Graduate students ask questions at the Town Hall
Graduate students at the Town Hall

In the late afternoon of February 9, students and staff gathered in the Banatao Auditorium of Sutardja Dai Hall for a first-time Town Hall with the Graduate Dean.

Co-sponsored by the Graduate Assembly, this occasion offered a direct and relatively informal way for students to ask questions and for the Dean to respond with facts and an insider’s understanding of how the campus and university work. Students were invited to submit questions ahead of time if possible, so that responses could be properly researched, and a majority of the participants did so. While the physical turnout for the event was hardly massive, the thought that went into the questions submitted in advance and from the floor was evident — they were excellent.

The give-and-take revealed some of the current concerns of a statistically small, if varied, slice of the graduate student population. So all graduate students may benefit from what was said, the questions and answers from the event are available below.

The success of this initial interchange may well bring about similar face-to-face or online opportunities in the future, which would be announced in these pages.  Meanwhile, the Graduate Division thanks all who participated for their interest, effort, and presence, which made the first Dean’s Town Hall well worth holding

UC and Campus Governance

Question: Thank you for sponsoring this Town Hall.  Are you able to send an e-mail with more specific details about what “information on graduate policies and university governance” means, so that we could look at the policies ourselves in advance, meet with other students to discuss our questions, and therefore make the most of your and our time at the actual event?  Since public fora with university administration are so infrequent (in my 5 years here, I don’t recall having received an invitation to a Town Hall, though I may be mistaken), it’s helpful to know what the meeting will be about in advance so we have some time to think of questions, rather than simultaneously listening to your presentation and trying to develop questions on the spot.

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I have been downloading the org charts for UCB in an effort to map the people who make up the admin system, and how information (decisions, money, ideas, changes) flow through the chain. However, there is no single comprehensive org chart and no clear source I can find to know how things run within the administration. Is there a source for this? and if not, can I help create it? I know how/and have experience creating this kind of map for the purpose of greater clarity, effectiveness, and transparency for the organization.

Answer: The best place to start is at the campus homepage. From there you can make your way to available Organizational Charts.  Also see the Academic Senate website, where you can find your way to “About the Senate” and therein to “organizational framework.” A lot of budget information is from the Campus Budget Office website. For more detailed information on expenditures, log in to the CalProfiles website; CalAnswers is taking over lots of that functionality.

Question: How do you measure the quality of the graduate programs? especially those that do not fall into the top 10 nation wide, based on third party evaluations.  But even more important, how do you improve them? there is a loop where people feel they do good job, therefore whatever they do, even the critique and improvement is done within their own point of view.

Answer: The campus has a very well-developed and quite thorough process for evaluation of academic programs. Department-based programs are reviewed jointly by the administration and by several Academic Senate committees, while interdisciplinary graduate groups are reviewed by Graduate Council with the support of Graduate Division. Students participate in these reviews in several ways: their opinions are sought during review with surveys and interviews, and students serve on the review committees by virtue of their participation in the Academic Senate and its committees.

Typically, reviews begin with a self-study by the program, including addressing a set of specific questions about academic program quality and plans. Then a review committee (or several subcommittees) develop recommendations circulated back to the program. Often specific requirements to meet are returned to the program. The reviews happen on an approximately seven or eight-year cycle, but may be expedited if there is a specific concern.

Every year or two, Graduate Division makes available statistics and reports of responses to surveys of the graduate students in each program, in comparison programs, and campus-wide. I ask the chairs to share the insights gained from these statistics with their students and to engage in dialogue aimed at program improvement.

Question: Why are some Departments allowed to prohibit graduate students from serving on committees  including the committee on undergraduate education?  (This is particularly egregious since graduate students do the bulk of undergraduate teaching at this University.)  Why is the Graduate Division so impotent vis-a-vis individual Departments?

Answer: We advise departments to include students where possible, although they have some autonomy. Students who feel that their department is hindering their participation may bring their concern to the Graduate Division and I will follow up. 

