Two summers ago Clayton Brown (GC03) set out alone in his 1969 Volkswagen bus to shoot a documentary film in the Appalachian Mountains, a project that was to become his thesis for an MFA in radio/television/film.
As he crisscrossed the countryside for 40 days trying to get to “the heart of this understanding of authenticity in old-time country music,” he found an unexpected parallel between his often-in-need-of-repair bus and his research assumptions. Each, he says, was “breaking down, being altered, adjusted and revised.”
Research such as Brown’s is probably not what first comes to mind when one thinks of Northwestern’s Graduate School — or of any institution conferring PhDs and other advanced degrees. But not only does it speak to the diversity of programs being pursued by the Graduate School’s 2,500 students, it is also academic research in the purest sense: firsthand, tested, revised — and path-breaking. Brown’s film not only presents great music and characters, says radio/television/film associate professor David Tolchinsky, but also “makes us think about what ‘authenticity’ really means and what is ‘true’ American music.”
The Graduate School offers degrees — doctoral and master’s — in 62 programs, excluding a few specialized master’s degrees and the professional degrees offered by Medill in journalism and integrated marketing communications, Kellogg in management, Feinberg in medicine, the School of Law and the School of Music. Students come to Northwestern for advanced study in fields as traditional as history and as cutting edge as biotechnology.
In the 2002–03 academic year the Graduate School awarded 276 PhDs and 365 master’s degrees. Current offerings fall into nine academic areas: basic sciences, biological and life sciences, biomedical and clinical research, business, communication, education, engineering, humanities and social sciences. Nearly one-third of PhD students are studying engineering, and another large percentage are in the basic sciences. Among master’s students, more than one-quarter are in programs in communication.
Northwestern first conferred graduate degrees in the late 1870s. In
1910 the Board of Trustees established the Graduate School as a separate
unit, and the school awarded its first PhDs the following year.
“What we know Northwestern to be is a remarkable undergraduate
institution,” Morimoto says, “yet the long-term reputation
of a great university is based on the fact that the faculty and the
research are among the top in the country.”
Five years ago, when Morimoto, a biochemistry professor, took on the added responsibilities of dean, he set about making a series of changes to enhance the caliber of students and the research opportunities for faculty. One of the first things he did was address inequity in financial aid. As a way of attracting top-tier candidates, graduate students in the sciences traditionally received tuition and additional financial support for their entire student careers. But in smaller departments, such as some in the humanities, they did not.
“It became clear we had to level the playing field,” Morimoto says. With the enthusiastic backing of University President Henry Bienen, the Graduate School started to guarantee four years of year-round financial support to every one of its PhD students. In many programs, support — including tuition, which averages $40,000 annually, and a monthly stipend — is extended to five or six years. “We made the decision not to ‘second class’ any department,” says Morimoto. “Everyone deserves the chance to become the very best.”
The policy also gives students a head start on employment. Now that they no longer have to use summer breaks to earn money for tuition, it is anticipated that they will graduate earlier. According to the National Research Council, which collects data on many aspects of graduate education, Northwestern doctoral students complete their degrees on average almost a year sooner than those at peer institutions.
Sharon Loverde, who is working toward a doctorate in materials science and engineering, was accepted by several top universities, including MIT, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. She chose Northwestern in large part because of the full support. Echoing the sentiment of many students, she says, “I wouldn’t be able to go to Northwestern without it.”
Another new effort improved the screening process to find the best applicants. Five or six times each year, various departments offer “recruiting weekends” (see page 26) where prospective students visit the campus and meet with faculty and current students. The weekends identify students who seem a good match and screen out those who don’t.
Tom Bauman, associate dean for admissions and fellowships/scholarships, says that students who make the visit choose Northwestern in greater numbers than admitted students who don’t participate. “The weekends are designed to acquaint prospective graduate students not just with the department or program to which they have applied,” he says, “but especially with the interdisciplinary dimensions of graduate study at Northwestern and the cultural resources that Chicago offers.”
The Graduate School administration, with funding from the president, also created the Presidential Graduate Fellows Program, only the third of its kind at an American university. The program is aimed at identifying future intellectual and creative leaders in their fields and providing them tuition and a stipend for one to two years beyond the standard four-year financial commitment. Nominated by faculty members, those selected for the program meet quarterly with professors, administrators and outside speakers to present their work. They also meet informally to exchange ideas and develop a better understanding of one another’s interests.
The first group included eight student scholars and participating faculty, known as “senior fellows.” Prior to the group presentations, each student met with a senior fellow from another discipline who provided suggestions about communicating his or her work. Feedback from the students indicated that interaction with faculty was one of the most enriching aspects of the program.
“We tried to get the best minds who want to have contact with students,” Bauman says. “In the future we want to use the faculty as even more of a resource.”
Finding students who can communicate across disciplines is key to the success of the program. “The point is to create, in a sense, an intellectual cohort of students,” says Morimoto. “Can a theater major, in 15 to 20 minutes, present what she’s working on, with clarity and substance, to a physicist? And, likewise, can the physicist give a presentation to an English scholar? Can we train our graduate students to both be experts, which requires myopic focus and critical discipline, and scholars broadly?”
Leah Guenther, a PhD candidate in English and part of the second group of presidential fellows, says she’s eager to present her work to scholars in other fields. “I’m really looking forward to that because it is so easy to get totally submersed in your own discipline,” she says. The dissertation research Guenther will explain to other fellows is, she says, “located at the intersection of English, political theory and medical history. What I’m doing is thinking more broadly about the way that kingship was portrayed in the English Renaissance. There’s a statement by James I where he says something to the effect that ‘I am the husband and the whole isle is my lawful wife. I am the head and it is my body.’ So I’m thinking about how bodily metaphor was extremely important in a way that metaphors really aren’t in our day.”
