Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Don't forget the grad students.

The subject of Notre Dame as a research institution has brought about a bit of discussion at the Rover. I wrote an article last year on Father Jenkins' spoken desire for Notre Dame to join the AAU and the result of such changes on the strength, or at least the breadth, of the undergraduate education. I know Matt wrote a similar article last year as well. I'll be upfront about my bias: I am involved in undergraduate research (that's why I'm hanging around campus this summer) and believe it has been a valuable part of my undergraduate education. I also do not believe that the Biology program is at risk of creating technicians instead of well-rounded and well-read scientists. However, avoiding that overspecialization does not mean avoiding everything with the word "research" in it.

I agree that undergraduates should be the University's focus and that the administration should look after their interests over anything else. But a part of that discussion, which is often overlooked, is the place of graduate students on campus. Emphasizing undergraduate education does not mean neglecting or shortchanging graduate students regarding money or resources. The health of a department depends on the health of all of its parts. I'll speak about the Biology department because that is where I have experience – and graduate students in the humanities may play a different role than those in the sciences.

The bulk of the research in university labs is done by its graduate students. This is true across the country. They are the ones doing the grunt work, getting data, and running many of the experiments that interest their professor. But if graduate students are slighted in favor of undergraduates by, for example, not paying for their health insurance, the strength of the graduate program on campus weakens. This causes fewer good graduate students to choose Notre Dame. Right now, the University's reputation among graduate students is not wonderful, with controversies ranging from football ticket lottery exclusion to not paying for health insurance to having some of their funding redirected to other areas around the University.

But a strong pool of graduate students is essential for undergraduate education. A weaker pool of graduate students impedes the hiring of good, new faculty and can also push current professors away. Although I have no way of knowing their motives, I know that one of my favorite Biology professors has already left Notre Dame, one is going to leave after next year, and another is considering leaving. Losing three professors would be a huge hit for the department and the University cannot replace professors as quickly as they are leaving. This, in turn, negatively impacts the undergraduates because the quality of teaching faculty decreases and there are fewer openings for undergraduates to work in labs. Like it or not, all of the best Biology teaching faculty are here for research as well. Cutting back on research funding will cut back on the quality of undergraduate teaching.

Because of those cyclic effects, cutting back on funding for graduate programs, in the interest of avoiding overspecialization and focusing on undergraduates, is counterproductive. The best undergraduate education requires the best specialized faculty in the country each sharing his knowledge with the undergraduates. This requires a strong pool of graduate students. "Becoming a research institution" is many times nearly synonymous with "improving undergraduate education" because of the role research professors and graduate students play. And that requires not forgetting the graduate students.


Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing this, andrew. coming from the Arts and Letters track, it is sometimes hard for me to really understand the type of research that goes on in the non-A&L places and what impact that has on everything. I'm pretty sure our grad students have a different focus than yours, so it is nice to be aware of the differences and similarities for this often overlooked campus demographic.

Tom B. said...

good post!

prw said...

Thanks for the interesting post. I think there are a number of issues related to the role graduate students play in the life of the university that deserve more attention than they have received.

Conditions for graduate students could certainly be better, especially considering the university's strong financial situation, but I don't think they're especially bad.

I think you're overstating matters when you say "'Becoming a research institution' is many times nearly synonymous with 'improving undergraduate education' because of the role research professors and graduate students play." It's true that the relationship between research and undergraduate education is not a zero-sum game, but the different goals are frequently in tension.

I also think it's important to recognize the gulf that separates the experience of doing graduate level work in the sciences (I'm thinking predominantly of the hard sciences, but I suspect this would apply to the more empirically-oriented social sciences as well) and the humanities. The apprenticeship involved in the humanities takes a lot longer and really it's not until you're writing your thesis that you can meaningfully be said to be researching.

Similarly, I think a talented and motivated undergraduate could participate in research in biology, but in a subject like classics then except for the occasional prodigy I don't think an undergraduate will be able to produce work that deserves to be called research.

One question that might be of interest to Rover readers (and others) is whether the university should be concerned about the proportion of graduate students who are Catholic and/or sympathetic to the university's religious mission. Since graduate students do a fair amount of teaching the arguments that about faculty demographics might be thought to apply here as well. Furthermore, since departments under pressure to hire more Catholic professors frequently complain that there aren't that many first-rate Catholic scholars, there's an argument that Notre Dame should do its part to produce the next generation of Catholic scholars and intellectuals.