When I interviewed at Berkeley 15 years ago, one of my interview slots was devoted to a discussion with the Mechanical Engineering graduate student council. They were very interested in my philosophy about advising, etc. I thought that was cool, and that this aspect of my interview distinguished Berkeley from other places I interviewed. Many Academic Senate committees — including the all-important Graduate Council — include graduate student members, and the Graduate Assembly is the nexus for student delegates from all reaches of campus.

Questions about Allocation of Resources

Dean Szeri at the Town Hall
Graduate Dean Andrew Szeri

Question: Given the state cuts to funding, why are some departments forced to scale back more than others? What are we doing to protect those disciplines that are being cut more? Relatedly, how can we make our programs more cost-efficient without impacting the quality of instruction, training, and research?

Answer: Some parts of the campus are more capable or successful at generating funding from philanthropy or outside research grants or other sources, and some are less so. Some degrees (in particular ones that take longer to complete) cost much more than ones that take less time to complete. The University and the Graduate Division (GD) employ various forms of cross-subsidization. For example, GD funding on a per capita basis is higher for students in Arts & Humanities and Social Sciences than for students in Sciences and Engineering. Stated differently, Sciences and Engineering have more students per faculty member, which excess they support from research contracts and grants. Also, some fellowships – such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship – fail to cover all of student fees or nonresident supplemental tuition. GD makes up the difference, to encourage students and departments to pursue these external fellowships.

As for cost-efficiency, this is the goal of Operational Excellence, a campus-wide program I lead to improve operational effectiveness and to make the campus more efficient in terms of the cost of administration. The goal is to invest one-time funds of up to $75M (mostly from interest-free loans from the UC Office of the President) to generate improvements that will save at least $75M per year on administration costs, the better to devote these funds to teaching and research. You can read much more about this at oe.berkeley.edu.

Question: Given the rough state of the economy and the (at times) undependable nature of California funding, how is Berkeley attempting to mediate between being a world-class research institution and offering a public education that is far more accessible than most private institutions at the same level of research?  Note: I think this is a really hard question, and I wouldn’t expect it to have an easy answer.  I’m not informed enough to have a good opinion on it, so I don’t want it to appear that I’m trying to lead the answer in a certain direction.

Answer: Berkeley is doing a lot to address this issue. The State contribution to the budget has now fallen to about 12%. The University’s budget keeps growing year-after-year, but the State contribution is declining rapidly in an unpredictable way.  One of the many difficult ramifications of disinvestment by the State is that other fund sources are often less fungible; that is, philanthropy and research funding often have relatively narrowly prescribed uses.

Nevertheless, the Berkeley campus is in sound shape. After a brief slowdown in recruiting new faculty in 2008-09, faculty recruitment is again up to ~70 per year.  To address the rising cost of education borne by middle-income undergraduate students, the Middle Class Access Plan (MCAP) was just launched. We have modestly increased the numbers of our-of-state and international undergraduate students (who pay nonresident supplemental tuition). We have instituted Operational Excellence. We have a colossal fund-raising campaign with a $3B goal (the largest in history for a UC campus without a medical school) and a $340M goal for graduate fellowships at Berkeley. The Graduate Division (as well as the schools and colleges) is actively pursuing fund raising activities with alumni and friends of UC across the state and nation and around the world. 

So, there is a great deal of both planning and action to enhance access and excellence.

Question: How does the university allocate slots for graduate programs?

Answer: The Graduate Division is responsible for managing enrollments of graduate programs across campus. Each program has a target enrollment that we manage to. Based on the number of students admitted in recent years, on graduations, etc. there is a calculation that determines the number of admissions for a given program. The historical rate of acceptance of offers of admission is used to determine how many offers are allowed. The target enrollment can be increased for good reason, but capacity and funding are keys to arguing for any increase. Managing enrollment is a key tool to ensure some appropriate measure of per capita funding available for academic graduate students.

