Graduate School: Strategic Plan

Strategic Initiaves: Graduate Programs

Goal: Place one quarter of our graduate programs in the top quartile of the National Research Council rankings of Ph.D. granting programs in 10 years.


Notre Dame's graduate programs are relatively modest in scale and primarily focused on the Ph.D. and terminal degrees. In Arts & Letters, Engineering, and Science, Notre Dame offers Ph.D. degrees in 23 programs, and an additional 19 Master's degrees beyond those coupled to Ph.D. programs. Following a 10-year low in 1998, enrollment rebounded to its 10-year high of 1634 in 2002. Of those, 73% were seeking the Ph.D. degree, 37% were women, 33% were international students, and 14% of domestic students were from traditionally underrepresented groups. The reputation of Notre Dame's graduate programs lags those of aspirational peers within the AAU. As measured by the National Research Council survey of graduate programs, by 1992, the majority of Notre Dame's Ph.D. programs found a place in the second quartile of all ranked programs.

Table 1: 1992 NRC Graduate Faculty Rankings for Selected Institutions
School Students PHd Programs % of Depts. Ranked in the:
Total Grad Total Surveyed Top Qtr 2nd Qtr 3rd Qtr 4th Qtr
Yale 10,945 4,380 57 24 79% 13% 4% 4%
Princeton 6,564 1,913 46 27 93% 7% 0% 0%
Brown 7,593 1,388 42 23 48% 43% 9% 0%
Emory 9,958 2,727 32 15 20% 67% 13% 0%
Rice 4,251 1,446 29 20 25% 45% 25% 5%
Georgetown 12,075 2,977 20 10 0% 40% 50% 10%
Notre Dame 10,126 1,616 22 18 6% 67% 6% 21%
ND 1982 -- -- -- 16 6% 31% 38% 25%

Graduate enrollment has not kept pace with peers or with the growth in faculty positions. In a benchmark comparison, in 2001 Notre Dame had 2.4 graduate students per T&R faculty member compared to 3.2 at peer institutions, and compared to 2.7 at Notre Dame in 1993. The low and declining student-to-faculty ratio means fewer graduate assistants are available to support faculty research or, in smaller departments, maintain the 'critical mass' of students necessary for a vibrant intellectual climate. In those departments witnessing substantial growth in external research support, there is a commensurate demand for students to fulfill the research obligations. These pressures to increase the size of individual graduate programs must be balanced against the resources required to recruit and retain students of the highest caliber, and a responsible assessment of the job market.

Distinctive aspects of our graduate programs are evident from other benchmarking comparisons. Among these are moderate attrition as compared to peer institutions (35% for the Ph.D. degree), a low time to degree (6.4 years compared to an average of 8+ years among peers), and a higher proportion of students with 12 month support. These positive aspects of Notre Dame's graduate programs are an existing foundation on which to build a compelling proposition for prospective graduate students.

In 1993, only 6% of our incoming graduate student cohort came from underrepresented groups; in 2002, 14% of our incoming domestic students were from under-represented groups. Targeted recruiting with the assistance of minority fellowships and summer research fellowships has attracted some of these students. In many cases, they have also won more lucrative and prestigious University fellowships. The greatest strides have been in the recruitment of Hispanic students, which has accelerated since the establishment of the Institute for Latino Studies. As demonstrated in Table 2, one troubling aspect is a recent decline in underrepresented students among incoming students, which needs further study.

Minority students are represented least in the College of Engineering, where in 2001 they made up 3% of the total number of incoming students (i.e., 3 students out of 96 incoming). In the College of Science, they represented 7.5% of the total number of incoming students (i.e., 7 out of 91 students). In the College of Arts and Letters, minority students made up 17% of the total number of incoming students, with the highest percentages occurring in English (30%, or 7 out of 23), Romance Languages (27%, or 3 out of 11), History (25%, or 2 out of 8), Music (25%, or 2 out of 8), and Political Science (23%, or 3 out of 13).

Table 2: Quality Measures of Incoming Graduate Students at Notre Dame
1993 1998 2000 2001 2002
UG GPA 3.49 3.63 3.54 3.57 3.63
GRE (VQA) 1875 1979 1883 1894 2020
% From top UG Schools 42% 31% 37% 40% 39%
US Students From Underrepresented Groups 7% 18% 19% 17% 14%

Applications rebounded from a 10-year low of 2893 in 1999 to a 10-year high of 3706 in 2001, equaling the number of applications received by selected peer departments that same year. Applications continued to climb; 4060 were received for 2001-2002 academic year. GPA and GRE scores increased between 1993 and 2001. About 40% of our graduate students come from top-tier national universities or liberal arts colleges. Presidential, Luce, Schmidt, and other honorific fellowships have been essential in recruiting the most highly talented graduate students.

The University also supports, primarily through research grants, an additional 177 post-doctoral appointments and 137 visiting scholars. In some disciplines, especially the biological and chemical sciences, postdoctoral experience has become an essentially mandatory credential to pursue a tenure track academic position. In a recent survey, 85% of biochemists reported having held a post-doctoral position for an average of 3.8 years. In the humanities, postdoctoral appointments have proven to be an effective mechanism for enhancing the success of highly talented graduates in the academic job market. For these individuals, the postdoctoral experience has become the new terminal degree.


