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  April 23, 2001

Group Seeks to Establish Best Graduate Practices

In a perfect world, all doctoral students at UConn could count on being fully funded for at least five years, allowing them to concentrate on their dissertations even after they've completed their coursework. Parking problems would evaporate. Departmental advisors would be relentless in mentoring their charges, academically and socially. Graduate students would feel welcome and, indeed, the best students in the nation would flock to Storrs for their postgraduate work.

Such is the vision of the Task Force on Graduate Best Practices, a group of six faculty and three graduate students that, for more than a year, has been crafting a set of documents that will provide a road map for faculty involved in graduate education. The documents will give every department on campus a set of benchmarks that could be used to measure their progress. Ultimately, should all the recommendations of the working group be implemented, UConn would become one of the very best graduate schools in the nation.

"Good graduate education is vital. You don't want to do it just to get by. If you're going to do it, you should do it well," says James Henkel, associate vice provost for graduate education and associate dean of the graduate school. "Our ultimate goal is to make UConn one of the leading universities in terms of best practices for graduate education and research. To take the best of the best and grow it here."

The effort, which involves surveys of practices at other universities, input from UConn graduate students, and molding proven practices to fit UConn's circumstances, so far has resulted in draft papers that discuss financial and campus life issues. The task force is currently putting finishing touches on a document regarding departmental issues; others still to be drafted include papers on graduate administration and curricular modifications.

The latter document, Henkel says, will overlap some departmental items, and the task force will have to decide "how to pull them apart.

"For instance, what type of exams a graduate student should take, and when they should take them. I think the curricular piece has to discuss what the student actually has to do. But that's also a departmental issue," Henkel says. "It's easy to say 'Go do something and when you're done come back and see me.' There hasn't been enough orientation, at least not on a consistent basis."

In some cases, it's also a matter of money. "Graduate education isn't cheap," Henkel says. And that's something the task force understands, he says, noting that the idea isn't for everyone on campus to follow every best practice, but to implement as many best practices as possible.

"We're not trying to say what it is we want everyone to do, but to explain what are the best things a graduate program can do. Any program can do what it wants, but we hope that peer pressure will bring most departments on board," he says. Henkel adds that the 55-member Graduate Faculty Council, which includes faculty from every graduate program at the University, is solidly behind the effort and committed to making it happen.

That commitment is welcomed by Roxanne Donovan, a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology and president of the Graduate Student Senate.

"I love the fact that we're becoming a focus of the University," she says. "It's great that the committee is interested in finding out what grad students need and acting on those issues."

Donovan says the top three issues graduate students mention to her are housing, parking, and funding for conferences. Attending professional conferences is vital for students interested in enhancing their knowledge of a particular field. Currently, graduate students are allotted $600 for professional development during their entire tenure at UConn. The best practices report changes that to $500 annually, and suggests that students be allowed to carry over any unused portion of the funding from one year to the next.

Housing, although still an issue, has been improving, says Donovan. In particular, the Hilltop apartment complex, currently under construction, has some 200 rooms set aside for graduate students.

"The housing office has done a good job of thinking of us," Donovan says. "They're taking our input and helping make things happen."

The task force, too, has looked at housing, noting in the draft report that graduate students should be offered a full range of housing options, from efficiencies to suites to family-friendly or apartment-style housing. It also should be accessible to campus, available year-round, and separate from undergraduate facilities.

But, as a foreword to the report points out, financial issues are at the crux of a graduate student's life - and that is one of the most difficult things to deal with when budgets are tight.

"We hope we can find more alternative sources of funding," Henkel says. "External grants, endowments, fellowships. They all play a role.

"There are a number of best practices, though, that cost little or nothing - like better mentoring."

Henkel says the reports, once completed, will be forwarded to the Graduate Faculty Council, and then to departments. All five reports should be finalized by next May, he says. Progress will be monitored during regular departmental assessments, held at least once every seven years.

Ideally, this will lead to stronger applicant pools, because the students will know they're taken care of at UConn," Henkel says. "Stronger students will work on their degrees more efficiently, they will get out sooner, and be better workers. While they're here, they will be better teachers and researchers. It's really a win-win-win."

Richard Veilleux

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