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CAS Statement on Graduate Education

Graduate education can be mysterious.  Friends and family don’t always understand what people in graduate school are actually doing. “Why do you need to take more classes?”  “What does writing a thesis or dissertation have to do with anything in the real world?”  “When are you going to get a real job?”  These questions from personal acquaintances have long plagued students pursuing a graduate education – but when the public at large fails to appreciate the value of graduate education, the possibility that government action will limit access to a graduate degree looms as a threat. 

The Department of Communication Arts and Science unequivocally celebrates graduate students as vital to the mission of our department, our college, and our university.  We further recognize that graduate students – as students, instructors, researchers, and citizens with advanced degrees in the arts and sciences of communication – contribute to the good of our state and society.  Graduate students exist at the intersection of the university’s undergraduate mission and its commitment to research and the advancement of knowledge.

Consider, first, what graduate students make possible for undergraduate education.  They independently teach classes offered by the research university; as a result, undergraduates benefit from more numerous and smaller class sizes.  Graduate students relate especially well to students who are learning a content area for the first time, because graduate students are closer to the initial learning experience than most faculty.  Graduate students are an innovative presence in undergraduate education; they bring new ideas and modes of pedagogy into the classroom.  Graduate students support faculty in large lecture courses, making it possible to design assignments and discussion activities that would be impossible otherwise.

Graduate students also are integral to the research mission of universities; they support and inspire faculty research, while, at the same time, they are developing into independent scholars in their own right.  Graduate students are focused on mastering contemporary ways of knowing, whether in the humanities or the social sciences.  Their emphasis on cutting edge theories, methods, and questions challenge faculty to expand and reconsider their own research agendas.   Graduate students publish their own research and thereby contribute to the discipline and their university’s reputation.   Great research and a great research university owe a debt of gratitude to the aspirations and abilities of graduate students.

Finally, graduate education transforms students who commit to the task of intellectual discovery.  Entering graduate school does not represent an avoidance of work; rather, it is a rigorous and admirable process of professional development.  Graduate students learn how to become experts in their field and leaders in higher education.  Overcoming the gauntlet of intellectual obstacles – from building an idea and defending it to developing the discipline necessary to pursue a substantial research agenda – fosters fortitude, resilience, and humility.  Research suggests that a graduate degree may lead to higher earnings and career advancement, but often the most significant benefit involves personal transformation and development.  

Graduate education is not an option for everyone; the selection criteria are demanding.  In 2012, the College of the Liberal Arts at the Pennsylvania State University enrolled only 5.5% of the applicants to its graduate programs.  The opportunity to pursue a graduate education is based on a careful review of each applicant’s past academic achievements and their potential as teachers, researchers, and citizens of a rigorous intellectual community.  When economic circumstances and taxation policies threaten to limit graduate education to a subset of our society, education suffers, the advancement of knowledge suffers, and our society suffers.  For this reason, the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences remains committed to a rigorous and equitable admissions process, to a demanding program of study, and to the highest standards of excellence.  These commitments exist alongside an equal commitment to the moral and intellectual health of our entire society.  When a first-generation college student forgoes graduate study because of its cost; when a student of any ethnic or national identity forgoes graduate study because they feel unwelcome; when a student of any gender or sexual orientation forgoes graduate study because of fear of harassment, then everyone’s future is limited. 

We support equitable access to education, for graduate students in all of their complexity and diversity, because we aim for an unbounded future.