Initiative 1: New and More Competitive Support for Graduate Students

Modest growth in the graduate programs will be necessary to support a productive and competitive research climate, and to make up for an alarming decline in the ratio of graduate students to teaching and research faculty. To maintain a healthy balance between graduate, professional, and undergraduate programs, the Graduate School seeks to raise graduate enrollment by from about 1600 to 2000 students over the next 10 years. The growth will be conditioned on continued improvement in measures of student quality and quality placement. Priority will be given to programs seeking to compete in the top quartile of the NRC rankings, can leverage external research support, and which demonstrate an ability to recruit and place the highest quality students.

A few disciplines will require special attention as we plan for moderate growth in the graduate programs. Among these are the human life sciences, more specifically cell and molecular biology, biochemistry, and bioengineering. Notre Dame has a large and growing group of faculty participating in these areas, and the success of their programs is critical to the University's long-term academic vitality in Science and Engineering. The biosciences will figure prominently in the strategic plans for these Colleges. For similar reasons, it will be necessary to plan for strategic growth in areas allied with information technologies, broadly construed, materials science, the environment, and neuroscience.

Within the College of Arts & Letters, several departments and disciplines have realistic opportunities to gain a position in the top quartile of the National Research Council rankings. These include Philosophy, Theology, Political Science, History, and English. The strategic plan of the College will identify candidate departments, and the Graduate School will seek to support the College in these efforts by providing additional graduate student support.

Assuming that two out of three new students will be supported by external research awards, and the need to improve the competitiveness of our most prestigious fellowships, the Graduate School seeks an endowment to fully fund 12 month fellowships for 120 new graduate students over ten years. The estimated cost is $3M per year, which can reached by adding on $300,000 in each of ten years to current stipend support.

Initiative 2: Graduate Student Health Insurance

The Graduate School has been involved in student health insurance questions for more than a decade. Ten years ago, the issue was the high cost of University-sponsored insurance for spouses and children. The issue today is the inadequate level of policy benefits and the need to provide a subsidy for students (as opposed to families) for the much higher premium an adequate policy would entail. The issue is driven primarily by the fact that many peer institutions subsidize insurance for students at a high level. Notre Dame is at a competitive disadvantage when trying to recruit top students.

An initial subsidy of 25% subsidy could be provided to all Graduate School students who purchase the University policy for $256,000 per year. To be competitive with other institutions, this will need to grow to a 75% subsidy over the next five years to an estimated cost of about $800,000 year.

Initiative 3: Increase the proportion of students from underrepresented groups in incoming classes to at least 20%.

While there has been meaningful progress over the past decade, unexploited opportunities remain to further increase the proportion of underrepresented groups in the Graduate School. The GEM program, which provides fellowships to graduate students from underrepresented groups in science and engineering, and housed at Notre Dame since its founding over 25 years ago, has produced over 2000 alumni of graduate programs around the Nation but less than a handful at Notre Dame. Similarly, Notre Dame has been home to the McNair Scholars Program, which targets first generation college goers and underrepresented groups to consider graduate school, yields few applications to Notre Dame. This initiative will be supported through growth in the new and existing fellowship endowments.

Initiative 4: Promote High-Quality Degree Related Placement

The mission of the Graduate School includes the education of highly capable research scholars. A key measure of success is the placement of Ph.D. graduates into leading institutions, and their eventual career growth to leadership positions. The preparation of these scholars extends beyond traditional academic apprenticeship in a discipline. Be it teaching experience, publication support, writing practice, or developing interview skills, the Graduate School must invest in programs to provide our graduates with the critical skills necessary to compete in an increasingly competitive academic and professional marketplace. For this purpose, the Graduate School seeks $120,000 per year of University support.

Initiative 5: Postdoctoral Fellowships

The Graduate should encourage and coordinate postdoctoral appointments funded on research grants in relevant disciplines. In addition, the Graduate School should provide additional funding for an elite program of 'teaching postdocs' to foster top-rank academic placement.

Initiative 6: Selective Development of Professional Master's Degrees

A number of prestigious universities are now developing sophisticated professional master's degree programs. While there are variations on the theme, a professional master's degree is typically designed as a two- or three-year terminal graduate degree preparing post-baccalaureate students for the non-academic job market. In 1997-99, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation began an initiative to spur development of professional master's degree programs in science and mathematics. This resulted in new two-year programs at a number of Carnegie Research I Universities with degrees in fields like computational molecular biology/bioinformatics, chemistry, environmental science, financial engineering, and others. The National Science Foundation subsequently supported new programs in mathematics. A number of universities have independently started programs in fields ranging from engineering and science to communications. Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, and Rice offer representative examples. Professional master's programs usually offer only limited financial aid, and therefore are a source of revenue for these institutions.

Given the over-riding goal of building the quality of the doctoral programs and the research infrastructure at the University, the large-scale development of new professional master's degree programs must generally be given a lower priority. Still, there may be departments or special circumstances that warrant development of specialized programs. The feasibility of any new program would depend on a recovery of revenues to the originating department in order to provide appropriate facilities and incentives.

Strategic Initiatives: Fostering Research

©2002 University of Notre Dame
Last Modified: Apr 18, 2007