UC Berkeley News


A status report on graduate education at Berkeley

08 April 2004


Each spring, every newly admitted graduate student is invited to Diversity Day, organized by the Graduate Division. This spring more than 250 attended, to listen as grad-student “veterans” addressed such issues as support for students’ professional development, the intellectual atmosphere at Cal, and the climate on campus for underrepresented students, a discussion that embraced the topic of faculty support.
Peg Skorpinski photo

In 1989, Mary Ann Mason joined the Berkeley faculty as a specialist in child and family law and policy; 11 years later she was appointed dean of the Graduate Division. In that role, she’s continued her own research — on the impact of family on men and women in academia — while grappling with the challenging issues now facing graduate education at Berkeley. Of pressing concern this year are the state budget shortfall and the steep increase in graduate-student fees included in Governor Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal, as well as their potential long-term impact on the campus and its research mission.

In this interview with the Berkeleyan’s Cathy Cockrell, Dean Mason elaborates on the state of graduate education at Berkeley, touching on subjects ranging from the campus’s potential “image problem” in light of the budget crisis to the various incentives and disincentives that graduate applicants must weigh in choosing to come here.

To attract and retain top-quality graduate students, the campus competes with other universities — some of which can offer them more fellowship money, cheaper housing, or other incentives. How successful is Berkeley at getting its top grad-student candidates to enroll?
This has been a challenge, particularly in recent years, because many of the universities that we compete with are private, with large endowments that grew rapidly in the ’90s. In consequence, there has been something of a bidding war for top graduate students, as there has been for faculty. But over the past couple of years, just by using aggressive methods — such as “topping off” fellowship offers to our most highly qualified candidates with an additional $1,000 or so — we’ve done quite well in comparison with our competitor institutions.

Fellowships have been one of Chancellor Berdahl’s main priorities. We’ve put a lot of effort into trying to increase fellowship packages, particularly in the social sciences and humanities — fields that don’t have many research grants.

Do you have a sense of which factors are deciding ones for grad students considering whether to enroll at Berkeley?
We know which factors are decisive, because we survey our graduate applicants — those who choose to come to Berkeley and those who don’t. The major consideration, of course, is the financial package that they’re offered, and how much of it is teaching versus how much is fellowship time to pursue their own work. Disciplines differ in that regard. But the main reason that Berkeley does so well, always, is that we have terrific faculty across the board — which is a large part of why we have the top-ranked graduate programs, overall, in the country. In the last round of the National Research Council rankings, in 1995, 35 out of 36 of our programs were in the top 10 nationwide — and we have as many top-rated departments in social sciences and humanities as in the sciences and engineering.

I should also note that of our 105 graduate programs, 90 award Ph.D.s. Many of them, 32 in all, are graduate groups — interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs that allow students to do cutting-edge, interdisciplinary kinds of work. That’s another feature of Berkeley that is quite attractive to prospective graduate students.

Presumably there’s a synergy between attracting faculty and grad students: top students want to work with top-flight faculty, and visa versa.
That’s right. One of Berkeley’s major selling points for faculty is that we have the best and brightest graduate students to work with. Because the research they do is usually a hand-and-glove effort with their graduate students. They need to have the best and brightest grad students to work with or they won’t be able to produce cutting-edge research. And if there were two or three years in which we didn’t get our top graduate students — if we enrolled second-tier students instead of first-tier students — it wouldn’t take long for the faculty to decide that they would not want to stay, either.

How do prospective grad students become familiar with what various departments have to offer them?
Because we have 105 programs, much depends on how a particular department chooses to court its applicants. I try to encourage departments to make sure that their current graduate students are very welcoming to prospective students, and that faculty also take time to talk with them. A number of the departments have included online messages from their current grad students, letting applicants know what to expect, because there’s always concern about what a department’s like; but nothing is more important than faculty attention.

On a material level, what incentives does the campus offer graduate students to come here and to study?
Incentives offered by the Graduate Division include multiyear university fellowships for the most competitive students. We also offer a Dean’s Normative-Time Fellowship for all students in most of the social-science and humanities fields, plus a few of the professional schools. This fellowship is an incentive for students to make timely progress on their degree; if they advance to candidacy within three or four years (depending on their department’s norms), they will get a full-year fellowship to pursue their dissertation — without having to compete.

So it’s guaranteed?
Yes. These fellowships are for anyone in the designated fields, across the board; that’s why they’re attractive. This is a unique program — I don’t think any other university has such a program. We believe it will help advance the time to degree as well.

