In Praise of Graduate Research

April 06, 2017

By Tyrus Miller, PhD, Vice Provost, Dean of Graduate Studies 

The work of graduate students at UC Santa Cruz is many-dimensional, made up of individual study, teamwork, discussion, writing, reading, and solitary thought and discovery. For many, too, it includes time in classroom, labs, the field, and studios as teachers and teaching assistants. 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.

student reading book at desk

Many events this spring bring to the fore the importance of the research that our graduate students conduct, both in pursuit of their degrees and in support of the work of faculty mentors. UC Santa Cruz brings together an extraordinary range of topics, approaches, methods, and modes in the research conducted by graduate students, and it is worth pausing a moment to think about the importance of this research for our students themselves, for our constituencies in California and further afield, and for the future condition of scholarship and science.

Participation in research is a distinctive hallmark of graduate education, especially at the doctoral level. UC Santa Cruz’s graduate research comes in many flavors, ranging from scientific work in laboratories and the field, to archival and textual scholarship, to technical and creative design, to embedded work in communities and organizations. The imperative that graduate students conduct research—like our faculty—recognizes that knowledge is not a static resource that can simply be packaged and consumed by our students and our constituencies. It must be continuously fostered, renewed, and refined; it grows and evolves in an open-ended process of discovery. Our graduate students are a key part of this process, insofar as they are not only intensively assimilating the results of past and present research in their fields, but also reshaping and contributing to it. And, perhaps even more importantly, they are gaining the capacity and skills to continue contributing to new knowledge for an entire lifetime of work in academia, industry, government, entrepreneurship, or other professional spheres.

students looking at calculations on whiteboard

UC Santa Cruz has just recently finished its campus-level competition for public communication of graduate research, the “Grad Slam,” in which twelve students profiled their work in accessible, three-minute presentations to an audience of non-specialists.  In May our campus finalist will participate in the UC system-wide Grad Slam competition, hosted by President Janet Napolitano. On campus, we’ll be following up on our Grad Slam event with another public forum in which members of the campus community and broader public can experience the richness of current graduate research, the Graduate Research Symposium, which will include oral presentations, poster presentations, and multimedia presentations by our students.  Both these annual events always leave me excited and heartened by the amazing research our graduate students are pursuing. I get a glimpse of the future right here in the present, and while many of their research projects starkly highlight the environmental, technical, and social challenges of that future, I also sincerely feel we will be in good hands with this group of extraordinarily talented intellectual leaders.

I’ve also, in the last few days, been reading applications for a new program we have instituted at UC Santa Cruz, in which I’ve been able to get a look at new graduate research in the phase of its early formulation. UC Santa Cruz was one of five institutions nationally to be granted funds by the Social Science Research Council to establish a dissertation proposal development program for doctoral students in the social sciences, humanities, and arts scholarship.

looking at whiteboardStudents from seventeen graduate programs across three academic divisions could apply, so the applications give insight into the emerging research topics, approaches, and concerns of graduate students in a very broad range of disciplines. Across the disciplines I saw innovative and creative approaches to conducting research and analyzing data and evidence; I saw cross-cutting themes such as concern with the environment, with community and governance, with social justice, and with the contradictory effects of technological change; and I saw an openness to reach beyond the limits of single disciplines to understand complex, “wicked” problems such as climate change or the role of political borders.

One additional upcoming event highlights the importance of graduate student research for me. For the past several years, the graduate deans of the ten University of California campuses have annually gone up to Sacramento to advocate in the California state legislature for state support of UC’s graduate education. Each dean selects two graduate students whose work particularly communicates impact and importance for the people of California, and together we visit our assembly members and state senators or speak with their staff. It’s remarkable to see how excited our political leaders are by meeting our students and hearing them talk about their research and why their campus of the University of California is critical to its success.

This brings me to my last point. Scientific and scholarly research in the United States is unfortunately under threat, which impacts graduate students as well as professors and other researchers. Since 2013, federal funding for research has been subject to deep automatic and across-the-board cuts known as “budget sequestration.

string quartet playing outsideWe've heard recent calls for more drastic cuts to the NIH, which funds biomedical research, and to other scientific research funders; seen attacks on research into climate change and the environment; witnessed political pressure directed against funding of social and behavioral science research; and seen plans for the wholesale elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. These are grim signs of further battles to come.

I’ve argued that graduate research is not just an important part of our present at UC Santa Cruz; it is also a sign of our future as a university, as a state and country, and as a world. It is our responsibility—as members of the UC Santa Cruz community and as citizens—to support our graduate research and help ensure that this future is the best one possible.