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Graduate experience provides focus and purpose

* Students increase her productivity

Jill McCluskey is an associate professor at WSU Pullman in the School of Economic Sciences, College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences.

“Graduate students make you more productive rather than less productive,” said McCluskey, who is chair of graduate studies for the School of Economic Sciences.

The key, she said, is recruiting good graduate students who — with some guidance — can extend your own research interests.

This fall SES admitted a freshman class of 19 doctoral students with an average GRE score of 745 out of 800. Such a large, capable class enables the school to offer more fieldwork courses, she said, and it also creates a synergy among the doctoral students, who look to each other for support.

McCluskey, who mentors five graduate students, said she finds out early if her students intend to pursue an academic career or one in industry, and then she helps them set appropriate goals and a schedule for obtaining their terminal degree.

“My expectation is four years,” she said, and most of her students meet that expectation. Another expectation is that students will have articles published or in review before they go on the job market. Co-authoring publications obviously benefits both faculty member and student, and so does working together on grant applications. SES offers financial incentives to encourage graduate students to assist with writing grants.

Another expectation is that students planning to pursue academic careers send out job applications the fall before they expect to graduate. That increases the incentive to get finished on schedule, she said, and students can get on with their careers.

To help make the graduate school phase as smooth as possible, McCluskey suggests that, along with setting goals and a timetable for reaching them, faculty members set up regular meetings with their graduate students.

“Expect them to bring something with them that they’ve done, and discuss that,” she said, so your meeting has focus and purpose.

McCluskey said the first year she mentored a graduate student she spent a great deal of time with her and it was a very productive relationship. Early in her career that was time well spent, she said, but now it isn’t necessary and wouldn’t be so productive.

“I’ve learned how to do it better so that I can be a little more efficient,” she said.

* There’s value in learning from students

Amy Wharton is a professor of sociology and the Director of the College of Liberal Arts at WSU Vancouver.

Wharton mentored graduate students in Pullman for 13 years before moving to WSU Vancouver. Though she has taken on the responsibilities of director of the College of Liberal Arts, she continues to make time to mentor graduate students. Three of her graduate students are based in Pullman and one is in Vancouver.

Mentoring is always a challenge, she said, but “doing it long distance is even harder.”

Still, she can’t imagine not doing it.

“Every student I’ve worked with I’ve learned something from,” she said. “It’s just so valuable, I can’t see how someone wouldn’t want to do it.”

But there are limits. Wharton cautioned against agreeing to chair too many graduate advisory committees, or too few.

“It is very time-consuming work, and faculty have to be able to balance their advising role with all of their other responsibilities,” she said.

Wharton said she has been fortunate to have graduate students who can work independently, but also ask for help when they need it — the kind who call to say, “I just want to run this by you.”

Part of the art of advising is knowing your graduate students well enough to know when to step in and when to step back, she said.

“You don’t want to hold their hands too much, but you don’t want to just let them drift, either.”

And, she said, sometimes graduate students need to struggle and flounder a bit as they grapple with new ideas, just as all researchers do.

“You need to refrain from saying, ‘Here, this is what you really need to do,’” she said.

Wharton said her own graduate adviser tended to be fairly hands-off, which has influenced her own decision to be more involved in her students’ work. But, she said, what works for one student might not work with another, and figuring out how to best work with different personalities, interests and work styles is an ongoing process.

“There definitely isn’t one right way,” she said.

* Shared research doubles the progress

<Tim Kohler is a Regents professor of anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts at WSU Pullman.

The graduate education program in anthropology is bursting at the seams, Kohler said, but he isn’t complaining. Well, not really.

“Most of us are operating at over capacity,” he said, but it has been that way in his department for a very long time, and he and his colleagues take pride in their alumni. Among working archeologists, WSU alums are a formidable presence, Kohler said, despite the relatively small department. While he doesn’t have recent statistics, a survey from a decade ago showed WSU ranked third in its production of working archeologists with masters degrees and seenth In Its production of archeologists with doctorates.

In spring 2006, Kohler was working with eight postgraduates; about half were pursuing masters degrees and half doctorates. One graduated in late spring and two others will complete their work this fall.