Question: Where does the money come from for GSI appointments, and who are the decision makers who influence how much teaching there is at any time in any department?

Answer: Teaching is the responsibility of academic programs to organize (what’s offered, how many sections, etc.) The EVCP (Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost) contributes about 15-20% of the salary funds and nearly all of the benefits (including fee remission and SHIP) for these positions. Other sources are departmental or school/college funds. Salaries for ASEs (Academic Student Employees: GSIs, Readers, Tutors) are set by UCOP-UAW contract negotiations.

Some students have been unnecessarily anxious about potential effects of “benefits decentralization.”  What it means is that — rather than the central campus budget covering the benefits for ASEs automatically once they were appointed — the campus ‘decentralized’ these benefits to programs, based on historical patterns of appointments to ASE positions. (In other words, the money for – and responsibility for – benefits was devolved or handed down to departments.) Some students worried that this would result in many more appointments at below the 25% threshold that triggers fee remission. As I’ve reported to the Graduate Council and the Graduate Assembly, this did not happen.  Data for the last few fall semesters are as follows:

Year GSIs below 25%
2008 53
2009 48
2010 37
2011 18

Moreover, Graduate Division followed up on all 18 GSIs in fall 2011 appointed at less than 25%. All but one had fees covered by another appointment (usually research); the remaining was covered by the department.

Question: The general salaries in my dept and some other dept. are pretty low when compared to those obtained by peer graduate students at Caltech, Georgia Institute of Technology, MIT, Stanford, or most other elite public/private universities. Adding the high living costs of the bay area to it, it becomes really tough to sustain a healthy living for a graduate student. Is Berkeley administration aware of this?  Are there any concrete steps in the direction of improving this (and making it even across the depts.)? Are computer science or biotech students more “worth” (and so are paid more)?

Answer: GSR salaries depend on the step of the appointment. The step at which appointments are made is a decision by the academic program.  In response to competitive pressures to attract the best students, in some disciplines the appointments are at higher steps. We do inform the departments about the net stipends and any gap with respect to the Student Budget determined by the FASO (Financial Aid and Scholarships Office). It’s always a hard balance between offering appointments to a greater number of students or having fewer, better-funded students.

Question: I am always puzzled by psychology graduate students are not qualified for Dean’s Normative Award, and especially there are only 2 or 3 departments that don’t qualify.

Answer: The Dean’s Normative Time Award (DNTF) — now the Doctoral Completion Fellowship (DCF)  — is offered only in most disciplines in Arts & Humanities, Social Sciences, and some of the professional schools (Social Welfare, Education, etc.). These awards are targeted at disciplines where time-to-degree is known to be long, where support without teaching responsibilities is hard to come by, where completion rates fall short of faculty aspirations, and where total support is low,  leading to recourse by students to loans. Psychology does comparatively well on these measures. Music recently became eligible for the DNTF/DCF because such help could be beneficial in a number of respects cited above. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough money to include all programs in this opportunity.

Question: Why GSI stipend could cover NRT in some departments but not others? Can graduate division match it up?

Answer: Benefits that attach to GSI appointments do not include NRST (nonresident supplemental tuition). However, some departments choose to make an additional award of NRST to some (or all) students.  Graduate Division provides a couple of million dollars per year of NRST fellowships and provides other funds to departments that could be converted into NRST fellowships (but departments may choose to use the latter for other forms of graduate student support).  All told, just over half of NRST assessed to graduate academic students is covered by fellowships of one sort or another. Nonresident academic graduate students end up paying about one-fifth of NRST assessed themselves. 

Question: Can you assure me there will be no more significant cuts in the resources allocated to [my department] over the next few years? And if there will be, can you give me some figures so that I can be prepared? I can already barely afford my rent, and the facilities here at Berkeley are inadequate and shabby compared to other high-ranking institutions. Berkeley’s xyz program is one of the best in the world, but from the resources we’re given, it doesn’t seem like we matter very much. I understand the state budget is out of your control, and I’m not one of those people who likes to protest or occupy buildings or anything like that. I would just like some advance notice so that I can make educated decisions. Thank you.

