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Stanford Report, March 11, 1998

The Graduate Fellowships' first year: 3/11/98

Grad fellowships opening doors to creative research


Jeffrey Koseff got on the phone as soon as he got the word: The department of civil and environmental engineering had won approval to offer the new Stanford Graduate Fellowships to seven of its top prospective doctoral students. As department chair, Koseff wanted to make sure they hadn't chosen another school. By nightfall, he had six under his wing.

At the same time last spring, over in electrical engineering, admissions committee chair Antony Fraser-Smith scored 21 fellows. He says they are "among the very best EE students in the world."

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You'd think it would be like rolling downhill for these Stanford departments to recruit the best. Ranked in the stratosphere for quality, they compete only with MIT, Caltech, Berkeley and a handful of other august peaks of excellence. But Koseff and Fraser-Smith say that until last year, the competition had been luring away top graduate student prospects with sweeter packages, more long-term support.

This year, they say, President Gerhard Casper's new Stanford Graduate Fellowships have trumped them all.

"This program has given the biggest boost in morale to the faculty in the 25 years I've been here," said Robert Simoni, professor of biological sciences and co-chair of the committee on graduate admissions for the biological sciences and the medical school.

Jeffrey Koseff, chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering, was able to offer new Stanford Graduate Fellowships to many of the department’s top prospects. Among the students who received Stanford Graduate Fellowships and/or joint National Science Foundation/SGF awards are, from left, Jerome Lynch, Michael MacWilliams, Anna Michalak, Matt Brennan, Katherine Fetterer and Matthew Reidenbach. Campuswide, 122 fellows work in 29 fields.

Linda Cicero

Why all the excitement?

Officially launched last April, the program will offer full support to 100-plus doctoral students each year, 300 at a time when it is fully operational. Each will receive three years of tuition plus an annual stipend of $16,000, with no strings attached, no requirement that the student teach to earn a living or choose a professor as mentor based on the availability of grant money. Unique for an individual institution, Stanford's program is the nation's largest in science and engineering that does not depend on federal funds.

It is reportedly being closely watched by competing universities, not only because its frank aim is to attract the very best doctoral students to Stanford. Casper chose graduate student support as the best way to tackle the problem of uncertain government support for research. The grants will aid not only these 300 fellows, but the professors and research groups with whom they work.

Enthusiastic observers like Nobel Laureate Steve Chu say that the fellowships will boost the type of research most endangered in uncertain times ­ inventive, interdisciplinary, inspired by the creative thinking of the students as well as their professors.

It was that potential that had Simoni grinning last week as he submitted nominations for the 1998-99 fellows. "This is the first truly tangible support for graduate education in many years," Simoni said. "What more could you ask than real money to support an enterprise that is central to our mission?"

With the first group of Stanford Graduate Fellows still working through their first-year classes, it is too soon to assess their progress. It already is clear, however, that the program will have an impact at Stanford, with variations among the participating departments and schools. Some of the effects will take years to play out, and not all are necessarily positive; some faculty are quietly on the lookout for signs that the fellows may need a little extra guidance to cope with the freedom that the grants provide. But the boost to students may turn out to be an even bigger boost to their mentors ­ especially to young faculty.

How to stretch $410 million

Overall, 122 graduate students in science, engineering and the social sciences began their fellowships in the 1997-98 academic year. In addition, the program raises the stipend of students who come to Stanford with three-year National Science Foundation or similar grants ­ nearly 100 this year. Of the students chosen as Stanford Graduate Fellows, 24 also earned national grants and are honored as joint fellows ­ among them two of the civil engineers who received those calls from Koseff, so that his department gained eight fellows in all. The majority of the fellows are new recruits, but 28 are second-year graduate students recognized for their exceptional promise.

In the School of Engineering alone, this raises the number of students with three-year support from a handful to almost one-third of an average class of Ph.D.s.

It all began with a conversation between Casper and former Secretary of State George Shultz, about how vulnerable universities are to the vagaries of federal funding. At Shultz's urging, Casper began to envision a capital campaign to reduce some of that uncertainty. But raising a practical amount of money ­ say, $200 million ­ would create only enough endowment to yield $10 million a year, a drop in the bucket for a university that takes in $390 million a year in federal research grants. Casper turned to faculty and deans, who persuaded him that the biggest bang for that 10 million bucks would come from spending it on graduate students.

