Nathan Urban, vice provost for graduate studies and strategic initiatives, opened the University’s inaugural graduate studies retreat by making the case that the value of graduate training is high but not broadly understood, and that careers for students with graduate degrees are more diverse than is generally known. Wider familiarity with graduate studies’ benefits would help students and faculty alike appreciate what can be accomplished with advanced degrees — and help everyone recognize the possibilities such degrees open for careers.
The May 10 event gathered administrators, faculty and student leaders from the 14 Pitt schools with graduate and professional programs, including representatives from student government; the University Council on Graduate Study; the University Senate’s student admissions, aid and affairs committee; associate deans; and others. During small-group discussions, participants focused on such topics as available resources for graduate students, mentoring programs and retention of students from underrepresented populations. Attendees also voted on ideas for participants to develop following the retreat.
Patricia Beeson, provost and senior vice chancellor, opened the day’s program. “This is a real opportunity for the University to think hard about what we do in our graduate and professional programs and how we can improve them,” Beeson said. “What is it that we're doing really well and what are the areas where we can really strengthen our programs?”
While the day was dedicated to sharing best practices, “I think we can do more than that,” she added: “not just a sharing of ideas, but let’s come out of this with a commitment to developing an action plan.”
Public Image of Higher Ed Benefits Falls, But Evident to Students
Urban, faculty member and vice chair in the Department of Neurobiology in the School of Medicine, cited a June, 2017 Pew Research Center survey that showed the public image of college education’s benefits had plummeted since 2015 among half the country — Republican voters — while remaining steadily positive among Democratic voters. However, members of both parties who undertake master’s, doctoral or professional degrees value them highly, he said, citing another Pew survey from the previous year.
“Higher education clearly provides a substantial benefit, and the more the better,” he said, showing data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey demonstrating that individuals’ unemployment rate decreases with higher levels of education while average salaries increase.
Grad Studies More Popular, Leading to More Diverse Careers
Graduate studies are more popular, nationwide, than ever before, he said. The same percentage of people who held bachelor’s degrees in the 1960s hold master’s degrees today.
Historically, Ph.D.s have led recipients to academic careers and professional degrees helped people to enter specific professions. Today, the situation is quite different. “There aren’t academic jobs for all these people,” Urban noted. “They're going out and doing a lot of different things.”
Urban explained that while the majority of graduates in many humanities fields still land in academia, that isn’t the case for all graduate students. For instance, only 15 percent of biology postdoctoral students receive tenure track faculty positions within six years of earning their Ph.D.s, he said. A great number of them become researchers for industry or government or use their skills in jobs that are not primarily in the sciences. Because non-academic jobs have become the mainstream career track for many graduate students, their training should reflect these career possibilities, Urban added. They should be offered more professional development opportunities and greater chances to learn such vital career skills as communication and teamwork.
Pitt Grad Studies Compared to Peers
Pitt serves about 10,000 graduate and professional students in approximately 100 different programs. But there are 10 percent fewer graduate and professional students here than there were five years ago, Urban reported.
Pitt’s practices helped inform the results of the most recent Graduate Student in the Research University survey results, which for respondents nationally found high levels of student satisfaction in graduate programs. But a March 2018 international study of graduate students found unacceptably high levels of anxiety and depression among graduate students, Urban added.
“We would like to see the provost’s office play a supporting role, not just an approving role, in improving graduate programs,” he said, as the University aims to grow its professional programs — particularly its master’s and certificate programs — in the coming years. Today, the University is providing more professional development and career coaching for grad students via the Center for Doctoral and Postdoctoral Career Development.
Deane Root, chair of the Department of Music in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, noted during a breakout session that faculty members and administrators can’t simply plan these programs without hearing from students about their needs and wishes: “We can’t create something and present it and expect the students to show up. We have to plan it with the students.”