Graduate students at the heart of our mission
As the 2013 school year drew to a close, media outlets, including professional journals, The New York Times and even “The Colbert Report” covered a story about an economics graduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The student, Thomas Herndon, discovered an error in what had become an important piece of research describing the relationship between national debt and economic vitality.
While the analysts (Harvard economists Drs. Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff) apparently conducted the appropriate analyses, the data they used contained an error. As a result, Reinhart and Rogoff carried the error through the their analyses, distorting the relations among economic factors, and thus leading to a flawed interpretation. The general topic remains timely and very important, given Detroit’s recent struggle with finances.
Local flavor and rivalry (U. Mass vs. Harvard) as well as an academic generation gap enrich the story. The fact that a graduate student could challenge the research of eminent scholars is refreshing (and all the more interesting with the challenge coming from a student in his early years of training at a less-prestigious institution). However, if we put all of these interesting dimensions aside, we see a much more important story about graduate students in general and their many roles at a research-intensive university such as the University of Colorado Boulder.
Currently, CU-Boulder’s College of Arts and Sciences educates about 2,300 graduate students, nearly half of the campus total, and more than twice the number in any other single college on campus. Graduate students compose about 16 percent of the total A&S student body. These students seek advanced degrees, either at the master’s or Ph.D. level. At a comprehensive research university, they play critical roles in fulfilling our mission.
Graduate students are probably most familiar to our undergraduate students and alumni through classroom teaching. Frequently, graduate students serve as teaching assistants (or TAs) in large classes across campus. They also teach a number of classes independently, providing our undergraduate students with an opportunity to learn with the next generation of scholars. In return, our graduate students gain teaching experience, helping them learn from our outstanding undergraduates. An important outcome is that many of our courses provide undergraduates with considerable expertise, drawn from both faculty and graduate student teaching assistants. There are strong benefits to undergraduates from this kind of teaching system.
CU-Boulder graduate students are on the cutting edge in their respective disciplines. They create new knowledge and overturn assumptions held by previous generations of scholars. Their research ensures forward movement of our disciplines, and they are absolutely vital to maintaining our overall research strength. For instance, graduate students conduct much of the research here at CU, providing staffing for laboratories on both independent and faculty-driven research projects. They also conduct fieldwork, archival research and engage in creative activities on campus and beyond, with the goal of developing their own independent programs in research, teaching and creative activities.
CU-Boulder graduate student Julia Kamenetzky recently provided a great example of the impact our graduate students make, publishing one of the first papers based on data from world’s newest and most sophisticated radio telescope (the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA, in Chile).
She joined Professor Emeritus Richard McCray and CU alumnus and Professor Remy Indebetouw (University of Virginia) and others in research detecting carbon monoxide emissions from Supernova 1987A, long studied by Professor McCray. These observations help advance our understanding of supernova formation, and are soon to be published in the Astrophysical Journal.
The main concern for the future rests in attracting adequate funding for graduate students at CU. The vast majority of public universities, including CU, now face acute shortfalls in funding for graduate education and research, in some ways much more so than at the undergraduate level. Problems with graduate support are being driven by the “sequester,” an across-the-board and coarse federal spending cut.
The sequester will affect university support for graduate research because it targets national research agencies (such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, both major funding sources for CU). CU, like all other research universities, will need to make adjustments to contend with funding cuts at the national level. The main goal is to preserve our nation’s research and educational capacity by seeking ways to maintain the strength of current graduate programs.
The current fiscal environment has increased the need for universities to pursue fundraising opportunities for graduate programs: we need to appeal to CU supporters to make investments in our strong graduate programs, many of which are in the top dozen nationally. Next to endowments for faculty, donor support for graduate programs and graduate students is probably the most effective way to strengthen the university. This is because support for graduate students adds significantly to teaching and undergraduate education while simultaneously building research capacity. Support for graduate programs enhances many aspects of the university, given the varied roles played by graduate students. In the long term, graduate support helps launch the careers of the next generation of scholars across the fields of study represented at CU. In short, investments in graduate students are among the most effective of ways to support CU and to make a difference for the future of education.
Every day, our graduate students conduct research that yields a benefit to society, much like Mr. Herndon’s patient, meticulous research that dared to question authorities in his field. (See a summary of his work here.) Without attention to the future that graduate students represent, our national research preeminence is in jeopardy. Investments in CU’s graduate programs ramify through the system, with both institutional and societal benefits, and will be necessary for the continued strength of the institution.
Steven R. Leigh