“That really is too many,” he said and laughed, but it seems to be working for him and for his students.

Part of that success, he said, is that the strength of his department allows him to recruit great graduate students, and they tend to pursue research interests that fit well with his own interests.

“If their research is your research, it doesn’t seem quite so costly,” he said. “You’re moving forward on two fronts.”

If a faculty member perceives graduate students are a time-and-energy-drain, he said, perhaps the faculty member needs to take a step back.

“You shouldn’t have to be looking over (a grad student’s) shoulder every minute,” he said. “Maybe (the faculty member is) trying to take too much possession of that student’s research.”

Kohler is a big advocate of publishing with his grad students; he writes one or two articles with his students every year.

Still, there is no easy answer for where to find the time for everything that needs to be done.

“I don’t know what the secret is,” he said.

* You have to go with the ebb and flow

Brian Lamb, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and College of Architecture and Engineering at WSU Pullman.

“You probably can’t do it all well all of the time,” Lamb admitted and smiled, easing back in his chair in his Dana Hall office. But if you enjoy your work, it’s a lot easier to live with the ebb and flow of demands created by grant deadlines, teaching schedules, advising responsibilities and research projects.

“You just have to be excited about what you are doing,” he said. “I like to do research; I like to teach; I like to work with graduate students.”
Lamb said that for him, research is usually the first among equals, and his graduate students help invigorate and extend his research.

“Some students drop by every day with a questionÉ telling me what they are doing, and I actually like that,” he said. Additionally, he schedules a weekly group meeting and half-hour private meetings with all six of his advisees.

While Lamb tends to be very accessible, if questions arise when he isn’t around, there is usually someone else who can help.

“We encourage a team atmosphere,” Lamb said of his colleagues at the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research. “We foster the attitude that if someone has a problem, he can ask anyone for help.”

Lamb’s colleagues at LAR are Candis Claiborn, Tom Jobson, George Mount, Shelley Pressley, Brian Rumburg, Joseph Vaughan and Hal Westberg. They are mentoring 18 graduate students and about an equal number of undergraduate research assistants. “The whole group is involved,” Lamb said.

During his first four or five years at WSU, Lamb mentored only one or two graduate students at a time, he said, but he was able to step it up after that.“You have to develop an understanding of what’s important and what’s not important,” he said. “Other than just doing it, I don’t know how you get that.”

* Popular field, so 35 grad students!

Martha Cottam, professor of Political Science in the College of Liberal Arts at WSU Pullman


This isn’t a misprint: In 2006 Martha Cottam served on more than 35 graduate advisory committees and chaired 28.

“It’s a tremendous number of students,” Cottam said, and smiled. “The areas I’m in are very popular right now” and have been since 9/11.

An expert in political psychology and international politics, Cottam said she and colleague Thomas Preston are loathe to turn down any requests from graduate students interested in those fields or the rise of terrorism.

“If we don’t say yes, there is no one else for them to work with,” she said.

Cottam said she does not have a rigid schedule for meeting with students, but “usually I don’t have to search them out.”

Because they are part of a large group, her students understand that they need to work independently and be fairly self-monitoring.

Students who leave campus to finish their dissertations sometimes fall behind, she said, but as long as students are on campus they seem to be able to get what they need from her and from each other. “They form a nice community,” she said.

And, Cottam said, it’s a two-way street. “Absolutely,” she said. “No question that students have raised questions that have intrigued me and pushed my research in a new direction.”

In addition to meeting with her and other members of their committee, students also are encouraged to participate in interdisciplinary interest groups.

“It really is crucial for keeping WSU at the forefront of where universities are going É well, where knowledge is going,” she said.

While former and current students have been essential in recruiting new graduate students, Cottam said the department website also has been instrumental.

It includes a detailed description of the department’s philosophy regarding graduate education, required core courses, preliminary examination fields and other detailed information about the department’s strengths.

While part of her motivation for taking on such a huge load is to help graduate students, Cottam said she also feels strongly that her students can go out and make a difference — in academia, but also in government work.

“I want them to go out and be critical thinkers,” she said.

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