The nature of graduate study can isolate students from the rest of the university. While most Northwestern graduate students work with undergraduates as teaching assistants, and a small number have positions in the residential colleges, there aren’t many other opportunities for interaction.
“You do feel set apart from the undergrads,” says Michelle Lefebvre, a PhD candidate in materials science and engineering. “I only know where my own building is. When I was at MIT, the grad students would come up and ask us where a certain building was, and we’d laugh that they didn’t know. Now I’m one of those people!”
A strong network of student associations is making an effort to address the separation. Nicole Patton (C99, GC02), past president of the Black Graduate Student Association, who is now working toward a doctorate in communication sciences and disorders, has seen Northwestern from the perspective of both an undergraduate and a graduate student. She believes the University is more concerned with the undergraduates.
“I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just the case,” she says. But she feels organizations such as BGSA “are so important because we tend to serve as the liaison between the Graduate School and the greater University community.” Patton says that BGSA has set up programs with undergraduates just to have links to them.
In addition to BGSA, four other active graduate student associations serve students on the Evanston and Chicago campuses, and the Graduate School has a program that helps international students adjust to life at an American university. The International Summer Institute is a monthlong immersion program that includes classes and tutoring in English, social events and practical information about living and working in the United States. The tutors come from Northwestern’s Department of Linguistics, neighboring universities and the community and include people who were beneficiaries of the program.
“It’s hard to succeed in a top-tier graduate program when you’re miserably homesick, you don’t know how to find an apartment or set up a bank account, and the academic culture in your department is quite different from your university at home,” says Julie Moore, who directs the institute. While language instruction is a major part of the program, Moore says, “The students also recognize that the emotional, academic and practical support that we provide is often just as important.”
Morimoto says that the program benefits both the incoming students and the teachers. “This is not just a service,” he says. “Understanding how adults acquire a second language is a major research discipline. What we’ve done is create a wonderful resource for our own faculty and graduate students.”
Many, though not all, PhD students are preparing for careers in academia.
Like Ashleigh Shelby Rosette (KSM03), who is taking her new doctorate
in management and organizations to a tenure-track faculty position at
the University of Houston’s Bauer College of Business, they look
for a dissertation topic that, as Rosette puts it, “asks and attempts
to answer a question that has never been answered.” Rosette’s
research focused on the “unacknowledged privilege” in organizations
— a nonmerit–based system based on family background, race,
gender and sexual preference. “By focusing on differences that
result because of inherent privileges, we gain a better understanding
Han Li, one of the international students who now make up 30 percent of the Graduate School population, is working with her adviser, geology professor Mark Robinson, and scholars from several other universities. “One of the questions we’re trying to answer is, How much water did Mars have in the past and where did this water go,” she says. “It’s highly likely that life could have existed on Mars.” Li pores through research data and peers at NASA Web sites showing images from orbiting rovers. Three new orbiters launching this year will provide the scientists with higher-resolution data to help understand the history of water on Mars. Li hopes to teach and continue her planetary science research when she finishes her doctoral degree in geological science next year.
Some students pursue not one advanced degree but two — at once. Audrey Henderson is among a small number of students in the combined JD/PhD program administered by the School of Law and the Graduate School. Most students in the program alternate years between law and a doctoral program, but Henderson instead completed three years of study in sociology and then took a leave to earn her law degree. Now she’s aiming to receive the PhD in sociology in December. Her dissertation focuses on the City Colleges of Chicago, specifically during the 1992–93 academic year, when students filed a class action suit as a result of the board of directors’ eliminating more than 700 classes.
Henderson will be looking for a position in policy research and analysis and also hopes to write. She thinks the dual degree will be an asset. “If I develop a field of expertise and gain the proper credentials, I believe I would have the credibility to be taken seriously as a writer and commentator on social topics,” she says.
English literature scholar Guenther knows that some people consider a PhD in her field to be somewhat impractical, but she’s still aiming for a college-level faculty position. “The job market is very difficult, it’s extremely grim,” she says. “But people got jobs this year, and it seems the school offers a lot of help finding positions.”
The Graduate School has a decade’s worth of records on where its students have gone after graduation. The largest number, 36 percent, are employed in academic institutions. Thirty percent work in the private sector, and 14 percent have taken postdoctoral appointments. The remainder are in government, research, medicine and other fields.
The investment a university makes in an advanced student pays off down the road when a graduate achieves prominence in his or her profession. Morimoto estimates that it takes between five and 10 years after a doctoral student graduates to assess the impact of the investment. “At most schools, even very good schools, one might say it’s good enough to have a PhD,” he says. “I say no. I want to be able to say that we have trained you, we have shown you, we have inspired you, to shoot for a certain level.”
And while many universities emphasize the academic placement of their graduate students, Morimoto says that Northwestern is a bit different.
“One of the things that’s wonderful about Northwestern is that we aren’t going to place all our PhDs and MFAs into purely academic settings,” Morimoto says. “We want to help our students achieve the highest level in their professions, whether that’s in government, private industry or cultural affairs. Certainly we want to know that our students in economics or political science or business are teaching in the top schools. But it’s equally rewarding to know that Martha Lavey (C79, G86) got her PhD at Northwestern and is the artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.”
Morimoto places great emphasis on what it means to have a PhD from Northwestern. “I’ve thought a lot about it,” he says. “We want to recruit talented, gifted students who are going to change the world. A doctoral degree from Northwestern provides them with the discipline, the competence and the scholarship they’ll need wherever they take that degree.”
Terry Stephan (GJ78) is a freelance writer based in Chicago.