I imagine that taking on teaching duties as part of their life here is something of an incentive in its own right. What kinds of teaching instruction and mentoring does Berkeley provide for those grad students who are teaching courses or leading sections, or who aspire to a career in academia?
We provide much more support than most schools do for first-time graduate-student instructors [GSIs]. We have a full-scale orientation for all our GSIs. And starting this fall, all departments are required to have a 300-level course for new GSIs, to support them through their first year of teaching. Those courses offer videotaping, feedback, lessons on how to face a class for the first time, how to get students involved — practical, hands-on support for our 1,700 GSIs, some of whom have had no experience teaching.

This support is a win-win, because it improves undergraduate education and it helps prepare our grad students to become future faculty. Faculty, after all, don’t just do research; they spend a good deal of their life teaching. I, for one, had no real support as a TA. I eventually learned how to teach, but I could have learned much faster if someone had given me some lessons and feedback.

Our Graduate-Student Instructor Teaching and Resource Center is looked upon as a model for the nation. It offers many workshops for GSIs — of two kinds. On the one hand, we help faculty who teach large undergraduate gateway courses — a handful of faculty, probably 20 or so, who are teaching the great majority of lower-division students in these gateway courses like biology and physics. We work with faculty on how to handle these large, multisection courses and how to handle work well with their GSIs.

For the grad students themselves, we now offer a six-week Summer Institute for Professional Development, which we held for the first time last summer, and are offering again this year. The institute helps students prepare teaching portfolios — because these days, to get your first job, many universities want to see a teaching portfolio . . . which is basically a presentation of your evaluations, teaching curriculum, and recommendations. They’re not just interested in your potential as researcher but in whether you’re someone with experience and expertise in the classroom.

We also offer workshops throughout the year, as well as language training for international students. We’ve always offered English courses for new GSIs for whom English is not their first language.

What else would you include on any list of Berkeley “attractions”?
Students consistently say that diversity is one of the reasons they choose Berkeley. They visit the campus, they walk down Sproul Plaza, and they can see that we are a multi-hued university. And in fact, among the student population as a whole, graduate and undergraduate, no single ethnic or racial group represents more than 30-some percent. Students like that. The feeling of this being a cosmopolitan and diverse place is always a strong draw. If we get students to come here for a visit — and we spend a lot of effort trying to encourage departments to bring them here, through travel grants and Diversity Day — they are always excited by the special feeling on campus. I think it’s akin to being in New York City, with its feeling of energy and excitement and diversity.

Let’s pursue the diversity angle for a moment. The question that comes to mind, in light of the state budget crisis, is whether cuts to outreach and increases in fees may lead to a decline in the number of underrepresented minority applicants, just when those numbers have bounced back from the lows experienced in the aftermath of Proposition 209. What is Berkeley’s record in terms of attracting a diverse grad-student population?
We’re doing as well as all of our competitors in that arena, and better than most. Through our annual Diversity Day — an effort to bring prospective grad students to campus — and recruitment efforts at student fairs and workshops across the country, we focus on outreach to students who have not necessarily thought about pursuing a graduate education.

We’re looking particularly for students who wouldn’t necessarily think that they could or would have a career as a researcher. This is often true for underrepresented minorities and also for children of immigrants. Usually in America it takes two generations for students to think about getting a Ph.D. rather than a professional degree. The first generation to go to college, the children of the immigrants, will think about getting a teaching credential, or an M.B.A., or maybe a law degree. A research career is not as well-known an option in communities where parents haven’t gone to college; it’s a real stretch. So students from that background, who may be extraordinarily talented, think it’s out of their reach to get a Ph.D.

We’ve done a lot of work with disadvantaged groups, who sometimes are first-generation college students, sometimes are minorities. Among our undergraduate population, something like 60 percent have one parent who was not born in the U.S. And the graduate population has a fair number of those students as well. We also have many international students — 20 percent of our graduate population — and they add to the diversity.

Are new requirements and restrictions mandated under the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act discouraging international students from enrolling?
That issue is worrisome for all universities this year — because of the USA PATRIOT Act, because of SEVIS [the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, a new web-based federal system for tracking foreign visitors], and on account of many of the restrictions and intrusions that the government has imposed.

I’m chairing a campus task force that’s been looking at international students and scholars and the effects of PATRIOT Act-related legislation, which includes SEVIS. Across the country, these measures have affected students’ confidence in their ability to travel —to return home and come back again. Nationally, as well, there has been a decline in international-student applications, with many of those students electing to study in other countries. And while some of that decline is unrelated to the political climate — there are Chinese students, for instance, who for various reasons are not flooding the market the way they were in the past — still, to the extent that our international students and scholars feel uneasy, we are very concerned.

