Harvard graduate Carina Curto, also a Duke Endowment Fellow, James B. Duke Fellow, and University Scholar, came to study math and theoretical physics. She finds the combination of a strong mentor in string theorist Ronen Plesser, a physics professor, and bright fellow students to be perfect for her. "My preferred method of learning is talking to people, and Duke has been a good place for finding that dialogue," she says. "Grad school is better than I ever expected."
Psychology Ph.D. candidate Alison Aubrecht has had a roller-coaster ride with mentors. She has had four advisers in three years. Her first didn't get tenure and left, her second took a job at another university, her third was the head of the department who stepped in to help until her fourth one joined the faculty. Aubrecht lost a whole year of research in the transitions, but says--with surprisingly little bitterness--that the faculty have been supportive and have made every effort to help her through the unusual situation.
She would like to stay on an academic research/teaching track in the future, but says she has learned something of the fragility of positions in academe through her adviser experience. And she's not sure how easy it will be to combine family and career down the road. Her fiancé is a post-doc in physics at UNC, so they will have the added challenge of finding academic positions in the same area.
This is a familiar challenge to many students who have met and married other grad students. Audrey Odom and husband Antony John have developed a strategy. Music composition is a field in which there are annually perhaps a half-dozen openings in academe nationwide. Odom has veto rights over any possible positions John would pursue, because she must be assured an excellent medical facility that trains residents when she graduates from the M.D.-Ph.D. program. The one thing they have ruled out is a long-distance marriage. So if he lands a job in a place she can work with, she will follow. If not, he will follow her where she chooses to do her residency work and delay at least some of his professional gratification.
Delayed gratification is a theme that plays over and over again. Rodney Sadler Ph.D. '01 says he has always wanted children, but he and his wife, Madeline McClenney-Sadler Ph.D. '01, couldn't imagine having children and working on their dissertations in the religion department at the same time. Now after graduating last May, they say they are looking forward to catching up on missed milestones and events.
"I haven't been able to go to Bermuda and see my family in two and a half years," says Sadler. "I missed my great-aunt's funeral because it fell during exam period, and I've missed watching my nephew and nieces grow up. I feel like there's a large part of my life unaccounted for."
The Sadlers are ready to get beyond the financial struggles of student life. "Graduate school is not designed for a two-grad-student family," says Sadler, who is now teaching at Duke. "Living on stipends places you near the poverty level. And most stipends aren't year-round, so you end up with minimum-wage summer jobs when you wish you could be continuing with your research. The end of May is a period of dread for students."
The administration is well aware of the need for more dollars for scholars. Five years ago, the school set goals for raising the amount of money available for funding graduate students. Those goals have largely been met. By the beginning of the 2000-01 academic year, the Graduate School was able to commit to seeing that all Ph.D. students at Duke would be supported (from a combination of institutional funds and external awards, such as research grants or national fellowships) for at least their first five years of Ph.D. study, and with stipends that met the academic-year cost-of-living in Durham.
"We have been able to achieve this goal largely through reducing the overall Ph.D. population in a number of disciplines where applications have been dropping nationally and job markets have been tight," says Lewis Siegel, vice provost and dean of the Graduate School. "As we survey further needs of our graduate students, particularly in humanities and social science disciplines where the Duke median time-to-degree is seven years or so--generally still one to two years below the national averages for those disciplines--we have undertaken to try to see that students in those disciplines can be supported for six academic years, beginning in 2001-02.
"We have introduced a program of competitive summer research fellowships that will permit students in those disciplines to conduct research on their dissertation projects for up to two summers. We are also raising the stipends of our Ph.D. students at levels significantly above inflation in order to position Duke at the midpoint of the stipends offered by the twelve elite private universities we consider to be our peer group."
As financial issues are addressed, the Student Affairs Office tries to anticipate other needs and seeks to make sure current and incoming students understand expectations for graduate education at Duke. It shares with students a handout that clearly delineates the roles of faculty, students, and administration.
While there may be the occasional grumbles about money or heavy teaching loads or interrupted work or changing faculty, most students seem to be too busy to complain. Or perhaps they intuit that they are experiencing one of life's unique opportunities. As Cathy Davidson reminded the new recruits last fall, "A research university is one of the only places where society permits the creation of knowledge for its own sake."
"The university, in its mission," she says, "declares itself a place where new ideas are generated free of ideology or the need to turn a profit. Those constraints will enter your lives soon enough. For now, you have license to indulge a promiscuous curiosity....You are leaving behind the safe waters of the predictable in order to compete in the most extreme sport of all: riding the swells and furrows of the possible."
Sauls is a freelance writer living in Raleigh.
Duke Magazine-The Grad School Grind-Jan/Feb 2002
January 31, 2002