Total Graduate Enrollment Surges, Quality and Diversity Increase

When it comes to growing its graduate program, the University of Virginia's School of Engineering & Applied Science is No. 1 in the country.

Among the top-40 U.S. engineering schools, as ranked in U.S. News & World Report's annual list of best graduate engineering schools, UVA Engineering has the highest rate of growth in Ph.D. student enrollment for the past four years. UVA Engineering's compound annual Ph.D. growth rate is 6.5 percent from 2013-2017, and 12.4 percent from 2015-2017. The schools with the next-highest Ph.D. enrollment growth were Johns Hopkins University with 10.4 percent growth from 2015-2017, and Cornell University with 7.2 percent growth in the same time period.

UVA Engineering's overall graduate enrollment - both master's and Ph.D. degree candidates - jumped to 919 students in 2017 from 648 in 2014. For 2018, the total enrollment of degree-seeking graduate students is 989 - 656 Ph.D. students and 333 master's students.

The growth has occurred while the quality of incoming students has remained as high as ever, and while the School has focused on increasing the diversity of its graduate student body. Among incoming Ph.D. candidates in 2018, for example, 36 percent are women, compared with 29 percent in 2017.

“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. 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.

UVA Engineering is the top public engineering school in the country for four-year graduation rates for undergraduate students.

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 help lay a foundation for bringing the very best graduate students to UVA Engineering - a charge that includes everything from recruitment and admissions to fundraising and programmatic development. Faculty and staff in the School's nine graduate programs, as well as in the online master's degree program and Accelerated Master's Program, are working diligently on this goal as well.

The School is approaching the challenge collaboratively and 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. The School jumpstarted the program by allocating $2 million of its own funds, and then secured donations for the remainder. The fund provided 34 fellowships in fall 2017, and 30 fellowships have been allocated for fall 2018.

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 is being 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 Assistant Graduate Director Amy Clobes, working with the School's Career Development team led by Director Julia Lapan, have put together a comprehensive professional development program for graduate students. Barker feels that initiative is 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 Office of Graduate Programs also launched a Graduate Writing Lab, led by Director Kelly Cunningham. The lab 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, such as a Link Lab for cyber-physical systems, a multifunctional materials integration initiative and a Center for Engineering in Medicine. 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 team members, including Graduate Recruiter Jasmine Crenshaw, 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 runs digital marketing campaigns aimed at students at leading engineering schools and top historically black colleges and universities, as well as strategic international areas.

“Students and faculty at other schools recognize the changes that are underway here and the opportunities we have to offer," Barker said, "so the quality and diversity of our applicants is naturally growing.”