February 20, 2011

President Skorton: The State of Graduate and Professional Education

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Recently, members of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA) suggested that I devote a Sun column to graduate and professional education, which I consider to be a defining attribute of research universities.  So, here goes.

At Cornell, about one third of our students are in graduate or professional programs, including almost 5,000 graduate students and more than 2,000 professional students on the Ithaca campus, as well as almost 400 graduate and more than 400 M.D. students at the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences and the Weill Cornell Medical College, respectively.

In 2011, there are at least three sets of issues of importance in graduate and professional education at Cornell and nationally:

1) The recent release of the National Research Council (NRC) rankings of graduate programs.

2) The status of campus support for the graduate experience.

3) Projections of workforce needs in and beyond academia for master’s and doctoral graduates.

The long-awaited release of the NRC rankings last fall was an occasion for Cornell and other universities to assess their graduate programs. Because of the complex approach to compiling and presenting the data, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to compare prior rankings with the current ones. Nonetheless, two conclusions about Cornell graduate programs can be made: First, the majority of our graduate programs are highly ranked. Almost half of the participating graduate fields within the Cornell Graduate School and the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences were included within the top-10 range of rankings on an overall measure, and over 75 percent were within the top-20 range. Second, the data will help Graduate School Dean Barbara Knuth in Ithaca, Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences Dean David Hajjar in New York City, and our faculty colleagues as they strive to improve the graduate experience and the quality of instruction and research.

A second set of issues concerns graduate and professional student life on our campuses. In 2007, Cornell’s GPSA presented a proposal to the administration and the Board of Trustees for a Graduate Community Initiative to improve the quality of graduate and professional student life. Suggestions included an expanded graduate and professional student center, a career resource center for students and their families and initiatives related to housing, transportation, parking, childcare, mental health and special needs of students in Geneva, New York City and Doha, Qatar.

The recession has slowed our ability to make the progress we would like in some of these areas. While we have not been able to respond to needs for housing or the student center because of budgetary challenges, work will soon begin on planning for the replacement of Maplewood Apartments.

There also has been a significant effort, through the combined efforts of the Graduate School and the career services offices across the campus, to provide more career assistance. Four times a year, we now offer a full-day career development program for graduate and professional students that covers interviewing, networking and job search skills for those with advanced degrees.

There is also a career bulletin for graduate and professional students, published twice a year and posted on the Grad Life website — which can be found at studentlife.gradschool.cornell.edu — and distributed to all graduate/professional students registered on Cornell Career Net. The Grad Life website also includes resources for partners and spouses of graduate and professional students. A new graduate/professional careers website, detailing all career resources across campus available to graduate/professional students — and including specific content areas for research master’s and Ph.D. students in the humanities — will go live in April. In addition the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Offices of Postdoctoral Programs and Graduate Career Services in the Graduate School, the Division of Human Resources and various college-based professional development programs have developed certification programs and one-time programs to support teaching, research, leadership and other career skills useful to graduate and professional students, postdoctoral associates and veterinary residents.

Going forward, we continue to look at means to improve the dissemination of information about these decentralized resources, and will begin a search next month for an associate dean of inclusion and professional development at the Graduate School, with responsibility for expanding programs for all graduate students interested in academic careers as well as improving the resources available for non-academic career options. In addition, I am continuing to work with Vice Presidents Mary Opperman and Susan Murphy on expanding the participation of graduate and professional students in examining issues in the broad area of work and family.

These efforts also relate directly to what is, without a doubt, the most important and timely issue facing graduate and professional students at Cornell and elsewhere: the issue of supply and demand for advanced-degree graduates — in and out of academia — in the current and likely continuing austere economic environment.

In some professional fields, there is compelling evidence about supply and demand. For example, there is now consensus that the U.S. must produce more physicians, especially in the primary care disciplines. In graduate education more generally, however, there is no such consensus and one cannot easily be attained, given the variety of types of degrees. As a point of reference, at Cornell last year, we awarded 499 doctoral degrees and 1,953 master’s degrees of 22 different varieties across 92 graduate fields.

But some overall assertions can be made. First, employment opportunities in academia are very competitive, due to an increasing supply of graduates and reduced hiring in many universities. This trend may be exacerbated if cuts in appropriations to federal agencies supporting scientific and other research are made in the FY2012 federal budget. Second, the great majority of students from Cornell and similarly rated graduate schools will continue to do well in competition for available opportunities. Third, graduate education will prepare many students for careers in nonacademic settings including, but not limited to, industrial and private research laboratories, management and policy positions. This varies, of course, by discipline, and the variety of research-oriented opportunities is greater in the sciences than the humanities.

A final note: It is increasingly important for all Cornellians to enter into a university-wide dialogue about graduate and professional education. I invite our graduate and professional student colleagues, undergraduates, faculty and staff to share ideas with me, Deans Knuth and Hajjar and Vice President Murphy.

David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He may be reached at david.skorton@cornell.edu. From David appears monthly this semester.

Original Author: David J. Skorton