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Dean's blog: Mason graduate students take science to the next level

Dean's lunch attendees

Did you know there are more than 11,000 graduate students at Mason? Last week, I had the opportunity to interact with many of our science-focused graduate students on the Fairfax and SciTech campuses during our ScienceConnect events. I also attended a Graduate and Professional Student Association (GAPSA) organized luncheon to learn why some of these students chose to embark on a graduate education, and how they are connecting and performing research in our current COVID-19 state. The faculty and administrators who attended also shared suggestions to build their networks and to make the most of their time at Mason.

More than one in four students in our college currently pursue graduate studies or are actively engaged in research at the graduate level to further their professional development and improve their income potential. With 10 accelerated masters, 14 graduate masters, 13 graduate certificates, and 11 graduate PhD fields of study, there are plenty of robust and challenging options for the 1,053 graduate students within our College of Science community.

What are they studying?

Our most popular science graduate programs at Mason right now are in the health, climate and data sectors, with the largest programs currently in Geography and Geoinformation Science, School of Systems Biology, and Computational and Data Sciences. Our professional science masters programs like bioinformatics management are extremely popular as well. To meet growing demand, we also just expanded our accelerated master’s offerings and introduced new graduate programs in climate dynamics. And Mason’s graduate science programs are also well established and highly regarded in conservation, physics and astronomy, mathematics, and chemistry where exciting and impactful research continues to occur.

According to the recent US Census, “about 13.1% of Americans have a Master’s, Professional Degree, or Doctorate (up from 8.6% in 2000). Since 2000, the number of people age 25 and over whose highest degree was a master’s has doubled to 21 million. The number of doctoral degree holders has more than doubled to 4.5 million.”

When you look at the numbers nationally, given the current state of our world, it’s no surprise that health and medicine fields top the charts of doctoral degrees given; also very popular are biological, biomedical, and physical science and mathematics, and science technologies.

But how can our graduate students stand out and differentiate themselves? According to Harvard Business review, “many employers complain that even the best performing graduates will need to learn the most relevant job skills such as leadership and self-management after they start their jobs.” And they need to build their professional network.

Dean's lunch

That’s where our faculty and staff, partners, and diverse cohorts can make a huge difference. The students I met last week talked about how much they valued interacting with our faculty. Thank you to the 50+ faculty and staff who took time to attend and bring their classes to ScienceConnect to strengthen relationships outside of the classrooms and labs; to get to know each other. The students at the luncheon said that is what they want. With more than 750 students attending the events, it’s clear they are starving for the ‘water cooler’ interactions of our pre-COVID past.

Forgive my attempted anatomy analogy—if our faculty and staff are the bones of our science community, our graduate students are the muscles and ligaments holding us together, serving as teaching assistants, tutors, mentors, and active researchers in our labs and in the field, in addition to their own studies. We need to keep challenging them as well as getting to know them as individuals, helping them discover their scientific professional directions, and build their networks.

For many, graduate school launched their careers and changed their professional trajectory. In my case, graduate school solidified the analytical and quantitative skills that I have used to work on problems crossing several disciplines. My own background is in engineering, but in my professional career of nearly 30 years after graduate school, I have worked and led research projects dealing with climate, ecological, health and social sciences. Moreover, I have seen many of my classmates in graduate school taking very different paths, from starting companies, to working in the banking industry, and holding positions in government and non-governmental organizations, most driven by the knowledge and experience gained through graduate school.

The decision to attend graduate school is not made lightly. Rather, these students chose to work with the best people, high-end technical equipment, and partners to invest in themselves and their futures. 

Let’s make sure our students get more than just a qualification. We must help them hone their professional and people skills to forge strong connections with their cohort and within our Mason Science community. As we challenge them to contribute to the global scientific knowledge base with their exceptional research or educational pursuits, let’s also inspire them to step up or dive in. Encourage them to participate in our programs and organizations and meaningfully recognize them as they lead initiatives to improve our world. As we do, let’s also be sure to take a moment to listen and thank them for all they do for us.