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UW Raising the Stature of Graduate Education

May 23, 2011
Woman working in a lab
University of Wyoming geology graduate student Karri Sicard uses a diamond-tipped trim saw to prepare a schist for microscopic examination of minerals contained within a rock sample. UW is taking steps to elevate graduate education to a higher level of prominence among university priorities. (UW Photo)

Deep within northeast Nevada's Ruby Mountains, University of Wyoming geology graduate student Karri Sicard uses a compass to measure the structural orientation of different rocks, and then uses a GPS unit to plot locations of her measurements and the geographic distribution of the rock units.

The information she gathers is digitized into an updated, detailed geologic map of the field area, which when compiled and interpreted helps project what is under the surface, and reconstructs the history of the stresses that acted upon the mountain range.

Such field work is typical of research conducted by graduate students who contribute significantly to the university's research efforts. Faculty members attest that the heart and soul of UW research is the work done by talented students such as Sicard.

While UW has recognized the importance of supporting the research and teaching activities of graduate students, it is taking steps to elevate graduate education to a higher level of prominence among university priorities.

In his fall convocation address, UW President Tom Buchanan noted, "Graduate students inject enthusiasm, imagination and commitment, all of which power the university's research enterprise. As teaching assistants they link the laboratory and the classroom and inspire and enhance undergraduate education. They are a critical link in the cascade of knowledge that makes the American research university the most sought-after college experience in the world."

To raise the stature of graduate education, UW launched a series of discussions among faculty throughout campus to identify the qualities of superior graduate programs, and determine ways to incorporate those qualities at UW.

"We have developed strategies to strengthen graduate education ranging from improving student recruitment and admission practices to establishing more comprehensive student mentoring and advising practices," says Carol Frost, UW vice president for special projects who leads the effort along with Andrew Hansen, associate provost. The efforts include measures such as making use of a uniform, electronic application process to enhancing department websites while optimizing them for research engines to bring UW to the top of the list when students search the web for quality graduate programs.

Sicard's search for a quality graduate experience exemplifies the type of program UW hopes to have in place for all prospective graduate students. After obtaining her B.A. degree in geology at Colorado College, Sicard, like most other potential graduate students, explored the Internet in search of a university that offered the type of educational experience she was seeking -- in her case, geologic mapping. Sicard identified UW Geology Professor Art Snoke as one of the nation's leaders in this area.

"Wyoming had a strong geology department at a time when some schools were suffering economically, and when Laramie's low cost of living was factored in, I made the right choice," she says. Frost and Hansen are confident that the new initiatives will result in more prospective graduate students taking advantage of the quality programs UW can offer them.

Increasing the number of graduate assistantships is an essential component of UW's plan to strengthen graduate education. In 2011, the Wyoming State Legislature allocated more than $6.2 million in Abandoned Mine Land funds for energy science stipends and fellowships for graduate students. Hansen says when the six-year program is fully funded it will support about 40 students per year. There also will be higher standards for students to obtain these awards, he says, which reinforces the effort to recruit high quality students.

Additionally, Frost says, the initiatives include efforts to ensure the state-funded assistanships are allocated equitably across campus and that the individuals who receive the funding are prepared and provided opportunities to experience meaningful teaching assignments. Steps are being taken to strengthen mentoring and to provide excellent career advising to students.

Sicard mentioned that UW offered an educational experience -- including research opportunities, teaching seminars and training -- that has prepared her for a variety of career choices. She says she is mulling over career options to work for industry, state government agencies, environmental consulting firms or in education.

Dan Jones, who now teaches geology at Western Carolina University, echoes Sicard's emphasis on the importance of the broad-based training offered at UW. The Geology Department structured his Ph.D. workload with an emphasis on teaching, and provided him with the training and tools to become a good teacher. Frost and Hansen are certain that the initiatives to be launched at UW will result in many more students reaping the benefits of a quality graduate education.

"We expect to see many professionally satisfied students whose accomplishments reflect well on UW," says Hansen. "My goal is when they leave here and reflect on their education, they say, ‘I'm glad I attended the University of Wyoming.'"

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