By Dianna Douglas
Photo by Robert Kozloff

By reflecting on our pedagogy we are better teachers and more aware of the value of the education that we’re giving our students.”
—Brandon Cline
PhD candidate in humanities

When graduate student Brandon Cline stepped out in front of a room full of undergraduates to teach his first class, he had plenty of help. Fellow graduate students had already guided him in setting clear goals and vetted his syllabus. They helped him develop effective homework assignments. They videotaped him in front of his class, and offered suggestions for improving his command of the room.

Cline, a PhD candidate who has since won a teaching award from UChicago, benefited from the mentoring of teaching consultants at the Center for Teaching and Learning, just one part of a growing system of support resources for graduate students at the University.

Over the last six years, the University of Chicago has invested heavily in improving the graduate student experience. At the recommendation of faculty, the University has increased financial support through several channels, helped students navigate the research and writing process, offered greater career support services, and expanded training in pedagogy. At the same time, the University is providing new family and social support services.   

Expanded aid advances research

Since the announcement of the Graduate Aid Initiative in 2007, UChicago has eased the financial burden of graduate school through $50 million in new aid. It now offers larger stipends, increased pay for teaching, expanded health insurance coverage, and summer funding packages.

“Our entire intellectual community is improved when our graduate students leave the University without debt and prepared for excellent careers,” says Deborah Nelson, deputy provost for graduate education.

Graduate Student Affairs, the group within the provost’s office that has created a full suite of support services for graduate students, also helps students with practical money matters like taxes and financial aid. This year they launched financial management courses.

“The Graduate Aid Initiative has ensured that UChicago students have the financial resources they need to focus on their research,” Nelson says.

Mentoring develops craft of teaching

Helping graduate students become great teachers has become a priority across many levels of the University—departments, academic divisions, and professional schools have developed or expanded their teaching and mentoring programs in recent years.

While Cline, MDiv ’03, AM'10, pursues his PhD in the New Testament and Early Christian Literature, he has turned his initial experiences with the Center for Teaching and Learning into a larger commitment to pedagogy. He works as one of 20 teaching consultants at the center who help graduate students design their courses and sharpen their teaching skills. He goes into classrooms, where graduate students are teaching everything from chemistry to music to the Hebrew Bible, and gives them feedback.

Don’t be afraid to tell students to close their laptops, he has offered. Use the whiteboard. Make the homework assignments relevant to your students’ lives. Let your questions hang in the air.

For him, taking the time to think about his own teaching philosophy and his pedagogical style was an “awakening as a teacher.”

Last year he helped develop a teaching program for the Divinity School. Called the Craft of Teaching in the Academic Study of Religion program, it gives students the opportunity to study pedagogy and to earn a certificate that demonstrates their preparedness to teach religion.

“Graduate students who demonstrate teaching competency are better prepared for a tight job market,” he says. “But more than that, by reflecting on our pedagogy we are better teachers and more aware of the value of the education that we’re giving our students.”

The University plans to make a substantial new investment in the teaching programs, to expand the capacity to benefit more students and to engage more deeply with students across the spectrum of disciplines.

In the future, Nelson says, graduate students will have access not only to the current programs, but to a broad and ambitious array of new opportunities, including career development, broader exposure to new teaching technologies, and enhanced training for international students.

Nelson says she expects to make several significant announcements about these programs in months to come.

A smoother journey through graduate school

Outside the classroom, Graduate Student Affairs has taken a multi-pronged approach to helping students progress toward timely degree completion and translate their degrees into successful careers.

This year they’ve hosted more of the popular Dissertation Write-Ins, for example, which jumpstart the writing process for participants.

GSA now sponsors computational literacy workshops, full of advice for using computers more effectively for research, data management, and testing.

The office also hosts the “Expose Yourself” series, gatherings that give students the opportunity to share their research with fellow graduate students from outside of their departments, an exercise in public speaking and in the elevator pitch.

“The Expose Yourself series has led to beautiful cross-pollination, as non-specialists learn about the research being conducted around the University,” Nelson says.

The office invests heavily in helping graduate students apply for and secure awards that advance their research, from Fulbrights and NSF graduate fellowships to travel grants that allow students to present at professional academic conferences.  

Life outside labs and libraries

This year the GSA launched a Graduate Innovation Grant that lets students develop programs and services for each other during this important stage of their careers. Operating under the assumption that graduate students know their own needs best, the grants have been awarded for ideas that encourage academic progress and personal growth.

In its inaugural year, seven grants worth $100 to $5,000 have supported a workshop on specialized graphic design, a retreat for women of color, and a new website for the Chicago Art Journal, among many other projects.

And, for students who are also parents, GSA has created a Family Resource Center, a bright playroom in Ida Noyes that hosts parties, activities, play dates, and child care cooperatives.

Kristin Pomykala, a master’s student in Divinity and a mother, says that she and many other “parents and babysitters bring the kids to the FRC for classes,” including yoga, Spanish, Mandarin, crafts, and ballet.

The playroom in the Family Resource Center offers a place for socialization, which Pomykala sees as a benefit “primarily for the children, but to a certain extent, the parents and other caregivers as well.”

Careers in higher education and beyond

Graduate students now have many ways to plan for successful careers across a wide range of industries—including business, non-profits, the academy, and government, among others.

“Professional development and academic research are not contradictory,” says Meredith Daw, executive director for Career Advancement. “They are mutually enhancing skill sets.”

This year, Career Advancement has expanded their Employer Treks program and the UChicago Careers In … programs to include graduate students. These popular and successful programs have helped graduate students explore the spectrum of careers that are open to them.

Throughout the Industry Associates Series, for example, employers now come to campus to recruit students in all of the biological sciences.

“UChicago graduates find successful careers in many different industries, and many employers outside of the traditional paths are looking for their skills,” Daw says.

Graduate students are also mentored in professionalization and career planning by alumni. At this year’s GradUCon conference, dozens of alumni offered practical advice on transitioning into the workforce to the hundreds of graduate students who attended. Among the topics they discussed: resume writing, negotiating salaries and benefits, working at startups, and preparing for technical interviews.

While acknowledging the practical value of developing excellent professional skills, Cline says the most profound message to graduate students from the University’s focus on their success, especially in teaching, is that the work that they generate matters far beyond academia.  

“Mindful teachers develop critical thinking, persuasive writing, self-reflection, and empathy in their students,” he says. “These habits of mind are an education for life.”  

Originally published on August 26, 2013.