Tate discusses ‘promising practices’ in graduate education

Leaders in graduate education discuss ways to serve the whole student

Washington University in St. Louis is known for its exceptional undergraduate experience. Now, William F. Tate, dean of the Graduate School, and Lori White, vice chancellor for student affairs, have united to better serve the whole student in graduate education.

Their collaboration has led to a new symposium, “Promising Practices in Supporting Graduate and Professional Students,” Friday and Saturday, Oct. 13-14, at Washington University in St. Louis. More than 140 academic and student affairs leaders from top peer institutions will gather to share best practices in graduate education, from developing nonacademic career pathways to helping students manage family demands.

“If we are going to better serve the whole student, then we need to bring everyone who has an impact on that student’s campus experience to the table,” said Tate, who has committed to hosting the symposium for two years. “There is a need for better evidence and resource strategies focused on improving the graduate student experience. ‘Promising Practices’ was conceived to model intellectual bridge building across academic and student affairs boundaries with the aim to improve the graduate education experience and related outcomes.”

Here, Tate shares the genesis of the conference, ways to better support students and why St. Louis is the ideal place to earn a graduate degree.

William Tate

What is the fundamental difference between undergraduate and graduate education?

Graduate education programs and professional schools seek to recruit highly talented individuals with the potential to make original discoveries or to lead in their chosen field. The emphasis on finding individuals with the potential to advance knowledge production, practice law or engage in clinical practice differentiates graduate and professional school from the undergraduate selection process. People often choose where to get their undergraduate degrees based on the university’s rank, majors or the nonacademic experience — the dorms, the traditions. But they choose graduate schools based on the mentor and the quality of the research environment. They come to work with a particular faculty member. Informed applicants select doctoral programs based on faculty mentors, research fit and the relative standing of the research enterprise — specifically, the department or program as opposed to the university’s overall standing. Typically, incoming matriculates pay little attention to the nonacademic experience or resources. The potential for problems unfolds once they arrive. Students select places where they can engage in discovery. However, what about their need for a sense of belonging within a community? There is a growing recognition that truly outstanding graduate education must address a broader range of social, psychological and developmental factors.

What was the genesis of this idea?

When Lori White was on campus interviewing for her role, we walked around campus talking about ways we could work together to have a more holistic approach to the development of our graduate and professional students. Up until that point, I rarely planned joint events or projects with student affairs. But once she arrived, we started the practice of regular meetings and sending our staff to attend each other’s meetings in order to address important interdependencies and to foster the cross-fertilization of ideas. That synergy led to this proposal. James Parker, Ashley Macrander and many others devoted their time and intellect to the details of this endeavor. It is a wonderful team.

The conference focuses on real-world issues — creating community, improving mental health, getting a job. How did you develop the agenda?

Graduate students spend almost all of their time in a single department or school, often in a single lab or hub of research activity. And when they leave, they don’t go to a university residence hall, but to an off-campus living arrangement. So how do you intervene? In many ways, that’s what this conference attempts to answer. One thing we can do is to create community, but it can’t look like a dorm and it can’t be overprogrammed. Graduate students want to collide just like scientists and entrepreneurs do in Cortex. They want to engage with ideas in a way that respects diversity and inclusion but does not impinge on true free speech. Because how can we discover if we are inhibited by what we say? That is the design challenge — to support the discovery process that is led by departments while enhancing opportunities for graduate students to grow as citizen scholars and public communicators of the important scholarship and practices in their fields.

Mental health is a major concern in graduate life, and we want to share across institutions how best to serve graduate and professional students. We know that students sometimes come to us with anxiety or depression and that graduate education can be stressful. This past year, we worked closely with the Division of Student Affairs to build our capacity to serve graduate and professional students. The conference seeks to expand our knowledge base in this area.

We also know that many of our students will not be following their academic mentors into academia. So what can we do to prepare them to be citizen scholars and leaders in business, government and other fields? We’ve made this a priority and are eager to learn where our peer institutions have made strides.

How are you tracking outcomes?

Provost Holden Thorp is leading the charge among AAU (Association of American Universities) provosts to institutionalize the practice of tracking doctoral studies. The Graduate School is among the leaders across the country in data transparency. It is, for us, a social responsibility and a best practice to share evidence related to our investment in graduate education. We are documenting how long it takes to finish degree programs, who’s completing the programs of study, post-graduation career placement, what factors predict success, and what factors predict poor outcomes. It is an evidence-based strategy. We want to make sure that students are successful, and the only way to do that is to collect the evidence and to be transparent. Displayed on our website, these indicators are among the most important in evaluating our progress.

Many members of the general public are questioning the value of higher education. Is a graduate education worth the investment?

Every graduate dean is thinking about ways to communicate the value of a graduate education. We believe doctoral education and professional programs are about discovery and leadership — evaluating and testing new ideas and models, finding ways to protect our built and social environments, health and human development. Some in society may ask why it is important for someone to study English or history. Understanding the past is extremely important, and students in the humanities are able to form collective wisdom so we can avoid repeating our mistakes. That matters. Our colleagues in neuroscience and in psychological and brain sciences are at the cutting edge of helping us understand the activity of the brain and how to protect and heal it. That matters. If you examine the major scientific and medical discoveries, sociological and economic breakthroughs and inventions since the 1940s, most of the leading individuals involved have at least one thing in common — a graduate education. Imagine society without our important investment in this form of human capital development.

You will be welcoming leaders from across the country to a city that is struggling with questions of race, equality and justice. How does a university’s home impact graduate education?

Cities are often viewed negatively, but we need to acknowledge the precious assets that urban communities represent in the learning process. We must learn and discover together in large scale in cities. Only then can we hope for change on matters of race, equality and justice. Yes, we have unique challenges in St. Louis, but this city is also a tremendous incubator for preparing the next generation of citizen scholars and leaders. In my opinion, we offer an outstanding place to grow and to develop as a researcher and professional.

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