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Driving force in graduate studies
Martha Crago sees McGill's efforts in graduate studies as a 10-year-old rust-spotted Toyota Camry. She wants to convert it into a well-marketed, supercharged Volvo Turbo -- good in the snow, excellent rep, and exciting.
PHOTO: Owen Egan
As the newly proclaimed dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies, Crago is now in the driver's seat and revving the engine.
McGill used to have only one senior administrator covering both the research and graduate studies beats. Those areas grew sufficiently, Crago says, and required slightly different skill sets, that each warranted its own dean. She's convinced McGill could easily become the top university in Canada for graduate education and postdoctoral research, and be in the top 10-25 in North America.
Crago's no neophyte to the beat. She's also associate vice-principal (teaching programs) and served as interim dean for two years. So she knows the issues.
The biggest one ahead? Funding. "Everyone says that graduate students are changing the landscape," Crago says, "but they're not given all the resources they need."
Money is going around, however. Canada Foundation for Innovation grants and Canada Research Chairs are providing the University with infrastructure and top researchers.
"We're given lots of resources, but not for graduate students," Crago says. And they're the ones who carry out the daily work that keeps research labs humming with activity.
The University of Toronto's recent commitment to fully fund all of its graduate students has made heads snap all across the country. McGill's goal of attracting some of the finest young minds in the land just got tougher.
Crago believes that a research-intensive university like McGill has to give graduate students pride of place. Despite funding woes, most graduate programs have proven themselves to be hardy, holding up remarkably well. "We've suffered from a lack of funding, but still it endured."
One way to tackle this shortage of cash is to tighten the focus, enabling McGill to fund fewer students really well. Crago points out that "if we don't have the money, we lose top students" anyway.
A substantial amount of funding for graduate students comes from professors' grant money. Arts professors aren't used to needing lots of cash for their research, but Crago urges them to apply for money with an eye to funding their students.
Crago wants to see McGill take in only as many graduate students as it can provide for and supervise. Sometimes, departments take in as many bodies as they can find a spot for, without necessarily being able to give all of the money, support and supervision that graduate students deserve.
Every journey starts with a first step. This one starts with recruitment. After securing funds and fellowships, McGill should attend key international recruiting events, looking to Europe (moneyed graduate schools in the United States are tough to compete with, Crago reasons).
At the departmental level, some units at McGill are aggressive in attracting graduate students, Crago notes. Other departments need to learn how to do it.
"However, if good students are here but we can't give 'em a good ride," Crago warns, McGill could lose them. Excitement is key.
Crago wants to show what the University can offer. Providing cutting-edge interdisciplinary programs and creating new research centres is part of the package. Collaboration between disciplines is the future way of research in Canada -- students can only benefit from exposure to different scholarly approaches.
The Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada calls for universities to focus on full-spectrum science, Crago says. Health Canada, too, encourages the collision of ideas, inviting social scientists onto the research bandwagon.
Crago herself is part of one such effort -- the interdisciplinary graduate program in language acquisition that involves professors from psychology, linguistics, second language education and other disciplines.
Crago will foster "well-formulated programs and well-tuned supervision." All too often, students can fall through the cracks due to lack of support and supervision. Thanks to Crago, graduate students now evaluate their supervisors (anonymously) at the end of their work together. One aim is to create mandatory workshops for professors on the fine art of mentoring and supervision. Supervision must be strong and it must be caring, she insists. Also, students need to feel they belong to the department, not just to the individual professor.
Crago wants to help students keep their eyes on the finish line. "Ten years to finish a PhD is not a good thing," Crago says. Tracking annual progress on research can catch early signs that a student could be floundering. It's far easier to nip problems in the bud than after years of difficulties.
McGill's graduate students need more of a sense of community. There's already an ace in the hole. "Thomson House is great for social community," Crago says. The grad and post-doc students' house provides a private nook to shoot billiards, take salsa lessons and throw back pints of good local brew. She fondly remembers hanging out there when she was a graduate student at McGill.
She's pleased to have postdoctoral education in her title -- it sends a good message that postdoctoral students, too, are a source of pride for McGill. Roughly 300 are registered at McGill, and she wants to make sure they get fair treatment. Plans include improved communications via their web site and a handbook for postdoctoral students.
At the end of the road, Crago wants to see graduate students succeed. At the beginning of studies, roughly 70 percent plan to go into academia and 30 percent to something else; by graduation those figures reverse. How can McGill help its graduate students develop careers?
A graduate career counsellor is in the works, as is mentoring for academic careers and careers outside of the ivory tower. Shealso wants to see internships in place across different sectors and faculties.