Answer: I cannot speak for all of the funding streams in specific departments. I can tell you about Graduate Division funding, and about students’ finances. In the following table I show the mean net stipend for all doctoral students in your specific department.

Year Doctoral Students Mean Net Stipend
2005-06 $19,284
2006-07 $19,837
2007-08 $20,448
2008-09 $21,394
2009-10 $22,035

Net stipend is the support available after all fees and tuition (including NRST) assessed to the student are paid.

Question: Why doesn’t the University require every Department to give admitted students documentation of precisely what funding they will be offered for every year of graduate study?

Answer: Departments would be very pleased to have the analytical capacity to do this. The difficulty is that there are many, many unknowns. How many students will complete this year? How many will accept offers of admission? How many will go on leave? How many will pass the QE and be forgiven NRST? By how much will the Regents raise tuition next year? It’s a pretty hard calculation.

Thanks to Operational Excellence, a new financial analysis system being introduced this semester will provide an important foundation for making improvements in predictability. I have been discussing with the campus budget office whether we could build out the new system to include multi-year planning capability that would allow programs to do this. Some departments (such as History) have accomplished this, but it’s hard with the financial tools we have now. We are working to improve this.

Question: Why do grad students on filing fee lose their library privileges?  This should be maintained without the hassle of a letter from the dept. chair and $25.00 fee, or the fee should be automatically included in the filing fee and no letter required.

Answer: Filing fee is not a form of registration.  University regulations state that only registered students have use of University services, including library privileges.  The alternative is full registration.  The filing fee instructions include a statement regarding no use of University services and a student must acknowledge this when applying.  Therefore, there must be a separate fee and an accompanying letter. See www.grad.berkeley.edu/policies/pdf/FilingFee.pdf.

Questions about Fairness of Access

Question: What are Dean Szeri’s thoughts as to why the College of Engineering has a “poor record of attracting and retaining minority and women students” for undergraduate and graduate studies? (Science, 2 December 2011: Vol. 334 no. 6060 p. 1191). What solutions does Dean Szeri think should be implemented in order to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion within the College of Engineering? What support can Dean Szeri give the College of Engineering in order to aid in in implementing Coalition of Underrepresented Engineers (CUES) recommendations?

Answer: The problem begins at the undergraduate level in Engineering (and other STEM disciplines) where the numbers of domestic students are low, and the numbers of underrepresented minority (URM) and women students especially low. Our state and nation need to increase attention to mathematics and science in K-12 education.  We also need to think carefully about what kinds of images we are projecting to prospective university students.

Graduate Division spends about $10M per year on graduate fellowships that include among the award criteria an assessment of how students contribute to the UC Regents’ goals to diversity the academy. I’m proud of this dedication of resources. For Engineering, I think a very good step would be to help foster a sense of community and mutual support among current students — and by way of extension, to applicants. Oscar Dubón – an associate professor in the College of Engineering – was recently was appointed as Associate Dean for Equity & Inclusion, with new responsibilities to address these issues. I have confidence in him.

Questions about Interdisciplinary Work

Dean Szeri at the Town Hall
Graduate Dean Andrew Szeri

Question: How can UC Berkeley graduate students build more collaborative research relationships (within and across disciplines)?

Answer: The best, institutionalized approach to this is through the members you choose for your dissertation committee, which requires an outside member. But many students forgo the chance to develop a real interdisciplinary aspect to their career by not involving the outside member enough.

Other ways to develop a capacity for interdisciplinary research are to take courses in other departments, to subscribe to seminar series in other departments, to explore adding a Designated Emphasis before attempting the Qualifying Examination, and to seek out and join one of the many interdisciplinary student-led organizations on campus.

Question: What resources are in place (or what plans are being considered) to help graduate students learn about the facilities (lab spaces, equipment, course offerings, etc.) in departments other than their own and make use of them?

