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GSAS Admissions and Graduate Education

The GSAS Admissions and Graduate Education working group was tasked with recommending enhancements to the admissions and educational processes.

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Executive Summary 

In 2022, the Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences launched the GSAS Admissions and Graduate Education (GAGE) working group, a committee of faculty and administrators. GAGE was tasked with considering advising, teaching, employment outcomes, institutional finances, and equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging to develop actionable steps in how admissions slots are allocated and to outline what PhD education should look like in the 21st century. The GAGE committee began meeting in spring 2022 and finalized recommendations for the report in summer 2023. While focused on FAS-based graduate programs, the recommendations within this report have implications for GSAS PhD graduate programs offered in partnership with other Harvard Schools. 

As a first step, the GAGE working group reviewed data on mental health, advising, time to degree, outcomes, teaching loads, and finances. During this review, several findings emerged. 

  • Mental health surveys highlighted lack of structure in advising and, in some cases, ineffective individual advising relationships as being a source of significant stress for graduate students.
  • Programs with the highest amount of teaching per student showed consistently longer times to degree.
  • Unfortunate advising situations may contribute to longer time to degree for individual students.
  • Postdoctoral fellowship appointments are increasing for students across the Arts & Humanities and Social Sciences, in many cases serving as a “waiting room” for graduates because tenure track positions are unavailable. In the Sciences and Engineering, close to 50 percent or more who enter postdoctoral positions do not enter tenure track faculty positions.
  • While overall satisfaction with individual advisors is statistically high in exit surveys, taking a deeper look at the data identifies areas of significant concerns regarding the structure and nature of the advising relationship and the student’s decision to pursue the PhD.
  • On the topic of financial support, the FAS’s unrestricted funds used for the majority of graduate student support were increasing over time at an unsustainable rate. Actions over the past three years (including reductions in cohort sizes that if continued will have stark effects) have reduced the rate of increase, but this remains a concern. Given the increasing competitiveness with peer institutions, greater investment in graduate education by the University has become critical. 

The committee recognized that providing universal recommendations across the 40 different FAS graduate programs would be unfeasible due to the wide diversity of academic activities and cultural norms. Instead, the committee offered a framework for programs to follow, establishing a baseline standard in the following areas: 

A. Advising 
B. Scale and strength of the academic program 
C. Equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging 
D. Employment outcomes 
E. Teaching 
F. Finances

Details can be found in Section V of the report.

The GAGE committee acknowledged that some departments have already incorporated parts of what is included in Section V into their normal practice. The aim is to formalize the recommendations and provide other departments with a roadmap to help them enhance the graduate student experience. Based on the review of the data and development of the framework noted above, it is the GAGE committee’s recommendation that specific factors related to graduate education, contextualized within individual disciplines and departments, be reviewed and used for admissions purposes. These factors are: 

  • Scale and strength of the academic program
  • Strength of advising and faculty advising loads
  • Engagement with equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging
  • Student outcomes
  • Institutional finances 

Departmental requests for admissions slots have sometimes placed considerable emphasis on fulfilling needs for teaching support. Of note, the GAGE committee recommends that departmental teaching needs not be considered when admissions slots are determined. Slots will be determined after dialogue with departments and in consultation with Harvard Griffin GSAS, divisional deans, and the FAS dean. 

A staged implementation of the GAGE recommendations will begin in fall 2023. GSAS is invested in supporting programs to create and improve structures, as necessary, in order to meet the expectations laid out in this report. GSAS, from its place within the FAS, will work closely with the divisional deans, the FAS dean, and other administrative partners as an implementation plan is developed. 

A clear message arose from the GAGE process and the increasing competitiveness seen during this admissions season among peer institutions: The threat to Harvard’s preeminence in graduate education is real and sustained, and it requires urgent action. Taking measures to ensure that students receive the guidance they need to successfully complete their academic programs is one important step to take. The other equally important step is money: the best education and reputation in the world is no longer enough to attract the most promising students. Harvard must increase its financial support or risk being left behind.

GAGE Working Group Members

Emma Dench, Chair, Dean of Harvard Griffin GSAS, McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History and of the Classics

Allen Aloise, ex officio, Dean for Administration and Finance, Harvard Griffin GSAS

Noël Bisson, ex officio, Dean for Academic Programs, Harvard Griffin GSAS

Verena Conley, Long-Term Visiting Professor of Comparative Literature and of Romance Languages and Literatures

Bob Coughlin, ex officio, Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid, Harvard Griffin GSAS

Victoria D’Souza, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology • Ryan Enos, Professor of Government

Ann Hall, ex officio, Chief of Staff, Harvard Griffin GSAS

Elizabeth Lunbeck, Professor of the History of Science in Residence; Chair of the Department of the History of Science

Catherine McKenna, Margaret Brooks Robinson Professor of Celtic Languages and Literatures; Chair of the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures

Kay Kaufman Shelemay, G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and Professor of African and African American Studies

Peter Girguis, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology

Matthew Liebmann, Peabody Professor of American Archeology and Ethnology

Sheila Thomas, ex officio, Dean for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging and Special Projects Advisor, Harvard Griffin GSAS

 

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