Graduate education plays crucial role in society’s progress, interim dean says

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Graduate education is an investment in solutions for the future, said the Graduate School’s interim dean, and Penn State is making a major contribution.

Regina Vasilatos-Younken provided a snapshot of graduate education at Penn State to the Board of Trustees on Friday (Jan. 16). Interim dean since 2013, Vasilatos-Younken also is a professor of endocrine physiology and nutrition in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

“The impact of graduate students at a world-class research university like Penn State is immeasurable,” she said. “They support the research enterprise that contributes so much to driving economic development in the Commonwealth and extends to providing the future intellectual capital for research and development enterprises throughout the U.S. that assures we remain competitive in innovation and discovery. 

“Graduate students make important contributions to the instructional mission in undergraduate classrooms, and in many cases are recognized by our undergraduates as some of their best instructors,” she added. “Investing in their training assures we will have a high-caliber faculty for Penn State and other top universities for the future.”

The Graduate School’s mission “is to promote the highest-quality graduate education that prepares interdisciplinary leaders who advance knowledge and understanding, drive innovation, and contribute to the resolution of complex national and global problems to meet societal needs.”

In fall 2014, 12,373 graduate students were enrolled at Penn State; including 3,167 new students, according to Vasilatos-Younken. Of those students, 7,816 are residential and 4,557 are distance learners. The University offers 163 graduate majors, with programs at the University Park, Behrend, Harrisburg, Hershey and Great Valley campuses, in addition to the online World Campus. University Park conferred the most graduate degrees (1,847) in 2014, with 1,202 students receiving master’s degrees and 645 earning doctorates. The World Campus conferred 1,169 graduate degrees in 2014, all professional master’s degrees.

Vasilatos-Younken profiled for the board past and present Penn State graduate students, noting the accomplishments of those like Ann Hornschemeier and John Beieler. Hornschemeier earned a master of science degree and doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics, and is now the chief scientist for the Physics of the Cosmos program at NASA, monitoring the progress in research and technological development in high-energy astrophysics and cosmology. Beieler, a current doctoral student in political science and National Science Foundation-Integrative Graduate Education & Research Training Fellow, is researching how social and media-derived data can explain and forecast political conflicts.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.6 million job openings requiring an advanced degree are expected in the U.S. from 2010 to 2020, said Vasilatos-Younken. Of those openings, 1.7 million will require a doctorate or professional degree and 900,000 will require a master’s degree.

The annual Survey of Earned Doctorates ranked Penn State No. 12 among U.S. institutions with the most students receiving a research doctorate in 2013.

With more than $800 million in annual research expenditures at Penn State, Vasilatos-Younken said graduate education is critical in supporting the University’s research mission.

A major challenge, she said, is providing adequate support for graduate assistants. Competitive, multi-year stipend packages with affordable, quality health care coverage for our students are necessary to ensure that the best talent comes to Penn State and complete their degrees, she said. But increasingly limited funding and rising health care costs present challenges.

“What is probably the best-kept secret of all is that the research our graduate students conduct in their degree programs is in many cases groundbreaking in addressing a spectrum of societal needs from preventing/treating disease to developing clean, inexpensive and sustainable energy sources for the future,” Vasilatos-Younken said. “Graduate education is truly an investment in solutions for the future.”

Last Updated January 16, 2015