Why does support for students resonate so well with the faculty?

"This is an educational institution," explained Dean of Research Charles Kruger, who took charge of architecture for the fellowship program once the president and provost had launched the campaign to support it. "Funding graduate students puts our priorities exactly where they ought to be."

Engineering Dean John Hennessy said, "The best graduate students bring in the best faculty. Graduate students are the key to creativity. If you look at our 25 top admits, each one has the potential to hit the ball out of the park. You want those people to be Stanford alumni. You want to add to their value. And without the fun of working with them, some of my faculty would just go to industry."

Ripple effect for research

Support for a graduate student frees research grant money for other purposes. There's the hope that it also will allow the fellows, their mentors and their lab-mates to produce better, more boundary-pushing research.

Benjamin Vakoc, a second-year doctoral student in applied physics, is working with Professor Emeritus Gordon Kino on an underwater fiber-optic acoustic sensor. Vakoc said his fellowship grant means the Kino lab has some money for other purposes, perhaps to buy some extra experimental equipment or to support another student. That support in turn allows the lab to go beyond the specific needs of the company that funded the original research grant. "We have a little more freedom in the direction we choose for the research. It allows us to feel more comfortable when we go out on a limb," Vakoc said.

"For young faculty, the benefit of these grants is extraordinary," Simoni said. "They come here knowing we have very good students, but the students have to be supported from research grants at the time [the faculty members] are struggling to get a program going." A fellowship may allow a professor to take on extra students, to speed up the research that will earn the next round of grants. "Since our collective futures are in the hands of our young colleagues, I think the benefits to all of us from helping them are disproportionate," Simoni said.

For many faculty, the best part of the fellowship program is that it supports some of the most vulnerable aspects of research funding. "We don't have to worry so much about keeping body and soul together for a graduate student every year," said Gail Mahood, chair of geological and environmental sciences.

Tom Wasow, associate dean of research for graduate policy, noted that most doctoral students take four years or more to complete their degree, longer than the time scale for shifts in the federal budget. Many grants now are renewed every year or two. The fellowships mean that mentors and departments don't have to patch together jobs and other sources of funding to support a student until his or her research project is well established.

The burden of student support is heavier this year because of a federal ruling on tuition remission that requires faculty to pay more of their students' tuition out of their research grants. "The fellowships are not the only response we have to make to take care of the problem of tuition remission," Wasow said. "But the ruling brought home how vulnerable we are to changes in federal policy. It was clear that over the long haul, we were going to have to reduce our dependence on federal money."

So far, the fellowships only cover sciences, engineering and those parts of the social sciences that depend on federal grants for student support. The reason, Wasow explained, is that university funds already are used to support graduate students in the humanities, partly by hiring them to serve as TAs. "President Casper has said that he wants to start a campaign to raise fellowship money in the humanities as well," Wasow said. "I hope he follows up on that."

Variety of uses

Every school and department feels the influence of the fellowships in slightly different ways. For the Schools of Engineering and Earth Sciences and many departments in Humanities and Sciences, the fellowship gives students a new flexibility: They need not rush in the first year to tie themselves to a professor with solid research funding. A student can explore the idea of an interdisciplinary project working with more than one lab and more than one department, or can work with a mentor on a project that may need an extra year to prove its worth to a funding agency.

Some faculty are concerned that this flexibility may turn out to be a burden: that students given the freedom to choose may end up delaying the start of work that leads to a doctoral thesis. One department chair who asked not to be named said, "We looked at some students who have come in with national fellowships in the past. They do very well, but some of them seem not to do as brilliantly as you would expect."

In the School of Education, where all doctoral students receive support for fees and living expenses, Associate Dean Denis Phillips said some faculty also had expressed this concern. "We're working on how we can monitor the educational quality of what the students are doing," he said.

Joseph Goodman, senior associate dean of engineering, said he doubted the problem would turn out to be serious: "These are highly motivated people," he said. And Carl Rhodes, associate dean for graduate education in the School of Medicine, said they already offer this flexibility to all their students because almost all have three years of support from federal training grants. There is a method for directing their energies: All are required to take rotations in three different laboratories to learn hands-on which projects and which research groups appeal to them.

