The Big Picture

Leaders' Personal Experiences Shape a Vision for Graduate Student Support

Bruce W. Carney, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, and Steve Matson, Dean of the Graduate School, are scientists who continue to mentor students in their fields while providing key leadership for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

What do graduate students do during the summer? For students in the sciences, the answer to this question has been pretty much the same through the years. Steve Matson, Dean of the Graduate School, can attest to this. “My experience as a graduate student in Biochemistry was very much like the experiences of graduate students today in the sciences. Since students in the sciences are typically funded on research grants for 12 months of the year, I spent the summer in the lab, just like the rest of the year,” he says. “When I look back on it, I realize we were very fortunate to be fully funded for 12 months of the year. We were able to make good progress on our research and it showed in our time to degree. I was able to finish my doctorate in 1980, after four years.”

Bruce W. Carney

Bruce W. Carney

UNC-Chapel Hill Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bruce W. Carney, who earned his doctorate degree in astronomy in 1978, had a rather unconventional experience as a graduate student. In the midst of his graduate studies at Harvard University, Carney was drafted into the Army. “I spent three years in the Army and worked in the Ballistics Research Lab in the Chesapeake Bay area. The lab had a telescope that I, as an astronomy student, put to good use.” Although Carney's three-year hiatus postponed his graduating, his time in school totaled approximately six years, which is “pretty standard both then and now for a student in astronomy,” he says. “Advances in astronomy, such as the space telescope, have revolutionized the field. Students today have access to far more data than when I was in graduate school.”

When Matson was a student, the stipends paid to students during the summer were surprisingly low. In fact, he only received $3,000 each year, or $250 a month; half of which went to his rent. So Matson found other ways to supplement his income. He explains, “I spent part of my time during the summer tending bar. I technically wasn't supposed to be doing that. I only worked during special events at another college, so nobody knew what I was doing on the side to make a little bit of extra money. I also participated in several drug studies to help pay the rent and car insurance. I recall one memorable weekend spent in the hospital with a heparin lock in my wrist so the doctors could assess the blood levels of a new drug every hour. Fortunately, they fed us, provided a bed and I was allowed to go work in my lab between blood draws.”

Many graduate students in the humanities today can relate to Matson's experience of trying to make ends meet. Students in humanities and social/behavioral sciences are rarely funded to do research in the summer, and are often challenged to find extra jobs to support themselves during this time. Matson says this causes students to lose focus on their dissertations and take longer to finish their degrees. Though Carney's degrees are in astronomy, he sympathizes with students in other fields. “It is very different for students in the social sciences and humanities. The time it takes for them to achieve their degrees is sometimes unconscionably long.” Not only is the time frame different for these students, but they predominantly rely on time-consuming teaching assistantships. Occasionally, scarce, privately-funded fellowships enable them to focus exclusively on their own research. Matson elaborates, “national research indicates humanities students progress more quickly towards graduation when they have summer funding.”

To help address this disparity, the Graduate School initiated summer fellowships to assist doctoral students in disciplines lacking summer research support. Twenty students received Ferdinand Fellowships last summer.* Many generous donors made contributions to the Graduate School so that 20 more students can have the same opportunity this year. Matson hopes the Graduate School will eventually be able to do even more to support students.“I would like the Graduate School to support students in the humanities and related fields for multiple summers. We're not in that place now, but through this new fellowship program we can provide support to a small group of students and I think it will make a difference.”

Steve Matson

Steve Matson

Matson says this funding is essential because graduate students are indispensable to the mission of UNC-Chapel Hill. They contribute to the university through teaching, serving the community and conducting research. He adds, “graduate students are the backbone of our research mission, and the bulk of the research on this campus is done by them. They also extend our faculty by teaching undergrads and making it possible for students to explore, discuss and master complex material in smaller group settings.”

Matson adds that his vision of the future of graduate education also includes students applying the skills they learn to fields beyond academia. He explains, “we do an outstanding job training the next generation of faculty and we will continue in that important role. I would like to see us do a better job of preparing students for careers outside the academy because students aspire to work in diverse fields. The skills you learn as a doctoral student, like how to formulate questions creatively, conduct research to answer those questions and communicate those answers effectively, are highly translatable and have significant application in many areas.”

Carney says that because fields have become more complex, “it's important to give students a solid foundation, build their self confidence and encourage creative thinking.” Carney shares this advice: “All students, regardless of study, ought to be good writers. Writing should be clear enough that someone from another field can easily understand the material.” He adds, “students should really enjoy what they do, persevere and become experts.”

Matson says graduate students are bringing a whole new level of creativity, innovation, critical thinking and problem-solving to all occupations. He elaborates, “graduate students are going to nonprofits and think tanks. They are running for public office. They work for GlaxoSmithKline and the Smithsonian. The future of graduate education is training students to explore the frontiers of knowledge, while recognizing that they will do that in many different contexts. Preparing them to lead in a complex, interdisciplinary and international world is key.”

* Read more about several Ferdinand Fellowship recipients.

♦ Enelda Butler and Rebecca Prettyman