Recruiting and Supporting Graduate Students

Students working with Terry Jordan

By Erin Philipson

Cornell’s Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EAS) has been making a concerted effort to recruit a larger and more diverse pool of applicants for both the geological and atmospheric sciences graduate fields. 

EAS has made large strides – doubling the number of applicants and tripling the number of students eligible for diversity fellowships. Of students who were admitted, the percentage of those that chose to come to Cornell was also higher than in past years. Not only was the applicant pool much larger than previous years, but the quality of those applicants was as high as it’s ever been.

“I have been reviewing graduate applications for 17 years at Cornell and the pool of applicants in 2021 was as strong as I have seen it,” says Matthew Pritchard, director of graduate studies for geological sciences. “There are many more well-qualified applicants than we can accept.”

The application committee has made a few notable changes to the review process – the largest of which was dropping the GRE requirement, becoming part of a national trend in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences to eliminate the GRE to promote equity and inclusion in the field. Research continues to show that the GRE is not an accurate predictor of graduate school success and scores are commonly misinterpreted or misused in the admissions process.

The application committee has adopted a new holistic review of applications that focuses on more than just grades and test scores – but instead reviews all aspects of an applicant’s educational career including academic preparation, research experiences, communication skills, leadership experience, outreach, and more. While it’s important to look at what applicants have done, it’s also important to look at what types of opportunities they had or didn’t have.  The committee looks for the potential in a student to be successful in graduate school.

The department has also been involved in college-wide efforts to better recruit and retain diverse students. Pritchard helped plan two recruiting events, the first, a virtual event that encouraged students to apply to graduate school, and the second, an event for admitted minority engineering students.

The first event was modeled after an initiative already happening at Cornell University in the life sciences, called Life Sciences Diversity Recruitment Weekend. The new virtual event focused on the physical sciences and detailed what’s involved in the application process and gave prospective students the opportunity to ask questions.

The second event was created to show the students – who have yet to make their enrollment decisions – that there is an existing support network of diverse students and programs at Cornell and within the College of Engineering. 

“From a smaller department perspective, like our own, it's important to have an event at the college level that creates a sense of belonging for underrepresented minority students,” says Pritchard. “We wanted to show students that they are not alone and help them recognize that they are part of a larger community at Cornell.” 

In addition to recruiting a larger and more diverse applicant pool, EAS has also been working to better mentor and support graduate students when they get to Cornell.

Matthew Pritchard and Toby Ault, the former director of graduate studies for atmospheric sciences, collaborated with the Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (IDEEAS) working group to determine how students could be better supported by the department and their faculty advisors. IDEEAS, a group of students, staff and faculty in the department, is working to promote a more visible and equity-focused culture in EAS.

Both Pritchard and Ault worked with IDEEAS to develop a shared expectation agreement, which is completed by the student and their advisor upon arrival at Cornell. The agreement facilitates critical conversations about how the student and advisor can work best together. The agreement was implemented as a weekly assignment in EAS 6920: How to Succeed in Graduate School and Beyond, taught by Natalie Mahowald, the Irving Porter Church Professor of Engineering and new director of graduate studies for atmospheric sciences.

The How to Succeed course is focused on three main goals; building professional skills, such as proposal writing or giving talks, building a feeling of cohort among students, and making sure that students develop good time management and work/life balance skills that will last their lifetime.  

“We developed this course with the graduate students, listening to their wants and needs, and it evolves in time, as we find out what the students need more of, for example, under COVID we talked about what challenges we were facing working from home, and how we met those challenges,” says Mahowald.

The Shared Expectation Agreements go over basic work-place information, such as how many hours the faculty expects the student work, how many conferences or workshops the student can expect to attend, and how many papers and when the student is expected to write.  Many of these items are obvious information that needs to be shared in any work environment, but aren’t always explicitly discussed in graduate school, and thus this agreement makes sure that the conversations between faculty and student are had at the beginning of the time, to facilitate a better understanding between faculty and student.

“We want all of our students to work hard and produce excellent science, but also be happy and feel supported,” says Mahowald.

A series of other initiatives have been implemented in EAS 6920, a course designed to best prepare graduate students for success both during the pursuit of their graduate degree and in future careers. Mahowald introduced a peer mentoring program this year, where students were paired with other students or postdocs, and can share best practices and other helpful advice. COVID made it hard for students to find casual moments to ask advice, and this mentoring program supplied one way to learn from others and feel more connected to the whole community. 

Other topics covered in EAS 6920 include individual development plans for developing critical professional and technical skills, mental health resources, specifics on how to write a scientific paper, how give a talk and an elevator pitch, ethical decision making and more.

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