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Group photo of award winners--Best Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) (4), Best DGS Assistant (4), and outstanding teaching assistants (21) on the steps of Johnston Hall, May 5, 2005.

Best DGS and Best DGS Assistant award winners and outstanding TAs celebrated on the steps of Johnston Hall, Twin Cities campus, May 5.

Great expectations and open doors

Graduate School honors key faculty and staff

By Gayla Marty

From Brief, May 18, 2005

Before she became a director of graduate studies herself, Claudia Neuhauser knew that a DGS helps students solve problems and navigate the administrative labyrinth of any university. Along with a DGS assistant, he or she is a graduate program's open door.

But the professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior soon found that a DGS can play a much larger role. By setting high expectations and advocating for students, she says, a DGS can have a big influence on student morale and program quality.

"Much research is done in collaboration with graduate students, [and their] enthusiasm and new insights have a vitalizing effect," Neuhauser says. "As our students mature in their programs, we gain colleagues who can have a significant and positive effect on the intellectual climate."

With about 150 graduate majors at the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses, the U relies on directors of graduate studies and DGS assistants to play a key role in attracting and keeping top student talent. The Graduate School honored eight of them, including Neuhauser, in a special event May 5. (See box.)


Best DGS

Steven Girshick
, mechanical engineering
Claudia Neuhauser, ecology, evolution, and behavior
Edward Schiappa, communication studies
Evan Skillman, astrophysics

Best DGS Assistant

Jessica Eastman
, curriculum and instruction
Sharon Kressler, geology
Julie Prince, chemical engineering and materials science
Terence Rafferty, architecture

Outstanding TAs
More than 50 teaching assistants from the Twin Cities and Duluth were also honored by their departments this year. About 20 attended the May 5 event.

"It's a big job and really not sufficiently compensated," says interim dean Victor Bloomfield. He and the Graduate School staff instituted the Best DGS and Best DGS Assistant awards in 2003 to shine the spotlight on faculty and staff members who are critical to both their departments' and the Graduate School's success. Each winner receives a certificate and $1,000 honorarium.

The front line

Graduate programs at the U range in size from about 20 to well over 200 students. The typical term of a DGS is three years, but many serve more than one term. It often takes a toll on research time, though many departments reduce their DGS's teaching load.

DGS assistants often serve under several directors. Sharon Kressler, for example, has worked as a DGS assistant in geology and geophysics for nine years with three directors. To beginning DGS assistants, she recommends asking questions, calling the Graduate School if you need help, and remembering to have fun. Receiving the award meant much-valued recognition from her own department for her accessibility, a lot of problem-solving, and resourcefulness. (She plans to buy her own laptop, too, she adds.)

"This is an important role in any department," says Kressler.

For Terence Rafferty, DGS assistant for the architecture program, the greatest reward in his work is helping to make a large institution more responsive to individuals. The greatest challenge is recruiting students from other parts of the United States, especially the coasts, and helping them overcome stereotypes of the Midwest and large, public universities.

Recruitment, mentoring, and more

In many departments, the DGS plays an important role in recruitment. Faculty in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, for example, knew they needed to do a better job of recruiting top students and more effectively using financial support, says Steven Girshick, 20 years at the U and in his fifth year as DGS.

"I felt some passion toward that mission," says Girshick. "We're a top program, but we face stiff competition. Serving as DGS was a chance to have some impact."

Girshick has worked to change the department's approach to recruiting by linking it more closely with financial support.

Evan Skillman, a DGS in astronomy since 1996, sees a similar relationship.

"The most important thing for recruiting is to make sure current students are well supported," Skillman says. "In the past five years, we've had two significant donations for fellowships that have made a big difference in our ability to recruit and support graduate students."

With changes on the horizon for research universities, Bloomfield says the role of mentoring graduate students will become more important than ever: supporting and counseling them toward a variety of careers and through ever more challenging financial and psychological issues. "Each graduate student has their own story and background," says Girshick, whose department enrolls 240 graduate students. "Many special situations arise, and each year there are a few serious problems to deal with."

Graduate students and graduate faculty are the backbone of a research university, says Neuhauser. "It's our obligation and a continual challenge to make sure students blossom in our programs despite the stress."

Edward Schiappa, DGS in communication studies for nine years, has dedicated attention to the professional development of graduate students. He wrote a book, Professional Development During Your Graduate Education, published in-house as a guide.

"It teaches students how to do things like negotiate their contracts--academics in general tend to be clueless in that regard," he says.

Skillman's favorite thing about the role of DGS is "when they graduate!" In a relatively small program with 20 graduate students, he's had the satisfaction of seeing two go on to prestigious fellowships at the Space Telescope Institute.

To any new DGS, Neuhauser advises, "Be an advocate for your students, listen to them, set high expectations, keep your door open, and make sure they enjoy their experience in your program."

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