John Dalton

UT should pay close attention to responses to graduate housing survey

University Apartments houses many of the University’s graduate students and their families.
University Apartments houses many of the University’s graduate students and their families.

On Feb. 11 the Graduate Student Assembly sent out a housing survey to better serve graduate students and enhance their living experience. Questions include how many rooms in an apartment graduate students prefer, what do they think is a reasonable monthly rent per person and how far from campus they would be willing to live. Responses could lead to the construction of new graduate student housing.  

The survey was developed over the course of four weeks in conjunction with the GSA Housing Committee as well as John Dalton, the assistant dean of graduate studies.  

“It’s great GSA is getting so involved with this," Dalton said. "It is absolutely crucial to understand what graduate students like to have. It’s not just a place to go home to sleep but a place to actually live." 

So far GSA has received over 2,000 responses out of 11,000 graduate students in total. Brian Wilkey, president of GSA, told the Texan that they used different channels to distribute the survey. 

“So far we have used the graduate school’s Listserv, also sent things out through our graduate student assembly members and to our representatives to make sure they get the word out to their department,” Wilkey said. 

After collecting all the responses, the housing committee will analyze the data and present findings to the graduate school administrators. From there, Sasaki Associates, a University-contracted planning and design firm, will assess the feasibility of building graduate housing. Factors such as apartment capacity and the types of housing the school is able to build will be taken into consideration. 

“It would be great for different graduate students from different disciplines to have an opportunity to interact,” Dalton said.  

If a new housing project is given the green light by the University, UT could leverage housing benefits as a recruiting strategy against its peer institutions. While the possibility of offering every graduate student housing is slim, the Graduate School says it is open to new ideas to enhance the academic feel the students' living environment. 

“Someone had an idea of having a faculty in residence that could serve as a mentor to some graduate students," Dalton said. "I love that idea. I think that’s really unique for the graduate student population." 

Unfortunately, most current UT graduate students will not be able to enjoy new dedicated housing any time soon as the project is still very much in the preliminary stages. But the effort should not be stopped just because the numbers doesn’t work. For some graduate students, taking care of families and working at the same time as going to graduate school is nothing unusual, so the least UT can do is to try to support this group better by lessening their financial burden so they can succeed both academically as well as personally.  

The survey closes Tuesday at noon and can be filled out at https://acsurvey.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_9GE6kmCvTLEtY5D. 

Liu is an associate editor.

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Alex Marin Photography | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of Q-and-A’s with the deans of the University’s 18 schools and colleges. John Dalton was appointed assistant dean of graduate studies in 2006. Dean Judith Langlois was unavailable. This interview has been condensed to fit space requirements. 

 

The Daily Texan: Could you tell us about the graduate school’s goals?

 

John Dalton: Our main objective is to recruit and support the very best graduate students, and that means a lot of things. It means financial support; it means services for graduate students of all sorts. Two of the main things that we have been focusing on over the last couple of years, one of them is graduate student housing. We have a lot of graduate students on campus, and we don’t have a lot of opportunities for them to have housing either that is owned by the University or subsidized by the University. The other issue that we’ve moved the needle on, I think significantly, is career services for graduate students, particularly PhD students. If you’re a non-professional student, like if you’re an MBA student or at the LBJ school or even in engineering, your career services actually does a very good job of helping you facilitate interactions with potential employers, setting you up, but if you’re in a non-professional school, like the College of Liberal Arts or the College of Natural Sciences, two or three years ago, there just literally weren’t services for graduate students, and I didn’t know this until we did our climate study and one of the things that came back was we need more career services. 

 

DT: How are you planning on addressing the issue of low availability of graduate student housing?

 

Dalton: Most [graduate housing] is done on Lake Austin Boulevard... and the wait list is several hundred students long. There’s a large international student population there. There are a lot of families there. That’s also part of that Brackenridge track which is very valuable to the University. It’s part of the municipal golf course, so there are lots of conversations going on about what’s going to happen to that down the road. We have been working with the Graduate Student Assembly and various administrators and the president to talk about a new facility for graduate students, and we’re in the preliminary stages of that discussion, but it seems to be going really well. I think within the next six to nine months, the campus will see a proposal for a new facility, and we’re not sure of the location yet, but we’re focusing our efforts on east Austin. 

 

DT: Is it normal for a university to have one graduate school that encompasses all of the different graduate programs?

