Grad School analyzes admissions, funding

Within months, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences could see changes to the way it admits and funds its students.

Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard said he is currently analyzing how admissions, funding, and mentoring work within the school’s individual graduate programs. He has already collected reports from directors of graduate studies comparing their departments to their national counterparts. Department leaders, who will meet with Pollard this month to discuss their findings, said they are keen to hear the dean’s ideas for the future of the Graduate School.

“We’re trying to look at graduate programs to see how they could work better to help graduate students,” Pollard said, adding that he will not make any decisions until he consults trustees, faculty and the Graduate Student Assembly — a process which he said could take several months.

Pollard said he does not wish to discuss possible outcomes of the analysis because he is still brainstorming and collaborating with faculty.

Four directors of graduate studies said they discussed potential changes to the way departments determine admissions quotas with Pollard at a meeting late last fall. Professors said Pollard mentioned a cap on the number of students departments allowed in a department. Such a cap would limit the size of a department’s incoming class based on the number of students who leave in a given year.

English Department DGS Paul Fry said such a policy would harm his department.

“While a policy like the one proposed would punish the program, it unfortunately would not punish the students in question,” he said. “It’s a slap on the wrong wrist.”

Eckart Frahm, director of graduate studies for the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department, said the policy would be problematic for programs that require more time, such as his.

Department Chair John Darnell added that a cap based on student departures is arbitrary and could lead departments to prematurely discourage some students from completing their dissertations.

But French Department DGS Maurice Samuels said the policy would encourage departments to move students through programs more efficiently. He added that finishing a dissertation late can hurt a student’s job prospects.

“You want to give them to time to write a top-notch dissertation, but you don’t want them to linger too long,” he said. “Hiring departments are looking at whether people can finish a project on time.”

Pollard said he thinks improved mentoring would help students graduate in a more timely manner. He is currently analyzing how different departments approach mentoring as part of his project, he said, with an eye towards which methods work best.

“Our obligation is to help students [graduate] in a timely fashion,” he said. “Each person’s time is their most valuable asset, so I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.”

Time to completion aside, Pollard said the Graduate School must consider other factors in determining admissions allowances. For example, he said, a science and engineering student costs the University less on average than graduate students in other disciplines because such students often receive federal training grants and other outside funding. Pollard, who served as chair of the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department before beginning his five-year term as dean, said that this outside funding should play a small role in determining how many students a department can admit.

David Post, director of graduate studies for the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, said he thinks Pollard’s analysis will show how departments fund their students and could motivate other programs to search for more outside funding.

But Darnell said he worries that admissions quotas may shift in favor of science and engineering departments at the expense of programs that have less access to grants.

“We don’t want to play some sort of zero-sum game,” he said. “A dean from a science department is probably going to be biased toward the sciences, and probably biased against the humanities.”

Still, Darnell said he is confident that the review will improve humanities and science and engineering programs alike if faculty collaborate throughout the process.

In 2010, the incoming class of Ph.D. students was reduced in size by 16 percent from the previous year due to a drop in the University endowment. This year, the Graduate School will maintain this reduction.


  • concerned

    Not so fast–graduate school isn’t medical school… plus there are really lots and lots of US families that can barely afford either. A science graduate, I and my family remain truly grateful for the academic influences stemming from humanities scholars at the Graduate School. These departments are incomparable. While performing my focused scientific research at an extra-campus site, my supporting parent suffered a devastating stroke and it became my responsibility to effect major family re-organization with my three younger siblings still in school. Of course this added time to my graduation date–and similar to all women scholars with primary responsibility for babies and children in pre-family leave times, my graduation date, for all my trouble, went on to precipitate unfounded, derogatory assessments by unspeakably biased scientific “colleagues” and would-be mentors.

  • Skeptic

    Like any good biochemist, Pollard understands “steady-state kinetics” and is making the reasonable assumption that a crucial parameter of any graduate program is the proper steady-state population of students as determined by faculty size, nature of the field, role in the university, opportunities for teaching experience, “critical intellectual mass”, etc. Once that “ideal” size is determined, it is reasonable to adjust inflow and outflow to maintain the steady-state population. Right now there is little or no incentive for the faculty to care about how long they allow (either by demands on, or neglect of) their students to remain (I note that there is incentive for the students, e.g, the limit on 6 years of financial support). A rational study of admission rate, graduation rate, time to degree and attrition rate is one way to clarify the situation as well as to show where department faculties can be involved in their own destinies.

    Professor Fry’s comments seem to put all the responsibility for graduate student tenure on the student. Certainly, the English department has SOME control over the average rate of progress of its students. Likewise, at present, there is no “cost” (say, in terms of graduate admission slots) to a department for avoidance of the hard and usually unpleasant task of evaluating students and advising/requiring those who are not making satisfactory progress to leave the program. The drop-out rate of some departments is much higher than others which suggests 1) varying talent at picking applicants likely to finish, and/or 2) variation in mentoring effort and skills across departments. Perhaps there are some departments that DO need that slap on the wrist.

    It seems only reasonable to agree that there is, in principle, some appropriate size for each graduate program (at Yale and elsewhere). A discussion of what that size might be, and what factors are relevant to that determination need not be threatening to the core values of the university.