GPSS Communications: Sally Pratt is the Vice Provost for Graduate Programs. You’re probably wondering what that means exactly. Sally oversees the USC Graduate School, which has administrative responsibility for all of the university’s Ph.D. programs and some selected master’s programs.
We at GPSS had the opportunity to sit down with Sally and ask her question about graduate students' concerns at USC - she was more than happy and generous enough to answer.
A report by Times Higher Education’s ranking has recently been published that ranked USC as the 55th university in the world. Caltech was number 1, and UCLA was lucky number 13. What do you think about this ranking? How can USC improve this?
|There are so many factors taken into consideration when those rankings are devised. For instance, UCLA has a few Nobel Prize winners. UC Berkeley has about 22. That can, for obvious reasons, boost a reputation. USC has only one. Actually, the provost has just hired a second Nobel Prize winner! Also, the provost has issued initiatives to hire transformational faculty who energize the whole department. USC performs a broad national and international search for hiring new high-ranking faculty members.||
"The provost has just hired a second Nobel Prize winner!"
What is the status of the Dornsife donation? What is USC’s plan for spending this donation?
The money goes to the Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. There are meetings for faculty and students to discuss options. But ultimately the dean of the college will work with the provost and president to determine where that money will go, and how it will be used. My believe is that some it will go to faculty and some of it will go towards scholarships.
PhD students with have a lot of financial problems. What are the sources of financial aids for them?
TA-ship, RA-ship and scholarships are the three main vehicles for graduate student funding. If we have transformational hires, they tend to be people who come with a whole lot of grant funding, which means more RA-ships. That’s one of those things where the hiring and the graduate support is, typically, closely linked.
If we hire someone in an unfunded field, such as the humanities, we may provide them with funding as part of the startup package. The part that I have some control over is that I encourage certain deans to use funding to support PhD programs. We have what’s called the “provost block grant” process. We collect data from the schools regarding student progress, this includes: the quality of the last couple of years of incoming classes, how are current students chugging through the program, and then the ultimate measure is, placement. The gold standard is, of course, wonderful tenure track jobs in research universities. Placement is the proof in the pudding of any graduate program. We look at that and then the provost office supplies a certain amount of funding to help out with the PhD programs.
|As one of my goals, I would like to build more fellowships, and also encourage schools to consider more fellowships for advanced students. I would like to see more fellowship funding going to people who didn’t come in with the fancy funding. We do see students who come in and they blossom. And we think, yes, they have the fire in the belly, they are going to do this thing! Whatever the thing is! The graduate school has a small number of endowed fellowships. I would really like to find a way to increase that number. They are typically for students who have passed qual’s and screening exams; I call them “quasi-endowed fellowships”. The other thing I’m trying to expand is I’ve been able to hold some funding for what I call final year dissertation fellowships for all but dissertation students, and the student, advisor, and the dean of the school all sign off on the fact that this is the last year of the student.||
"I would like to see more fellowship funding going to people who didn’t come in with the fancy funding."
Are there other ways for PhD students to find out if there are more fellowships?
We send out a memo to vice deans and vice deans and academic advisors every year, it’s also on the graduate school website.
Are there any rules or guidelines about how to fund PhD students? For example, some student advisor runs out of money, and the student – if lucky – has to work on other subjects as RA-ship which are totally unrelated to his/her final dissertations. There are other students that TA for multiple classes so much that they cannot work on their schoolwork.
|If an advisor runs out of money, typically the school will help with some bridge funding, especially, if the faculty is a productive scientist. The 25% and 50% TA/RA-ships are regulated by the number of hours worked. In case of TAs, the hours worked are very clear. RA-ships, however, are murkier because sometimes it really does perfectly overlap the dissertation but sometimes it doesn’t. We work very hard to ensure there isn’t some kind of exploitation. The 50% work cannot be more than 20 hours a week. The idea is that if you do the TA work, it can take up to 20 hours, but it should not be taking more than that. If it is, student should talk to the adviser and if that is awkward, the student can come talk to the graduate student advocates in this office, or they can talk to me. In general, it is very important to us (and USC as a whole) that students have time to study. If you hear of people having difficulties, doing it in that time span, my answer is to talk to the faculty member.||
"The 50% work cannot be more than 20 hours a week. The idea is that if you do the TA work, it can take up to 20 hours [a week], but it should not be taking more than that."
How about voluntary work and directed research? We have heard of some cases in which students volunteer to work for faculty members, or as part of a one or two unit directed research with the hope of getting RA/TA-ships in future, but they end up working long hours without payment and the RA/TA-ships never happen.
Well, if it’s voluntary, it is voluntary. If the university becomes involved, it would be awkward, and if it works well, it’s to everybody’s advantage. But if it fails, the student is in bad shape. However, 20 hours a week for a limited number of directed research units seems like a lot of work.One would question that correlation. It would be something to look at.
One last question: there was a rumor that a new rule would modify the maximum number of years a PhD student can stay at school, and that after 8 years, they would have to retake some courses again. Is this true?
The policy is stated on page 86 of the USC catalogue. I am not aware of new policies in this regards. Based on the old basic rule about progress to the degree, your program has to certify that you are making good progress to that degree.
Anything else you want to add at the end?
Some good news: We have had troubles with health insurance. Students were going to the health center and discovering their names were not on the list. We have taken some steps to remedy that.
Also, there are some other improvements in process. For example, filing a dissertation - which currently looks like the most horrendous process one can imagine. There is input from GPSS and the graduate student advocates on those things.
Also, I really think GPSS is doing wonderful things and I hope GPSS will continue. The travel funding is just terrific. I always talk about that!
"I really think GPSS is doing wonderful things and I hope GPSS will continue. The travel funding is just terrific. I always talk about that!"
Thank you very much!
Interviewers: Arash Saifhashemi
Transcribed by: Cassandra Sutton
Edited by: Giselle Rodrigues and Arash Saifhashemi