 

Dalton: The way our administrative structure is set up is very typical across the U.S…. Everything about the graduate student experience is very different than the undergraduate experience. The department makes [admissions decisions], and students become a part of that department. They work with individual faculty. Administratively, the graduate school supports and just oversees the different processes as graduate students move through their programs... We handle all the incoming [admission] applications and distribute those out to the programs to make those decisions and then we verify those decisions, and then at the end we certify the degree, but in the middle, there’s lots of things that happen. We handle everything from late registration petitions to grievances from graduate students who are having either employment issues or academic issues.

 

DT: What kinds of challenges does this type of structure pose?

 

Dalton: We have a very large student population: 12,000 students. The graduate school staff in the graduate school is about 30 staff. It’s a lot of services to provide with few staff. We count the graduate coordinators as an extension of our staff; there are over 100 of those, and they’re located in each of the departments. We couldn’t do our jobs without the graduate coordinators. One of the challenges is the diversity of needs. You can’t say something’s going to work for all graduate students. Very rarely will one solution work for everybody. So we’re always talking about the differences between the sciences and the humanities and trying to figure out what their needs are, even in career services, very different needs going into preparation for the job market... We’re getting ready, I think next fall, to engage in a series of conversations about graduate education, and we’re going to ask really basic questions like, “What is a dissertation?” We expect a different answer from every college and school.

 

DT: How are graduate student stipends looking?

 

Dalton: Stipends are really paramount in supporting graduate students. That is one of the key factors... It is one of the major factors students use in deciding where they are going to go for their graduate work. To get the very best students, you’ve got to have competitive stipends. Every college in the school has a different stipend amount. They range across the board, low to high, just depending on market forces, depending on the source of funds, so we are always thinking about how to find more money to support graduate students. The graduate school can do some of that. We can work on providing those stipends, but a lot of that money from the stipends comes from external to the University, so in the sciences and the STEM fields, most of that money that is paid to graduate research assistants, or GRA’s, comes from external sources like grants from the federal government. Faculty are getting those grants, and those students will be paid off of that grant and not out of the University coffers. We have lots of conversations with college deans about the levels of stipends. We’re always looking at our budgets and trying to figure out how we can increase stipends.

The Graduate Student Assembly is drafting a bill of rights requiring a baseline minimum stipend to help graduate students cope with the cost of living.

Currently, there is no baseline stipend set, but graduate students — who are employees of the University — are generally entitled to a tuition-reduction benefit. This benefit pays for part or all of the student’s tuition, according to John Dalton, assistant dean of graduate studies.

Graduate student teaching assistants, assistant instructors and some graduate research assistants qualify for the tuition-reduction benefits, as well as stipends.

Dalton said there is no standard amount employees can be paid because it varies between schools, departments and faculty members.

GSA President Columbia Mishra said in many cases the monthly stipends are below the poverty line for Travis County. According to a 2013 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty threshold for a single person under the age of 65 is an annual salary of $12,119. 

“A baseline minimum stipend can help the students cope with the cost of living and help reduce the financial stress associated with graduate school,” Mishra said.

Mishra said the first draft of the GSA bill of rights has about three dozen policy changes. 

Jaime Puente, GSA student affairs director and an author of the bill of rights, said the amount of tuition-reduction benefits has gone down in recent years. Puente said in his four years at the University he has had to pay about $400 every year.

The document also addresses graduate students working much more than the original limit of 20 hours.

The University’s conditions for student employment states no on-campus position, academic or non-academic, can exceed 20 hours per week during the first two long semesters and 30 hours during subsequent semesters. 

According to Puente, these work hours are not consistently regulated. 

“We’re getting paid this much for 20 hours a week when we actually have to work 30-40 hours a week on top of maintaining our status as graduate students,” Puente said.

Mishra said she hopes to sit down with university officials to review the draft in the near future.

Pathik Joshi, urban design graduate student and architecture teaching assistant, said he was surprised by the stipend he received compared to other graduate students. He said receives approximately $700 a month after taxes. According to Puente, graduate student employees in the architecture school are among the lowest paid teaching assistants at the University.

“There should be a baseline,” Joshi said. “$700 a month is not enough to pay the rent and live comfortably.”

The University is taking one digital step forward with its graduate career services this year by subscribing to a new program aiming to help students in the job search while in college.

Office of Graduate Studies assistant dean John Dalton said along with offering workshops for career services, UT has recently added a new program called the Versatile PhD program. The Versatile PhD program is an online career service that offers an online community for students to discuss issues and information and help students in humanities find jobs in non-academic fields.

