipends, which are up 14 percent in the past few years.

“We’re looking at growing graduate programs across the University, and to try and bring in more students in a variety of different programs where there’s clear demand and clear

need and where those degrees are in demand in the marketplace,” Urban said. “And so this will be an opportunity … to expand some of these resources that are available.”

How does the University expand and improve its mentoring programs?

Urban said one of the things that struck him during the discussion on mentoring is “the degree to which we underestimate how complex universities seem to students,” especially first-generation students. He believes this is even more obvious with graduate and professional students.

Even his own son, who was considering going into graduate school, knew little about the process, Urban said.

“I was shocked and somewhat embarrassed at how little, given of my history and my current role, he understood about graduate school and about how to approach someone he has been working with as a mentor to begin the discussion about what he would need to be doing over the next year and a half … to get admitted to and then go to graduate school.

“And I’m thinking if my son, who’s lived in my house for a long time, heard a lot of things about universities and about graduate school, has this level of understanding, I can’t imagine how a typical student figures this out.”

He said mentors need to help students understand the value of setbacks and how to regroup, and how to respond if they’re not in a good mentoring program.

Urban hopes to continue holding these graduate studies retreats and to get more students involved.

The feedback we've gotten both years has been very positive. People appreciate the opportunity to have these discussions with their peers and their colleagues,” Urban said. “I think I would like to get even more student engagement. … I think it’s very valuable when students are part of these conversations.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.