Supporting our graduate students is key to UW-Madison’s research success

9.13.17 | Making Research Work | Marsha Mailick & William Karpus | Original Publication

With a new semester underway, it is worth pausing a moment to think about the importance of research at UW-Madison for our students and for the future of research.

Participating in research is a hallmark of graduate education. UW-Madison’s graduate research ranges from scientific work in laboratories and the field, to archival scholarship, to technical and creative design, to work in communities. The activities of our graduate students reflect the full range of our mission as a public research institution in teaching, community outreach and service, and, of course, research.

These attributes are clearly reflected in UW-Madison’s Graduate School mission: “Our philosophy is clear and time-tested: The creation of new knowledge through research depends on educational excellence and graduate education is perfected through research. Our graduate students, and the work they do, illustrate this synergistic relationship. This Wisconsin tradition is built on a foundation of world-class faculty, diverse students determined to succeed, research innovation and facilities and programs second to none.”

Examples of high-profile research carried out by graduate students include the recently published study by Ryan Dougherty, working under the direction of Dane Cook, a professor with the Department of Kinesiology, that suggests engaging in moderate physical activity may slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Kym Romano, a graduate student working with Federico Rey in the Department of Bacteriology, published a study demonstrating that gut microbes compete with host cells for nutrients and can have potential effects on metabolism and development.

Our graduate students are skilled partners in carrying out research and contributing to new ideas and knowledge. Most of these students have to spend long hours in the library or at their desks, in the laboratory or with patients and their families in the clinics. Many of them do it for the joy of discovery and the desire to help people. Graduate students at UW-Madison are top-notch.

That’s why we are not surprised to learn that UW-Madison is currently ranked fifth nationally among universities and colleges receiving federal fellowship support, according to the National Science Foundation.

According to the “Survey of Federal Science and Engineering Support to Universities, Colleges, and Nonprofit Institutions” from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics within the National Science Foundation, in fiscal year 2015, UW-Madison was awarded about $27,324,000 in funding for science and engineering fellowships, traineeships and training grants toward the development and maintenance of the scientific workforce. This is an increase from fiscal year 2014 when UW-Madison received about $23,997,000 and was ranked sixth.

In fiscal year 2015, federal agencies obligated $30.5 billion to 1,016 academic institutions for science and engineering activities. Fellowships, traineeships and training grants is one of six categories included in this federal academic science and engineering obligation.

A fellowship doesn’t just offer a student prestige. Having fellowships allows our graduate students to be more flexible to focus on professional development and conduct research to advance their interests in a particular field.

For fellowships awarded by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture, UW-Madison is ranked No. 1. UW-Madison is ninth in fellowship and traineeship funding from the Department of Health and Human Services.

To see a full list of the rankings, visit https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/fedsupport/2015/html/FSS2015_DST_20.html

UW-Madison’s success in drawing federal fellowship support for its graduate students is based on a combination of factors, including the fact the university ranks in the top six nationwide among research institutions in terms of research expenditures, has a faculty comprised of many who are top in their fields, and offers 109 PhD and 160 master’s degree programs that span a breadth of disciplines. We confer the third highest number of PhD degrees in the United States.

The research and education carried out on the campus responds to pressing national needs – finding the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, designing advanced electronics for computing, and developing sustainable energy sources, among many others.

What can we do to ensure our graduate students’ continued success? We can work across campus to create important resources and models for addressing the educational needs of graduate students in the ethical and responsible conduct of research. We can be engaged scholars honing the advisor-advisee relationships during the student’s doctoral degree program. We can provide graduate student researchers with access to the tools they need to emerge competitive in their fields.

Our Graduate School’s professional development programs help students develop the teaching, writing and presentation skills they will need in future careers in academia or industry. Partnerships with the Writing Center and the Social Science Computing Center, for example, introduce graduate students to experts who can help advance their careers through new skillset development. Events like the very successful Graduate School Degree Dash earlier this month promotes health and wellness, and builds a community. Over 650 students, family members, faculty, and staff participated in the 2017 Degree Dash. Doctoral Derby racers completed a 5.7 mile route, and the Master’s Mile participants raced for 1.75 miles. Establishing a healthy work-life balance is essential for career success.

We can provide graduate fellowships, which affects more than individual students: it is an investment in bettering our collective future.

Besides federal support, there are other sources of funding for graduate students. UW-Madison graduate student support for fiscal year 2018 is committed at almost $19 million including an $11.5 million investment by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation for fellowships, stipend enhancement, recruiting resources, rotation stipends, and research assistantships. WARF’s investment is rounded out by $2.8 million from the UW Foundation, $3.5 million from the state, and $650,000 from trusts.

Finally, we can work to continue to prepare our students by better understanding the changing career climate.

To that end, we are excited that UW-Madison has joined the Council of Graduate Schools’ Career Pathways Project, a competitive three-year project that brings together 15 universities and institutional coalitions seeking to better understand and support the careers of PhD students and alumni. The research is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with a sub-award to UW-Madison.

UW-Madison also is providing sponsorship for Imagine PhD, a national online career planning portal for Arts and Humanities PhD students, which will launch this fall.

Supporting our graduate students strengthens UW-Madison and the communities we serve because their work has the potential to shape the decisions of tomorrow.

In learning that UW-Madison, has been ranked fifth nationally among universities and colleges receiving federal fellowship support, according to the National Science Foundation, Ian Robertson, Dean of UW-Madison’s College of Engineering, summed up our sentiments perfectly.

“The students here at UW-Madison could go anywhere in the country,” Ian said. “They choose Madison because they recognize the success of our science and engineering research enterprise, they have the opportunity to work with some of the best faculty in the nation, and they receive the financial and academic support needed to build and launch their career.”