Graduate students on the rise at RIT

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RIT’s graduate students displayed their research at the 12th annual Graduate Showcase.
(Photo credit: Elizabeth Lamark/RIT)

Rochester Institute of Technology aims to leverage a burgeoning graduate culture on campus. 

RIT has more doctoral students than ever before, officials say, and the university hopes to capitalize on the trend. The university aims to confer 50 Ph.D. degrees annually by fall 2025-2026. Currently, that number is about 30 degrees from eight programs. RIT drew 93 Ph.D. students in the fall, up from 72 in fall 2018. In total, new graduate students reached 950. 

To achieve its goal, RIT will add six to 12 programs to its Ph.D. portfolio. This can be a lengthy process, admits Twyla Cummings, associate provost and dean of graduate education. So, Cummings and her team are developing an infrastructure to address graduate students’ needs.

“On average it takes about three to four years, sometimes longer, to go from concept to approval at New York State,” Cummings says. “We recently hired a senior project manager/technical writer to write proposals for new Ph.D. programs.”

The emphasis on doctoral programs at RIT is tied to the need for continuity of graduate students to work on federally funded research projects, the university says. 

In January, RIT received the second-highest classification as a research activity institution by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Learning. The R2 designation places RIT among the top 6 percent of colleges and universities in the nation, granting at least 20 research/scholarship doctorates annually and spending $5 million a year on research.

The ranking followed the 2016 milestone that changed RIT from “Masters-Comprehensive” to a “Doctoral University,” RIT says. In fiscal 2019, RIT spent $61 million on research and received $74 million in funding.

“Our graduate students are tackling problems, finding solutions and making a difference in their fields,” Cummings says. 

This research profile, and programs, attract graduate students from around the world to RIT. Last month, the university held a Graduate Education Week and Showcase, as a nod to the scholarship produced by master’s and doctoral students. 

“We’re definitely growing,” says Alyssa Recinella, a Ph.D. candidate in the engineering program, and president of the Doctoral Student Association. “This is the perfect time to start it, while we’re accepting more students to campus.”

Cummings has put efforts in place to nurture the graduate students on campus, including the area of advising. Lynne Mazadoorian, director of the university advising office, and Cummings surveyed graduate students in spring 2018 about their experiences with graduate advising. The results showed that, while overall the 330 respondents (50 percent were M.S. students, 20 percent B.S./M.S. and 13 percent were Ph.D. students) reported being satisfied with their advisers, advising practices varied, and access to both academic and faculty advisers differed across programs.

“The undergraduate model should not necessarily be used for graduate advising; it’s a different population,” Cummings says. “Our intent was not to overhaul current processes and structures that exist. We met with each college to find out what they need to support their graduate students. We’re looking at things that could benefit every college.” 

Recommendations to refine the process include standardizing a position description for the role of graduate student advisers, training sessions and the creation of a liaison role in the Office of Graduate Education to coordinate information and procedures around graduate advising.

Assisting graduate students with written communication, especially before they embark on writing their thesis, is another initiative in progress.

A new Graduate Education Dean’s Advisory Council, composed of alumni and Rochester community members, will make recommendations on graduate education initiatives, networking and career opportunities for students. The group met for the first time in the fall and will hold semiannual meetings, officials say.

RIT has long been regarded as a university best known for preparing students for jobs. The move to augment the graduate education at RIT is in line with its 2018-2025 strategic plan, which states that “the world needs more than people with a career … it needs people who understand how to innovate.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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