In late spring of 2019, a group of faculty members, staff, and graduate students from across Virginia Tech’s colleges received this charge from Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke and Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education Karen P. DePauw: Conduct a comparative analysis of Virginia Tech’s research-based graduate education programs relative to peer land-grant universities across the nation and draft recommendations for further enhancement.

For the next year, the Graduate Education Task Force (GETF) sifted through reams of data, surveyed peer institutions, held forums with graduate students, and tested key hypotheses. Their recently released report offers findings regarding comparisons of Virginia Tech’s graduate programs to those of other institutions, and recommendations aimed at further improving excellence, while addressing shortcomings.

“I’m thankful to the members of the Graduate Education Task Force for their work to prepare a very thorough and data driven report,” said DePauw. “Their recommendations will help focus the university’s commitment to graduate education and achieve our goals.”

Graduate School Associate Dean and task force chair Kevin Edgar said the task force distilled their focus into two major questions: how to help raise the stature of Virginia Tech through graduate research and education; and how to raise the quality of that education and improve the educational experiences of graduate students.

Edgar said rankings factor into a wide range of decisions, including those of prospective students to attend Virginia Tech. Graduate students who worked with the task force concurred. One said, “I suggest that VT set goals that are aspirational; not settling for being equivalent to peer land-grants, but with the most excellent land-grant universities.”

To that end the task force compared Virginia Tech to the land-grant institutions ranked above it in the 2020 World University Rankings (in which Virginia Tech ranked 15th among the 50 R1 land-grant universities), and also included North Carolina State University, its close neighbor.

“Virginia Tech is among the top land-grant institutions in the United States with regard to graduate education,” said Edgar. “This task force was charged with the mission of making assessments and recommendations so that we can provide even stronger graduate education for our students.”

The team highlighted a number of areas of significant strength for Virginia Tech in graduate education, including a commitment to diversity, a sense of community, interdisciplinary focus, professional development, and the transformative graduate education initiative launched by DePauw when she joined the university. Students in panel discussions suggested several improvements, such as enhancing mentorship of graduate students by faculty supervisors, better professional development, and improved, more affordable graduate student housing in Blacksburg.

The data revealed other opportunities for improvement, including a significant gap between Virginia Tech’s full-time graduate student enrollment and those at many peer land-grant institutions. Data revealed the university’s graduate enrollment is 55 percent of the average of those peer land-grant institutions, a continuation of a downward trend since 2016 in enrollment, applications, and yield. Its external research funding is significantly lower than that of peer institutions. While graduate students have voiced concern about the levels of assistantship stipends, the task force’s research showed that Virginia Tech is comparable to our land-grant peers with regard to average stipends, but there is room for improvement in some programs to increase competitiveness. The GETF recommended comparing program stipend rates to those of peer institutions annually.

The task force made more than 15 recommendations to enhance graduate education and address areas of improvement including adopting a hybrid recruitment model, with the Graduate School assisting departments and programs to strengthen recruiting efforts.

The task force also recommended expanding mentorship training to include all new assistant professors, implementing a Professional Development Graduate Certificate, making a concerted effort to solicit donations for endowed graduate fellowships, and implementing a modified version of candidacy status for doctoral students a year after they successfully complete their preliminary exams, reducing their costs and allowing departments and programs to increase the impact of external funding. The task force noted that such a move would help reduce the time to degree completion and encourage students to confront the hurdle of preliminary examinations sooner.

DePauw said some of the 15 recommendations can be addressed almost immediately, but others will take longer.

“We have reviewed these recommendations and are already moving forward on candidacy status, stipend data dashboards, mentorship training programs, and a professional development graduate certificate,” DePauw said.

Edgar has presented a summary of the findings to university leaders, including the Commission on Graduate and Professional Studies and Policies, the Graduate Program Directors, and the University Council.

“The Graduate Education Task Force has identified a number of opportunities for Virginia Tech to enhance its graduate programs and position itself as a globally-competitive and influential institution,” said Clarke. "We have created a strong foundation for graduate education at Virginia Tech and now must expand our vision and capacity to serve students to build new programs and partnerships. I am grateful for the efforts and commitment of the task force, and their focus on addressing the future needs of our graduate education community.”

Find the report here, along with a link to slides Edgar used in his presentations.