Research is foundational for Virginia Tech students. As a land grant university, research constitutes a third of Virginia Tech’s tripartite mission and is deeply integrated into the education and outreach missions.

At the Board of Visitors’ Academic, Research, and Student Affairs Committee meeting on June 7, members heard about the importance of graduate students to the university’s research mission and – in turn – the centrality of research to graduate education.

“Research is integral to education and training throughout the higher ed continuum – from undergraduate experiential learning via research to the development of scholarship and expertise as graduate student to the establishment as independent researcher as postdoctoral scholar,” Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation Dan Sui said to the committee. “As a destination for talent, Virginia Tech values its graduate students as a critical part of the core engine of the research enterprise and a key contributor to our national and international reputation.”

Research integrated into graduate education is deemed essential by federal agencies with sponsors increasingly requiring graduate training and mentorship plans in proposals.

During the session, Virginia Tech’s Dean of the Graduate School Aimée Surprenant led a panel discussion with graduate students, demonstrating their importance to the enterprises’ scientific productivity. “These are our future leaders, researchers, policymakers, and scholars who create policy, opportunities, and solutions for humanity through study, contemplation, and knowledge creation,” said Surprenant as she introduced the four graduate students to the committee.

What makes graduate studies unique from undergraduate education is that they don't just learn more depth in their areas of scholarly interest, but they also generate new knowledge, Surprenant said.

The graduate student panel emphasized that Virginia Tech’s research reputation and communities of faculty working in cutting-edge research areas of interest to them are what attracted them to the university. Each, pleasantly surprised by the resources available to support their research, teaching, and professional development, provided feedback to the committee.

“While in my undergraduate at Georgia, I met many students and faculty from Virginia Tech as they were so present in the community,” said Kayla Alward, doctoral student in dairy science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). “I chose Virginia Tech because it has a long-standing history as a world leader in agriculture research, specifically dairy cattle research. I also found a great Virginia Tech mentor who was a perfect match for my ambitions.”

Alward also discussed how she felt supported by the resources available to students interested in teaching. “CALS offers a graduate teaching scholars’ program that has provided me the ability to take courses that help me to become a better teacher, and to conduct pedagogy research.”

Steph Cooke, doctoral student in marriage and family therapy in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, said she selected Virginia Tech for grad school because she was drawn to the research interests of faculty in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, but also the common interests of several faculty at Virginia Tech. “I was also interested in the mentorship available here – I wanted to have a mentor who shares my identity, and was able to find that,” she said.

Aidan Bradley, doctoral student in biomedical engineering and mechanics in the College of Engineering, shared that one of his favorite experiences as an undergraduate student “was study abroad, which I didn’t think I’d be able to do during my graduate studies. But through an international research grant I was awarded by the National Science Foundation, I was able to join a faculty member on a trip to China to study bats in caves.”

Resources widely available for students is what geosciences doctoral student Leonard Ohenhen said made the difference for his research. “When I was working on my master's at another university, I had a difficult time finding a data repository. Within my first semester at Virginia Tech, I found I could email my data to a repository, and there was more than one resource available."

Although the students recounted many positive aspects of their experiences at Virginia Tech, they did articulate some challenges, mainly focused on funding and work-life balance. Current stipends often do not cover costs, so students are required to borrow money or work extra hours to make ends meet. In addition, balancing the demands of research, teaching, and professional development activities is a difficult task and can lead to long hours in the lab or classroom.

Currently celebrating its sesquicentennial, Virginia Tech’s original mandate as a land-grant university was to focus on agriculture and the mechanical arts and for decades was known primarily for agricultural research and engineering. Now, students have comprehensive research options due to the transdisciplinary research portfolio, which includes and intersects with the arts, health sciences, quantum, artificial intelligence, and security, among other focus areas and initiatives.

Written by Lidsey Haugh