A Vision for Graduate Education

Published in the November 7, 2018 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Sarah-Jane Leslie *07 was named dean of the Graduate School in January. She brings to this role an exemplary record as both a marvelous scholar and an adept administrator. I have invited Dean Leslie to share her priorities for graduate education at Princeton. — C.L.E.

This fall marked my first opportunity as dean to welcome a new cohort of graduate students. It was not just an important duty; it was a deep pleasure, reminded as I was of my own years as a graduate student at Princeton.

Dean of the Graduate School Sarah-Jane Leslie *07

Our incoming graduate students hail from all over the world, from various backgrounds and life paths. They are drawn to Princeton by the dreams of creating new knowledge and deepening our collective culture. They are inspired by the prospect of expanding the very boundaries of what we know. Like each cohort before them, they will inject new life into Princeton’s scholarly mission.

Our returning graduate students and graduate alumni manifest this same passion for discovery and exemplify Princeton’s unparalleled commitment to excellence. So many examples come to mind; let me mention just a few. Tracy Reuter, who has been actively involved in Princeton’s first-generation/ low-income (FLI) student community, is a Ph.D. student in the Princeton Baby Lab, where she is researching how infants’ brains enable them to perform the seemingly miraculous task of acquiring language within a few short years. Graduate alumnus Yogesh Goyal *17, who grew up in a mountainous region of India, was recently named an inaugural Schmidt Science Fellow for his work spanning chemical and biological engineering, molecular biology, and genomics. Then there is Wintor Scott, who began his undergraduate studies at Austin Community College before transferring to the University of Texas, Austin, where he fell in love with classics. He taught himself Ancient Greek and Latin; at Princeton, he is now mastering Sanskrit as he prepares to write an interdisciplinary dissertation.

Our graduate students are marvelous, so what exactly does a dean do, given such marvelous students? One part of my task involves setting out a vision for the Graduate School, a vision that supports our students’ quest for knowledge, thereby advancing the mission of the University as a whole. Through ongoing conversations with our remarkable faculty, staff, students, and alumni, my priorities are taking shape around three key themes: diversity, professional development, and centrality.

The continued excellence of graduate education at Princeton depends on an ongoing commitment to diversity. ndeed, the University’s strategic framework, adopted by the Board of Trustees in January 2016, reaffirms that only if we draw talent from all nations and all backgrounds can we sustain the unsurpassed quality of teaching and research on our campus.

At the Graduate School, we’re especially delighted by the vibrant diversity our new students bring to campus. In this cohort, over 40 percent are international students, joining us from 46 different countries. Among our incoming domestic students, 20 percent are from racial or ethnic backgrounds that have historically been underrepresented in the academy. Furthermore, almost 30 percent of our new domestic students are either the first in their families to attend college or have made their way here from low-income backgrounds.

Of course, our students need to flourish not only at Princeton but also beyond. One of my major priorities is to ensure that all our students — both Ph.D. and master’s degree students — feel equipped to explore the full range of rewarding career possibilities that lie before them.

All too often, doctoral education is seen as simply providing the specialist training needed to become a faculty member. The training of future research leaders and talented teachers is central to the mission of the Graduate School, but the view that doctoral work is only about training future members of the academy fundamentally undervalues the Ph.D. While many of our Ph.D. alumni go on to pursue careers in academia, an almost equal number are making spectacular contributions across a dazzling range of careers, spanning government, industry, nonprofits, the arts, finance, and myriad other areas. With crucial and generous support from Graduate Annual Giving, we have begun to enhance professional development opportunities to ensure that our graduate students have the resources to explore and prepare themselves for such diverse careers.

Finally, I will advocate strongly for the centrality of graduate education in Princeton’s ongoing mission. Ensuring that graduate students are pivotal in new and developing University initiatives will be crucial to this aspiration.

For example, as Princeton seeks to advance teaching and research through partnerships that span academia, government, industry, and nonprofit sectors, graduate student involvement in this innovation ecosystem will be invaluable. Here I am reminded of students like Alexandra Werth in electrical engineering. In her dissertation work, Alexandra is developing a non-invasive glucose sensor, using mid-infrared laser spectroscopy. Alexandra hopes to see her graduate work evolve into a marketable product that will improve people’s lives.

The Graduate School is an engine of innovation whose impact extends far beyond the boundaries of our campus. Today’s graduate students are accelerating discovery and expanding knowledge in ways that will enable us to better serve humanity. It is this broad sense of purpose that inspires my work as dean, as it inspires the efforts of so many colleagues across campus, to build an even brighter future for graduate education at Princeton.


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