Ask, connect, smile, Graduate dean advises new students

Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard formally welcomed new students to the school at the Matriculation Ceremony held Aug. 21 in Sprague Memorial Hall.

It is my privilege to welcome to this festive matriculation ceremony our new graduate students working toward a master’s or doctoral degree, your families and friends. You are part of a glorious tradition that extends back 152 years to 1861, when Yale granted the first three Ph.D. degrees in the United States. …

Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard. (Photo by Harold Shapiro)

I like to start the year by asking you new students a question: Why are you here in graduate school? Take a few moments to think about your answer. When you have it, tell the person sitting by your side.

So, why are you here in graduate school? Of course, you have many answers. Our new master’s students are here for professional training in engineering, computer science, global affairs, and other fields that will help them build their careers.

I hope that each doctoral student is here to discover something important to advance your field, because the goal of the professional scholar is to create new knowledge. I want you to have the thrill of being the first person to make a key observation or connect the dots in your field in a novel way. You will look back on these eureka moments of discovery for years to come. I can still remember my exact location when each of our big discoveries came to light. For example, one evening while our young family was having dinner, postdoc Gehard Isenberg telephoned with his discovery of a lifetime. Amusingly, Gerhard was so excited that he could not talk, so I had to tell him to calm down and call back. Later during dessert, he called back to explain why he was justifiably so excited about what he had seen in the electron microscope. Another day, I was standing by the sink in our lab at Johns Hopkins Medical School when postdoc Mas Sato rushed up with a graph revealing how molecules in cells allow them to behave like silly putty. Remember silly putty? When deformed rapidly, it is elastic and bounces like a rubber ball, but when deformed slowly is can be formed into any shape. People had been trying to explain why cells have physical properties like silly putty for 150 years. Mas found the answer. If you are interested in the physics, I can explain how it works later.

The first step towards discovery is asking the right question, so invest serious time and effort in framing your question. Take a chance by asking a big question, since discovering a big answer will have more impact than a little answer. Ideally your discovery will have growth potential, so you can use it to build your career and drive knowledge in your field to a higher level. Thus framing a question with growth potential should be part of your strategic thinking as well.

In addition to this advice about finding a good question, let me make five more points.

1. Be grateful to those who have provided financial support to create this great university for all of us and to those special donors whose generosity supports our doctoral students. Over the past 15 years Yale invested dramatically in graduate education including five years of full financial support for doctoral students, improved benefits, and a strong student life program.

You may wonder where this money came from. The largest source of funds is income earned by the university’s endowment. We must be grateful to the generous donors of these endowed funds and the skillful managers, who have invested wisely to grow those funds over the years.

Special donors have had huge impacts. Yale College graduate Fred McDougal and his wife, Nancy Lauter, donated endowed funds that support the activities of our extraordinary McDougal Center, including our Student Life program, the Yale Teaching Center, the Writing Center, our Career Services Office, and our Diversity Office. Just two years ago Patricia and Peter Gruber gave the largest donation in the history of the Graduate School to support fellowships in perpetuity for 50 graduate students in the sciences. Think of it; their gift will still be supporting Gruber Fellows for centuries after we are all gone!

The second largest source of support for doctoral students is grants for research and training. Some come from private sources, but most come from the federal government. So we owe thanks to the often-maligned U.S. taxpayer, including most of the people in this room, for their support of our students. So, thanks to all of you.

2. Connect to your colleagues. This week you start building your professional connections. Your adviser and fellow graduate students are likely to be some of the most important people in your life outside your immediate family. The new friends sitting with you here today are the first pieces in a professional network that will grow and strengthen over the next five decades of your career. In spite of the hard work and inevitable setbacks, you will remember your years at Yale as some of the best and most valuable of your life.

3. Be part of the solution. Our graduate programs use every trick in the book to help their students succeed. However, we discovered three years ago that very few programs use all of these good practices. Over the past two years programs have implemented many of these proven practices, so we are pleased with the progress. Recent surveys of master’s and doctoral students revealed that most students were pleased with their education, but they also let us know where we have room for improvement. For example about one in five students desired more contact with their adviser and one in eight felt academically or socially isolated. You can help us correct these problems by encouraging your faculty to respond constructively to these student concerns. For example, in disciplines without a tradition of weekly research group meetings, students might encourage the faculty to organize regular opportunities for you to discuss your work with them and your colleagues as a group.

4. Connect to Yale. Take advantage of the riches that Yale has to offer outside your academic discipline. We all focus narrowly on our work and teaching, but it would be a shame to spend five or six years at Yale without absorbing some of the academic culture outside your field. So, don’t miss our two world-class art museums. Come back here to Sprague Hall, one of the best small music halls in the world. Throughout the year this hall is alive with musical performances by international stars and your fellow students. Come hear the chamber music series, piano series, jazz series, and choral groups. On many Saturday afternoons you can come here to see and hear HD broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in NYC. Never seen an opera? Well it’s time to get started, and you can do it here at no cost. Don’t miss performances by the graduate student orchestra and undergraduate student orchestra in Woolsey Hall next door. Check out the performances of students in the graduate opera program. A student entering with you this month may well turn out to be an international star. Nine years ago Tamara Mumford arrived here from Utah. Now millions around the world see her on the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts.

5. Be happy. These will be exciting times for each of you as you expand your knowledge, hone your skills, and have the thrill of discovery. But don’t forget to have fun and absorb some of Yale’s culture outside your field. One way to be happy is to smile and say hello to everyone you pass on campus. You will surprise lots of people with a cheery “hello.” Of course, this means that you will have to look up from your cellphone, but do so, smile and say hi. I look forward to seeing you and your smile around campus.

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