Answer: Once at a Graduate Assembly delegates meeting, a student suggested the campus set up a website that lists major equipment or research capabilities for different labs all over campus. She wanted this to be available to graduate students so they could beg and borrow access to things that would help them in their research. I passed this suggestion on to the research office and will follow up on it. 

What if students self-organized a website (perhaps Graduate Division could host it) where they could post special equipment or knowledge so that other graduate students might access it? Also, suppose you wanted to conduct field research in Uganda, and needed to know how to get started — and another student who recently returned from there posted information about this and that. Or suppose another student posted that the gas chromatograph in their lab is rarely used, and that they have the ability to teach someone to use it. Of course, PIs would have to be involved for permission… but it’s an idea.

Question: I am sorry I cannot attend, but I am particularly interested in learning about where graduate students can access space for interdisciplinary research.  It seems that most facilities are structured by department, and many are also under the care of a specific lab.  How can graduate students on interdisciplinary teams obtain work or lab space and use resources such as machine shops or design studios? Where can graduate students obtain funding for such collaborative work?

Answer: The best idea is to work through faculty who are advising you. They may be able to arrange access to such facilities. As far as I know, the campus doesn’t make space available on another basis.

Question: Many entrepreneurs at Haas are interested in connecting with designers and engineers (me included).  How can you facilitate our access to designers and engineers interested in entrepreneurship both at UCB as well as beyond?

Answer: Great examples of this are the student-organized clubs BERC (Berkeley Energy & Resources Collaborative) and the Berkeley Nano Club.  As there are many Haas members of both, you can find contacts at Haas who can give you an idea how those are organized. Another way to proceed is to write up what you are looking for, and ask your program’s graduate program staff to distribute it by email to the students in a target department. Also, the Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership and the new Masters of Engineering programs are places where interest in entrepreneurship should be easily found.  I suggest also looking into the Big Ideas @ Berkeley program which supports student-run “idea labs” that bring people together from various disciplines working on similar problems in such fields as information technology, nanotechnology and biology. 

Questions about Student Quality of Life Issues

Question: What can we do as a whole to change the cold climate at UC? How can we better serve student parents?

Answer: One place where the campus can do better is in enabling access to affordable childcare alternatives. Budget cuts by the State to subsidized childcare programs (such as Healthy Families) have reduced availability of subsidized campus slots for graduate student parents, and the campus has not yet found it possible to replace that capacity. Many graduate student parents do not qualify for state subsidy anyway because their GSR or GSI position pays “too much,” particularly if both parents are graduate students.  

But some of this group are able to afford child care fees by using the Parent Grant available from the Graduate Division.  I’m proud to say that Graduate Division funds hundreds of student parents per year with our need-based Parent Grants that give up to about $8K in extra funds. Under my watch we’ve added funding to this program and extended it to cover international students too, distributed through the Berkeley International Office.

As for climate, surveys of graduate students suggest that they are mostly content and that this hasn’t changed; in fact, it has slightly improved over the last 15 years in all of these overarching categories:

2006-07 to 2010-11 Data Yes No
If you were to start your graduate program again, Would you select: The same institution? 77.7 6.7
Would you select: The same field of specialization? 75.9 9.9
Would you select: The same dissertation supervisor? 68.4 12.6

Question: I am in the sciences. In the sciences there is a close relationship between the mentor or PI of the lab and the graduate student. Students have the choice to work with a professor that they get along with, but I am alarmed at how poor some of these professors are at mentoring students. I believe that having a strong one-on-one mentorship can provide graduate students with great skills and training. Currently, there is no system for mentors in the sciences to gain important skills necessary for them to effectively mentor their students other than gaining experience through trial (which can be costly to their first students). There is a system where professors have a senior professor who helps mentor them, but often times that’s like the blind leading the blind since many of these senior professors have never been formally trained either. I would really like to see a system implemented where professors are actually trained in mentoring of students. I think this would greatly benefit the graduate students. It is rather disturbing that some professors yell or abuse graduate students and think this is OK because this is how other professors do it. Even more disturbing is the fact that nobody seems to care as long as professors are producing data and publishing papers. Having mentoring for mentors is a great way to improve the overall quality of life for graduate students in a rather top down approach.