In medicine and education, fellows do not receive much different treatment from other students, but the impact of their grants is still significant, Rhodes and Phillips said. In addition to easing the impact of tuition remission and other fluctuations in Washington support, the fellowship frees funds for labs and other scholars. In the medical school there is an added plus to not having to depend on National Institutes of Health training grants: Those funds are restricted to U.S. citizens. "Some of the very best, most sought-after students are not citizens," Rhodes said.

Another advantage that could become a concern involves teaching assistantships (TAs). The Stanford Graduate Fellowships relieve students from the need to work as TAs. In some departments, this means that their most articulate graduate students (the ones who do well on application forms) will not be available to teach. It also could mean that students miss an experience they will need when they move into academic jobs on their own. Most departments say students will be required or strongly encouraged to work as TAs, either on a volunteer basis or by taking a break from fellowship support.

The initial design for the graduate fellows program was established by Kruger and a faculty steering committee. It was a job that could have been daunting, said committee member James Spudich, professor of biochemistry. Instead it turned out to be a cooperative venture, thanks to the leadership and "tremendous energy" that Kruger put into the project. "With Charles' leadership, the highest standards were held throughout the process," Spudich said. "Where there were clearly unique needs in one program compared to another, everyone said of course that makes intellectual sense and we should do it. Everyone enjoyed devoting the time because of the obvious impact it was going to have on the university."

The program is administered by Pat Cook of the office of the Dean of Research. She says it has put new work on the desks of staff throughout the departments. "I can't say enough about my enthusiastic colleagues," she said. "Everyone has been immediately helpful and responsive to requests. Everyone is working very hard to see that the fellowships do exactly what they were envisioned to do: attract the very best graduate students in the world to Stanford."

Competing for the best

So far, $125 million has been raised of the total $200 million goal that Casper set when he announced the graduate fellows program in 1996. The first $100 million was put up by a core group of donors including Robert Bass, chairman of the Board of Trustees, and John Morgridge, chairman of the board of Cisco Systems, who calls the donation "an investment in the economic future of Silicon Valley."

A recently announced $1.5 million gift from Chevron Corp. is the latest toward the second $100 million. Each $300,000 grant is matched with $300,000 from the founding endowment to support a named fellowship; for example, there will be five Chevron Fellows in engineering and earth sciences.

As a recruitment tool, the fellowship program chalked up solid successes in its first year: 56 percent of students who were offered the grants chose Stanford over MIT, Caltech, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon and other rivals. Those figures varied by department and school; in medicine, for example, the federal training grants have somewhat muted the competition between Stanford and other top guns like Harvard and the University of California-San Francisco. Engineering ­ allocated nearly half the fellowships because of the number of its graduate students and the size of its dependence on federal grants ­ has seen immediate recruitment results, though the yields varied by department, according to Goodman.

The results were a real morale-booster in departments like electrical engineering. "For the first time we knew our offers to the leading students were at least equal to those from any other institution," Fraser-Smith said in a letter to Casper praising the fellowships. Goodman heard that Stanford's electrical engineers won every student who was offered both a Stanford Graduate Fellowship and a package from Caltech. But for a few top-ranked departments, like computer science, the main competition seemed to come from a hot job market in industry.

Some observers say Casper's idea will be widely copied; others doubt that many institutions will be able to raise enough endowment to support equivalent programs. The University of Wisconsin already has announced a fundraising campaign to support an almost-identical fellowship, and faculty at the University of California-Los Angeles recently invited Simoni to talk with administrators about the Stanford fellowships.

Steven Maberry, one of the civil engineering fellows recruited by Koseff, has his own perspective on the program. Maberry is returning for a doctoral degree after years of work as an engineer and a teacher of construction engineering. He said he and his wife were ready to pack up for Purdue, where he'd been offered a teaching assistantship as support toward a degree, when he heard he'd been accepted at Stanford. Koseff phoned the next day. "He said they'd offer me $16,000 plus tuition and fees. I said, 'And what do you want me to do in return?' He said, 'We want you to come here and do good research.' I said, 'Well, I was planning to do that anyway.' But it took me two months to believe that it was for real." SR