We just conducted a “climate” survey of all international students and scholars to find out what their concerns are. And already I can say that they feel very threatened and insecure. They’re afraid, for instance, that if, for whatever reason, they don’t register on time, they’ll be deported. There are many things that are under the control of the government; all we can do is work with other universities to try to alleviate [the problems associated with] government policy. But there are, meanwhile, things we can do on campus to make international students feel more comfortable and less threatened. Having a forum to discuss their concerns is a start. We can also offer more flexibility in our registration requirements so that they will not risk deportation.

Is the campus providing the kind of advice and assistance they need to deal with the new requirements?
We’ll find out from the climate survey. In fact, I think we probably need to give them even more help than we are doing; we’re rather short-handed.

Governmental restrictions on international students aside, what do you see as among the leading disincentives that prospective graduate students must wrestle with in deciding whether to come to Berkeley?

The major challenge this year is the budget news, and the image problem it engenders. When students across the country hear about the budget woes in California, do they conclude that this is a place that is going downhill? The state’s budget woes are real enough; we’re obviously going through a difficult budget period. Still, protecting our graduate programs is a top priority for the university. We will still support graduate students and provide incentives for them in the ways we always have.

There’s obviously much concern on campus regarding the 40-percent rise in grad-student fees that the governor has floated in his 2004-05 state budget proposal, and what such an increase could mean — not only for grad students and departments in the short run, but for the future of the university over the long haul. Would you talk about the proposed increase?
The notion of raising graduate fees by 40 percent and undergraduate fees by 10 percent is inappropriate and ill-conceived. For one thing, it makes no fiscal sense. Doctoral students’ fees are paid by the university for the most part, through grants or fellowships or teaching assistantships. A huge fee increase over the past two years means that the university will be able to afford fewer graduate students to aid the faculty in their research, and fewer students to assist in teaching. The quality of both these efforts will quickly erode.

The professional schools are a different story. Those are students who pay out of their pocket. But particularly in business and law, this newest round of fee increases provides students nothing in return for the increase, nothing to improve services or the quality of the education. This ultimately means that many of these students will choose to go elsewhere.

Then, too, Berkeley has far more non-residents than any of the other UC campuses: 70 percent of our doctoral students are out-of-state students. Over the last two years, there’s also been a 30-percent increase in non-resident tuition. To find the best and brightest students, we pull from a national and international pool. The great increase in non-resident tuition makes this far more difficult. Ultimately, most of our grad students, particularly in science and engineering, remain in California — so if we can’t serve those students, it’s California’s loss.

Offer letters have gone out to prospective grad students, who have until mid-April to make their decisions. Given the current uncertainty over the state budget, it must be extremely difficult for programs to plan and for students to accept offers.

The campus, the chancellor, the provost, and the Graduate Division have all said to us, “This should be a normal year; go forward as you have in the past. We don’t want to — and we won’t — provide fewer or less generous offers. We’ll cover the additional fees in whatever way we need to.” All of our university fellowships have been offered in the same way as past years. We’ve also provided a new extra incentive, the Power Award. It’s a “top-off award” of $2,000 [to add to fellowship-GSI packages] that all the departments have access to — some more than one — to offer as an additional incentive to top competitive students.

But I think we’ll get some relief this spring from the legislature; the fee increase is not likely to be as high as the 40 percent proposed. In the meanwhile, we will strategize on ways to bring new income to the campus — such as more funding for our endowed fellowships — so that we can deal with the inevitable future fee increases. [For more on one such endowed fellowship, see “Opening the ‘gateway’ to talented grad students,” at right.]

When will you know exactly what kind of budget you’re working with?
The student-fee proposal is with the regents, who are expected to vote on it later this spring. As I said, I suspect what they’ll decide on will not be as high as 40 percent; we already had a 45-percent rise last year, which would effectively make an 85-percent increase in graduate fees. That’s staggering. Virtually no one can handle that kind of abrupt rise.

Why do you think graduate education took such a hard hit in the budget proposal?
The contribution of UC’s grad students to the state is not well understood, either in Sacramento or among the public. The bottom line is that thousands of our graduate students stay in California and help to create the economic engine that drives the state. We actually have a “brain gain” in science and engineering: We attract many students from other states and countries, and the majority remain here. Silicon Valley is still by far the strongest high-tech center in the country, and it is made so in part because of the contribution of our graduate students. Cutting-edge knowledge, innovation, and applied science make California one of the most dynamic places in the world.

In addition, UC graduate students provide the teachers at the state colleges, and the infrastructure for both higher education and K-12 education in the state. In addition to the 800 doctorates we award each spring, we give another nearly 800 professional degrees — in education, social welfare, public health, public policy, law, business. We have 13 professional master’s degree programs.

The research and teaching missions of the university are extraordinarily important. But we also make an enormous contribution to the social infrastructure and leadership of the state, and I think we need to make that case more strongly than we have.