Answer: I couldn’t agree more about the importance of mentoring. My own efforts in this area include: years ago when I was Chair of the Graduate Council, I established a student-faculty committee to write a document on best practices in faculty mentoring of graduate students, which has been adopted and disseminated widely on campus. As an associate dean of the Graduate Division, I wrote the proposal for a campus-wide award for distinguished faculty mentoring (with the financial support of the Sarlo Foundation). Most recently I wrote guidelines for the assessment of graduate student mentoring in faculty performance reviews, adopted March 2011. I’ve even donated all of the honoraria I received as GRE Board chair to the Faculty Mentoring Award of the Graduate Assembly. I’d like to do more, and am open to ideas.

In your specific program, you might think about circulating a petition among your peers about the importance of (and shortfall in) quality faculty mentoring. Present this to your Graduate Advisor, and ask him/her to lead a discussion at a faculty meeting about the best practices document I mentioned earlier. That might lead to some positive change.

Question: Graduate division needs to put out guidelines for adviser/student academic conduct: right to publish, right to authorship recognition, right to not be forced to add “guest” co-authors, right to retain and complete a project (fund permitting) and not have it given to someone else as a leveraging way against the student…

Answer: The document produced by the Graduate Council on best practices in faculty mentoring of graduate students (mentioned above) addresses some of this. And Graduate Division is now working specifically on some broad authorship guidelines. Indeed, the concerns expressed in the question will all be taken into consideration by the Graduate Division’s efforts, spearheaded by Associate Dean Rosemary Joyce, to bring clarity to the issue of authorship.  Each discipline’s co-authorship policy will be updated and placed on the Graduate Division website for easy reference. 

Detailed authorship guidelines are often produced by the key journals or learned societies in your field. I should mention that there are procedures for grievances of GSRs, and processes by which faculty members can be investigated for research misconduct. These are pretty extreme measures. A much better place to start is with the Graduate Advisor in your program, or by speaking with the Student Ombudsperson.

Questions about Career Placement

Question: What is the university doing to help students prepare for jobs outside academia, in the face of a shrinking academic job market?

Answer: Students might not know that there are two Ph.D. advisors are housed in Berkeley’s Career Center, who provide career counseling to all graduate students, whether they are interested in academic/research careers or are exploring other professional options. They organize Ph.D. and Masters’ career fairs and offer workshops about preparing for non-academic careers.

Last semester Graduate Division co-sponsored with the Career Center a day-long workshop about ‘alternative careers’.

An excellent way to foster networking is to have regular mixers for those soon to graduate and alumni of programs. In some disciplines, students have self-organized to produce these. Can you think of other ideas?

Also worth mentioning are the programs run for post-doctoral researchers on campus, which could serve as models for graduate students and some of which are open to grad students already: the Postdoc Industry Exploration Program (PIEP), launched in 2010, helps postdocs interested in science or other careers within industry connect with Bay Area companies by organizing site visits to such employers as Novartis, Ellis 9, Life Technology and BioRad. The Berkeley Postdoc Entrepreneur Program (BPEP) is hosting the following workshops for 2011-12:

  • How to turn an idea into a start-up
  • IP, legal issues and patents: things aspiring entrepreneurs must know
  • Pitch session: how to present your idea
  • How to finance your idea (SBIR/STTR and other sources)
  • Lean start-ups
  • Panel discussion: lessons from academics who made the leap

Finally, I’ll mention that Graduate Division is about to conduct a large-scale survey, to gain more information about doctoral degree recipients’ long-term career trajectories and interests. 

