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As a former fellow herself, Dean Kim Barrett knows the importance of providing fellowships and scholarships for students. Now the head of the Office of Graduate Studies, she is encouraging the campus and community to get involved with the “Invent the Future: The UC San Diego Student Support Campaign.” Currently, only 16 percent of our graduate students receive fellowships and 64 percent of our undergraduates receive financial assistance. In this interview, Dean Barrett talks about the importance of fellowships in recruiting top students and faculty to campus, and why UC San Diego offers such unique opportunities for graduate study.

 

Q Why are graduate fellowships important for students and universities?

Barrett: It’s very hard to be a graduate student unless you have some money to live on.  Fellowships are wonderful because they allow students to focus full-time on their educational goals and their own research; they don’t have to worry about loans and possibly accruing more debt.  Also, Ph.D. students can spend anywhere from four to 10 years to get their degree, and that’s a long time to live without any support.  We know that the faster students progress through their doctoral program, the more likely they are to finish and the less it costs for everyone involved.

From the university’s perspective, it’s absolutely essential for us to be able to offer support to our graduate students in order to compete with other universities for the best and brightest students.  We know that our competition makes very substantial investments in fellowship support.  We’re currently behind that competition, which is why our student support campaign is so important.  Another thing to consider is that a lot of the schools we compete with are in different parts of the country where it’s a lot less expensive to live, which puts us even farther behind.  

Q Is the graduate degree becoming the new bachelor’s degree?

Barrett: I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point that everyone needs to get a Ph.D. but, in more and more cases, a master’s degree is a prerequisite.  Part of that is driven by economic circumstances.  When times get tough, people look for ways to distinguish themselves from the hundreds of job applicants.  Part of it also is that K-12 education doesn’t always prepare students for college.  So many undergraduates are playing catch-up when they arrive on campus and it’s only really when you get to the graduate level education that you get to delve deeply into one particular subject.

Q How is the current economic climate affecting graduate study? Are more students staying in school and pursuing higher education?

Barrett: We have a record number of graduate students this fall and many departments saw record increases in the yield.  It’s not necessarily a national trend.  I think some of the private institutions that were very dependent on endowment funds weren’t in the same position to make as many offers as they might have done in the past.  So some of the students that would have gone to those institutions are showing up here, which is why our scholarship and fellowship campaign is so important right now.  Our long-term goal is to increase the general campus graduate student population to 20 percent of our overall student body by 2020.

Q What role do graduate students play in our local workforce and campus community?

Barrett: Graduate students bring new perspectives, energy and enthusiasm, and they are critically important for the intellectual productivity of the institution.  When we think about research, we think about faculty doing the research.  But, in fact, the chief engine of that forward motion is often graduate students, such as those conducting experiments in our scientific labs. 

Photo of Kim Barrett

Another reason they’re important on campus is because they are often the glue for faculty collaboration.  Faculty may have time to talk about the broad outline of the project, but it’s the people on the ground, doing the work day in and day out, that actually move things forward.  The Chancellor’s Collaboratories program is a case in point, where the focus is on supporting graduate students in interdisciplinary teams overseen by faculty members.  And some of the most exciting discoveries happen at the interfaces between disciplines.

Although a large proportion of our graduate students go on to be faculty members at other institutions, and some stay to be professors here, there are also a large number who stay in the community in other capacities.  They play leading roles in the industries that have grown up around the university, they start companies, and they add to the vibrancy of our educational and intellectual establishments.

Q What makes UC San Diego a unique university for graduate study?

Barrett: I think a lot of it has to do with the youth of this institution.  The barriers between disciplines are much lower than in other institutions, particularly some long-standing institutions.  That makes for this vitality of cross-disciplinary exchange.  We also have superb faculty who are very entrepreneurial and good at generating research funds, so it’s a great place for a student to be in terms of the resources available to them.  And I think there is still an exciting feel about the campus; it’s a place that’s continuously willing to reexamine and reinvent itself.  We also have many new degree proposals coming forward all the time, so there is a focus on new programs and growth in the existing programs.

Q How important is interdisciplinary collaboration?

Barrett: To be effective as a scholar, you need to be able to call upon whatever tool you need to answer the questions at hand.  And that may be within the discipline you trained in or it may be in any number of other disciplines.  So it’s important to be able to communicate with colleagues across those disciplinary boundaries and be open to collaborative interactions.  And one of the great things about UC San Diego is people are so willing to sit down with you, talk through ideas and offer you help to pursue your goals.

And some of the challenges we now face are so big, they’re global, such as environmental sustainability.  Everyone – from marine biologists, oceanographers, policy makers, engineers and so forth – have to bring a piece to the solution because no one discipline can solve these problems alone.

Q What is it like to oversee such a diversity of disciplines?

Barrett: I enjoy the huge variety and diversity – from nanoengineering to visual arts to philosophy.  Every single day is different.  And I’ve come to appreciate the depth of quality that we have all across this campus.  People sometimes superficially box UC San Diego as this science and engineering campus.  But we have fantastic faculty in about every discipline that you can think of and, as a result, we have fantastic graduate students in every discipline.

Q As a former fellow yourself, what motivated you or helped you pursue your higher education?

Barrett: I am a first-generation college graduate, and I was very fortunate to have had some wonderful teachers and mentors in high school and college.  I knew I wanted to be a scientist from about the age of seven; I used to check out chemistry books from the library and begged my parents for a chemistry set.  The day I arrived at university, I knew I was where I was meant to be; I enjoyed the spirit of being in a place where knowledge was being generated and not just imparted.  I did not grow up thinking I wanted to be an academic administrator, but it’s been great!  I have the best job in the world.

Fun Faves
 

Favorite part of your job: Every day is different

Favorite hobby:  Cooking

Favorite place at UC San Diego: Geisel Library

Favorite place on Earth: London or San Francisco

Favorite food: Indian food

Favorite accomplishment: Receiving a teaching award from first-year medical students and the completion of my text book

Favorite words to live by:  “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” – Eleanor Roosevelt



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