UVA Engineering Graduate Enrollment Surges

During the past year, UVA Engineering’s graduate program took a great leap forward. Enrollment jumped to more than 930 students in 2017 from 750 last year, while the quality of its incoming students stayed as high as ever.

“We are very proud of what we have achieved so far,” said Shannon Barker, the School’s director of graduate education. “We expect to see even greater progress as we spread the word about the tremendous educational opportunities we offer our graduate students.”

Recognizing that a thriving graduate program is key to the School’s future, Dean Craig Benson has made increasing the number, quality and diversity of the graduate student body a top priority of his administration. Graduate students play a fundamental role in the school’s research enterprise as well as in the education of its undergraduates, Barker said. In the laboratory, graduate students pursue the research agenda advanced by their faculty advisors. For undergraduates, they serve as role models, mentors and teachers.

As a result, recruiting a larger contingent of diverse, high-quality graduate students can significantly elevate an institution’s value and reputation.

“The higher the caliber of our graduate students, the more productive our research and the more our undergraduates gain from their four years with us,” Barker said. “Over time, having a vibrant graduate program sets in motion a virtuous cycle, enabling us to attract ever-more accomplished faculty and students.”

Funding Excellence

It is Barker and her team’s responsibility, with leadership from Benson and Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Maite Brandt-Pearce, to create an environment that will bring the very best graduate students to UVA Engineering - a charge that includes everything from recruitment and admissions to fundraising and programmatic development. The School is approaching the challenge from a number of different perspectives.

The first is to ensure that there are fellowships available for every promising candidate. In October 2016, UVA Engineering launched a $5 million Graduate Fellows Initiative, jumpstarting the program by allocating $2 million of its own funds for one-to-one matches for donations of $50,000 or more. For fall 2017, the School’s advancement team had secured $1.55 million in additional funds from alumni and friends, enabling it to create 34 new fellowships for incoming Ph.D. students.

Typically, graduate student support is built into faculty research grants, and, as a result, faculty members hesitate to recruit graduate students before a grant is approved. Thanks to the Graduate Fellows Initiative, faculty members can offer “safety-net” fellowships temporarily while waiting for their funding gap to close. The safety-net fellowships serve the dual role of ensuring that faculty members secure the most highly qualified students while preserving the continuity of their research programs.

The University has also helped bolster the School’s fellowship offerings. UVA Engineering applied for a Strategic Investment Fund grant from the University to increase the diversity of the graduate student body. In December 2016, the Board of Visitors awarded the School $6.4 million, which will be used to supplement the funding available to support a cohort of diverse graduate students.

Adding to the Value Proposition

Spurred on by the realization that most UVA doctoral students pursue nonacademic careers, Barker and her team have put together a comprehensive professional development program for graduate students. Barker feels that initiative will be another compelling inducement for prospective graduate students. “In addition to providing students with a superb technical foundation for their careers, we are making it possible for them to develop skills that are essential for success no matter what field they enter.”

This effort, known as the Knowledge Entrepreneur program, combines initiatives from around the University — such as the Darden School’s Start-up Academy and its iLab for new ventures — with Engineering School courses on innovation, research communication and ethics. As part of the program, the School has also launched a Graduate Writing Lab, which offers one-on-one consultation on grammar, structure and technical issues that students face as they produce journal articles and posters.

Casting a Wider Net

In the final analysis, the best doctoral candidates gravitate to an engineering school because of the excellence of its faculty. Over the last five years, UVA Engineering has recruited scores of new faculty members and launched a variety of cutting-edge interdisciplinary efforts in such areas as cyber-physical systems and multifunctional materials integration. It is the responsibility of Barker and the School’s Office of Communications to help get the word out about the School’s established and emerging areas of excellence as well as the additional fellowship support and professional development programs.

“We are being more strategic about recruiting,” Barker said. “Rather than rely on word of mouth, we are being more proactive and deliberate.”

Barker and her colleagues attend conferences and systematically follow up on prospects. They provide faculty members with information packets that they can distribute when they attend professional meetings. And the Office of Communications has launched a digital marketing campaign aimed at students at leading engineering schools and top historically black colleges and universities, as well as strategic international areas.

“Once students and faculty at other schools begin to appreciate the changes that are underway here and the opportunities we have to offer, I think the quality and diversity of our applicants will naturally grow,” she said.