Questions of General Advice

Question: As a student at one of the smaller professional schools, I feel very isolated from the rest of the grad departments and what is going on in the grad division overall.  Is anything in the works — events, publications, etc. — to better include students in two year or professional programs?  I know I would benefit from mixers or occasions to meet other grads in fields I’m reporting on as a journalist.  MBA students and J-Schoolers have tried putting on our own get-togethers, but we could use some help planning!

Answer: The Graduate Assembly sponsors a number of events.  Any student can become a delegate to the GA and participate in news being made first-hand. What kind of help do students need to self-organize? BERC and the Nano Club are examples of student-led organizations with thousands of members and lots of activities.

Question: What is the most important thing that you didn’t know as a graduate student that you learned after finishing your PhD (and wished you’d known earlier)?

Answer: I took lots of courses as a graduate student (22 full semester courses – for a grade) because I was curious and enjoy learning new things. The most important thing I didn’t know was that this is great preparation for a career in research! It allows you to work in a variety of areas, which I find greatly satisfying, and interact with many people from different fields. As a PhD student, I operated under the assumption that I’d be doing essentially my same narrow research topic for the rest of my research life. Nothing could’ve been further from the truth.

Question: Everywhere I read about personal finance, I hear it is important to start saving early for retirement. What would it take to seriously enable and encourage graduate students to do this through university payroll in ways that suit their unique situation?

Suggestions:

  1. Advocate for a Roth version of the existing payroll contribution plan–it is likely to be a better option for graduate students.
  2. Create the option to invest in the existing programs without having 50% or more of a GSI appointment will serve many students, potentially. (If you look into this: a few universities offer participation without any restrictions: Emory, University of Illinois.)
  3. Pay at rates that assume I am saving at least 10% of my gross/net and that this is a habit worthy of encouraging.
  4. Educate widely on the topic: Help every person eligible become aware of their pretty good investment options through the existing University programs.

Answer: I have long thought that it would be useful for graduate students to take workshops on finances, and I’ve even advanced specific ideas about how to organize these. To my surprise, I have not received encouragement from student body leaders in the past.  Do you think this would be useful?

As for saving for retirement, I agree it’s important. But your salary will likely be better after graduation, and I reckon the best thing you can do is to graduate sooner rather than later. Moreover, there is not a lot of spare money in most graduate students’ budgets for savings. Higher wages now would be great, but there are always the countervailing arguments about providing opportunities for more students.

So, my advice is to focus on getting the most out of your University experience while you are here and focus on finishing in a timely manner — and you will have done the two most important things for your retirement!

Question: I’m wondering what your thoughts are on public higher education. Do you think it is dead/dying at Berkeley or the rest of the country?  My comment and observation is that the graduate schools already pretty much act like private schools, yet have to deal with all the negatives of being a part of a big state school in financial trouble.  What benefit do the individual graduate schools get from the university as a whole?  From my perspective it’s just overhead and the title “Berkeley”, but I’d like to hear you thoughts on Berkeley in particular, and public education in general, from both a philosophical and practical perspective.  Thanks!

Answer: Graduate education is far from dead or dying! It may seem to you that things have dramatically worsened since you came on the scene, but let me assure you: funding has always been tight. When I was a PhD student, there was uproar – in engineering, no less – about low stipends for doctoral students at my (private) university. I vividly recall the department chair saying, “The product of prestige and stipend is a constant” at a town hall called to address the issue. That certainly excited the students’ attention.

Seriously, though, there is constant pressure to expand access without accompanying resources. The federal government is not likely soon to raise fellowship stipends for national fellowship programs and also imposes caps on GSR salaries. Decisions about support for higher education made by our country’s political leaders indicate (to me) that they think higher education — particularly graduate education —is more a private benefit than a public good. I would argue otherwise.

Survey data tells me, vividly, that graduating Berkeley students overwhelmingly would not reverse their decision to pursue higher education; see above. I think you will find that the quality of your education, in the classroom, in apprenticeship, in receiving advice on your research, will be a great resource throughout your life. This is what I hear in great abundance from graduate alumni all over the world.

