Parajuli: Promising Graduate Programs

by Abhishek Parajuli | 10/26/14 6:10pm

The voices against graduate programs make a simple claim: more graduate students will lower the quality of undergraduate education. This seems self-evident — if there are more graduate students, professors will care less about undergraduates and the College’s resources will chase graduate students. However, this zero-sum model does not always hold. A handful of our peer institutions have shown that, if done right, graduate programs can dramatically improve the quality of undergraduate education.

Some academics differentiate graduate programs into three broad types. The first can be called the CHYMPS. These programs at the University of Michigan, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford Universities have large Ph.D. cohorts that form the institutional core. Here, undergraduates are mostly an afterthought. The second category comprises what I will call the duds: small Ph.D. programs that rank dramatically below their undergraduate counterparts and do little for institutional image or teaching quality. Brown University and the University of Notre Dame join us in having a number of such programs.

If the two models above were the only options before us, I would likely oppose expanding our graduate offerings. It would then make sense to continue focusing our attention on what we do best: providing one of the finest undergraduate educations in the country. But there is a third option that can help us do that better.

Duke University and Vanderbilt University exemplify a third model for graduate programs, which I will call the integrated model. These schools have small Ph.D. programs that are integrated with the undergraduate school. Because the Ph.D. students are fewer in number and more classes are run with both graduates and undergraduates, the undergraduates get the support they deserve. At Vanderbilt and Duke, strong graduate programs have pulled up the quality of undergraduate offerings. Both institutions’ steady rise in their rankings reflects this.

So how exactly can good Ph.D. programs help undergraduate teaching? After speaking with students at Duke, Princeton and other peer institutions as well as a number of Dartmouth professors, I have come to see a number of benefits.

First, graduate students help attract better faculty. Because the tenure process so heavily relies on research — the adage “publish or perish” sums up the expectation — most junior faculty members care deeply about having the resources to do good research. Graduate students offer research assistance that is important in most fields and absolutely crucial in others. Dartmouth, for instance, may have a dearth of talent in fields that rely more heavily on graduate research assistants for large-scale data collection, entry and analysis. This hurts undergraduates who wish to pursue the sub-field. So leading faculty members who need graduate research assistants to execute their research agendas will not consider Dartmouth because we lack this critical resource. Removing this bottleneck will help us recruit more faculty members.

Second, teaching assistants free professors to teach in their fields of expertise. Teaching assistants get a bad rap, but they are often great teachers for introductory level courses. Since their teaching evaluations travel with them to their job talks, TAs have a huge incentive to keep students happy. Students from peer institutions with whom I spoke say having TAs is a positive experience: TAs allow large lecture classes to break into smaller discussion sections and professors to offer more classes in their fields of expertise. Also, with professors spared grading duties, office hours can expand so that students have more access. Our professors are the College’s greatest resource. We should free them to bring their expertise to bear on the curriculum by letting graduate students help with lower level courses.

Now, there are some who will continue claiming that graduate students divert resources and focus from undergraduates. We do not have to look far to see that they are wrong. A number of departments at Dartmouth have graduate programs. Do these departments have worse teaching quality? No Dartmouth student I talked to feels so. If done right, graduate programs can help us improve undergraduate teaching and increase a college’s institutional profile.