In addition to the Versatile PhD program, the University is also adding career service workshops. The Versatile PhD program provides real-life examples of resumes, career biographies and panel discussions. The program specifically serves students who are not going into the academic field.

Dalton said that often, students start school with an academic career in mind, but this can change.

“Sometimes students get into their Ph.D. programs and realize they may want to do something else,” Dalton said. “When students make that career change, it is difficult sometimes to find the proper resources to help advise them and guide them into their new career choices.”

Paula Chambers, Versatile PhD program founder, said doctoral students often have trouble finding a job outside of academic fields.

Chambers said employers often perceive Ph.D. graduates as employees that may have poor social skills or bad group working skills. This makes it more difficult for students applying for jobs, she said.

“Many businesses are hesitant to hire [Ph.D. graduates], because they think a Ph.D. would prefer an academic job and will only stay until they get an academic job,” Chambers said. “There is a perception gap that the [Ph.D. graduates] have to overcome.”

She said another issue graduate students face is fear when they decide to transition from pursuing an academic career to a non-academic career. Chambers said students often feel pressure to pursue academic careers because those are regarded more highly by their peers. Because of this, admitting and deciding to pursue a non-academic career is often a scary thought.

The online community can help students facing these fear, she said.

The Versatile PhD program caters mostly to students studying humanities. Students, Chambers said, are normally underserved at their universities. Starting July 2013, Versatile PhD will begin to help students in the science, technology, engineering and math fields as well, she said.

Stacey Rudnick, director of MBA career management at the McCombs School of Business, said the business school has one of the top job placement rates in the nation. Last year, she said 93 percent of students had job offers three months after graduation.

Rudnick said online career service programs like Versatile PhD are good additions to career services.

“I see some aspects of job searching moving to online and web-based,” Rudnick said. “I don’t believe any of that is going to replace the need for in-person advising or the need for companies to meet one-on-one. It is important, but it can only go so far.”

Dalton said he recommends graduate students get started on their career search as soon as possible.

“Once you graduate, a lot of the University’s resources are no longer available to you,” Dalton said. “If you’re not thinking about a career ‘til the end of your degree process, you’re very late in the game.”

Chambers will visit UT Oct. 11 to speak about the Versatile PhD program.

Printed on Monday, October 1, 2012 as: UT subscribes to graduate career service

Graduate students who work as teaching assistants or assistant instructors are seeing a temporary increase in their tuition assistance benefits to cover last year’s permanent increase in their tuition.

Last week, the Graduate School sent an email to all TAs and AIs, informing them that students who work for more than 20 hours a week will see their semester tuition assistance increase from $3,784 to $4,000, which is about a 5.7 percent increase. Students who work more than 10 hours, but less than 19, will see their pay increase from $1,415 to $2,000, which is about a 6 percent increase. The increase brings tuition assistance benefits closer to the cost of tuition, which differs from college to college. Tuition for full-time graduate students enrolled for 9 hours residing in Texas attending the College of Liberal Arts is $4,040.

John Dalton, assistant dean of Graduate Studies, said the increase in graduate students’ tuition assistance benefits will help this year, but as it stands these increases will not be around next fall.

“We are happy we could do it, but we wish we could do it more,” Dalton said.

The UT System Board of Regents froze undergraduate tuition at the University this year, but graduate students face a 3.6 percent increase. Michael Redding, president of the Graduate Student Assembly and Texas Student Media contract employee, said it is important to keep the tuition assistance benefits close to the cost of tuition.

“With the regents raising tuition, it became very obvious that we were not competitive in our assistance,“ Redding said. “It fundamentally boils down to ‘Are we able to recruit good graduate students and are we able to retain them?’”

“The budget picture is uncertain — we can only guarantee this supplement to increase tuition assistant benefits for the 2012-2013 academic year,” Marvin Hackert, associate dean of Graduate Studies said. “However, we are always looking for funds to help support our graduate students.”

Hackert said the gap between the tuition for full-time graduate students with teaching jobs and their tuition benefits has increased in recent years. This one-time increase temporarily shortens the gap.

Dalton said the Graduate School is also working on making the tuition assistance benefits tax-free. Since the tuition assistance benefits first started in 1997, they have still been taxable.

“We are pleased to be able to move forward and remove some of that tax liability. Our hope is to be in place with that sometime next summer,” Dalton said. “Every student’s tax situation is different.”

Correction at 9:19 a.m. on September 12: This story was updated to show that the tuition for full-time enrolled graduate students in the College of Liberal Arts is $4,040.