Graduate Program Data Based Decisions
At the direction of the Office of Research and Graduate Studies (ORGS), the Department of Biology undertook a comprehensive review of its four graduate programs in 2012. ORGS provided extensive data on program metrics, including surveys of student demographics, time to completion, financial support, and student satisfaction with the programs. On the basis of that review, the Department generated a five-year plan, which included benchmarks for assessing progress toward the goals of the plan. The department reviewed its progress toward the goals of the five-year plan in 2015, midway through the five-year period. This document reflects the results of that 2015 review, updated as possible with more recent data.
The Department sought to improve its four graduate programs through the following general actions:
- increase the size of its graduate programs (subject to the acquisition of additional funding) and the diversity of its student population;
- enhance its graduate programs’ global reach;
- enhance its already strong mentorship of students;
- enhance its web presence and tracking of student progress and productivity;
- seek additional sources of funding for stipends, graduate research, travel, and recruiting; and
- hire additional research faculty, whose extramural funding will support graduate students.
The Department of Biology has made substantial progress toward the attainment of these goals, as described below:
Increase the size of its graduate programs (subject to the acquisition of additional funding) and the diversity of its student population
Following several years of continued modest enrollment, the Department accepted a relatively large cohort of students for Fall 2016. This increase in student numbers was directly facilitated by an infusion of additional graduate stipend funding and tuition assistance during the past two years.
The Department has made important progress toward increasing diversity in its graduate programs. Special programs such as the Martin Luther King Fellowships and the Presidential Doctoral Research Fellowships, both of which are funded by ORGS, have been used to improve recruitment of members of groups underrepresented in the biological sciences. In addition, the Department has continued its efforts at minority recruitment through regular attendance at the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), and it was active in the establishment of a local chapter of that organization at USU. Nonetheless, the Department continues to attract only small numbers of applications from members of underrepresented groups.
Enhance its graduate programs’ global reach
The Department continues to accept strong international students into its graduate programs, but it has not made substantial gains in this area. The graduation of a relatively large cohort of international students several years ago offset the matriculation of new international students.
Enhance its already strong mentorship of students
Increased opportunities have been made available for students to receive training in skills critical for their future careers, both inside and outside academia. Students are strongly encouraged by faculty members to participate in graduate training programs and symposia offered by the ORGS, including the Research Scholars Certification Program, teaching-assistant training, grant-writing workshops, thesis/dissertation workshops, and Graduate Training Series (topics include data management and archiving, oral and written/graphic communication, career development). The Biology Graduate Student Organization (BGSA) also provides opportunities for the acquisition of leadership skills. We anticipate moving one or more new faculty into the teaching of BIOL 6750, Introduction to Graduate Study in Biology. The current instructor of that important course will be retiring in less than two years.
With the assistance of our faculty, several Biology graduate students have received significant grants and fellowships from federal funding sources during the past three years. These have included two East Asia and Pacific Summer Institute (EAPSI) fellowships, one Graduate Research Fellowship, and one Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, all of them from the National Science Foundation.
We have introduced important new graduate courses following the hiring of faculty members with expertise not previously available within the Department. These include, most notably, courses in Bayesian statistics and in advanced computer programming methods for biologists.
The Department continues to identify opportunities for doctoral candidates to offer courses of their own, to prepare them for faculty careers and to improve their competitiveness in the academic job market.
Enhance its web presence and tracking of student progress and productivity
The Department established new and more effective procedures for tracking students through their graduate program. A thorough review of current students several years ago led to the identification of individuals in need of special encouragement. An enhanced system for tracking student progress was implemented, which resulted in the rapid completion of nearly all students whose progress had previously slowed.
A newly designed database is in progress as of Fall 2016. That database will allow the Graduate Programs Directors to monitor more efficiently completion of program benchmarks by our graduate students, and it will also assist us in maintaining current data on student demographics and information on the employment of program alumni.
Seek additional sources of funding for stipends, graduate research, travel, and recruiting
With strong support from the College of Science, the Department has recently increased its stipends for Graduate Teaching Assistantships. It also has sought opportunities to increase the availability of scholarships, both for general graduate support and for specific purposes such as field travel. In addition, Biology is among a number of departments at USU whose faculty will be participating in a newly awarded National Science Foundation Research Traineeship program on climate adaptation.
Hire additional research faculty, whose extramural funding will support graduate students
Four new research faculty have been hired within the past several years, and several of those individuals have been successful in seeking extramural funding for the support of graduate students. At least one additional research faculty position is anticipated to be added to the Department, and several retirements are anticipated within the next few years. An ad hoc Long Range Planning Committee has made recommendations to the Department for new research areas that could be developed as retiring faculty members are replaced with new hires.
The Department also has encouraged new faculty to include several years of graduate support, in the form of Graduate Research Assistantships, to allow them to recruit new graduate students without competing with more senior faculty for institutional graduate funding.