You might leave with some debt. That wouldn’t be too unusual. You’ll pay that off. But (provided you came by it honestly) no one can take your degree away from you! 

Questions from the floor at the Town Hall

Question about Evaluating the Quality of Academic Programs

Question: At what point can students get involved in or contribute to the improvement process?

Answer: The Graduate Council, the standing committee of the Academic Senate most closely concerned with graduate education, includes two student representatives. Each review of academic programs includes graduate student input (through surveys, interviews, participation on committees and meetings, etc.)

Question about Philanthropy

Question: How much philanthropic support comes from alumni? Grad alumni? Undergrad alumni?

Answer: We analyzed giving to graduate student support from the start of the Campaign for Berkeley through May 2011. About 44% of the dollars raised for graduate support was donated by alumni, including 22% from undergraduate alumni, 11% from dual-degree alumni (grad/undergrad) and 11% from graduate alumni. Another 22% was donated by foundations and corporations, 24% by non-alumni (including faculty spouses and parents of UCB students), and 9% by faculty and staff. The largest number of gifts came from graduate alumni, but these gifts were on average smaller than those from undergraduate alumni and non-alumni. The largest campaign gift for graduate fellowships was a $6 million endowment from the Mellon Foundation to support top students in the arts, humanities, and history.

Question about Understanding how the Administration Works

Question: How does information flow? Also, in regards to money and decisions? I know you mentioned all of these organizational charts but it would be great to have one big chart.

(In response, Graduate Assembly President Bahar Navab spoke of the Graduate Assembly and how students can get involved, learn more about the administration and its role/actions.)

Answer: The Graduate Assembly leadership offered itself as a resource for learning about campus governance; it welcomes all interested graduate students with many different opportunities for involvement.

Bahar Navab at Town Hall
Bahar Navab, Graduate Assembly President

Question about Resource Conservation

Question: On campus we don’t “walk the talk” about energy conservation. In my department’s lab when I leave at night all of the computers and lights are still on. Why isn’t there a message about saving energy and why isn’t anything being done? Also, I live at University Village and the same thing happens there.

Answer: The four Energy Management Projects of the Operational Excellence program are working on this. For more information, see the OE website for information about becoming a Power Agent (see the FAQ)! Update: please visit the myPower at Berkeley website.

Question about Berkeley’s Public Perception

Question: You mentioned that you are going to Asia. How will you counter negative press about the University? Can you give us some examples of the positive things you say about Berkeley?

Answer: It’s easy to point to good news at Berkeley! I always find that alumni and other friends of UC, around the country and around the world, are tremendously interested in hearing about the many positive developments on campus: a slew of recently-built first-class facilities, exciting new academic programs and research directions, the many honors and awards for teaching, research, and public service won by our faculty, students, and alumni, and so on. Particularly useful for faculty and students talking to, say, prospective students, are the Talking Points (PDF) summary of the facts. I encourage all graduate students to take a few minutes to gain this factual perspective on the state of graduate education at Berkeley.

Question about Diversity

Question: Please talk about diversity in regards to recruitment.

Answer: The Graduate Division works closely with Graduate Student Diversity Coordinators who span the campus to consider how recruitment can help the campus achieve the Regents goals for diversification of the academy. The Graduate Diversity Program (created in the Graduate Division more than a decade ago and now reporting to the Division of Equity & Inclusion, with a ‘dotted line’ to us) coordinates many of these activities.

The Graduate Division also channels considerable fellowship monies to this purpose, too, as described in an answer to another question. These efforts are accomplished with careful attention to Proposition 209 restrictions. Notwithstanding the challenges, the results of our attention to such issues are concrete and impressive. For example in 2010, Berkeley awarded the largest number of doctoral degrees to URM recipients of any of the universities in the American Association of Universities (AAU)—the club of sixty-plus most research-intensive universities in the land.


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About Patrick McMahon

Patrick is the Director of Web & User Experience for the Graduate Division at UC Berkeley.