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EWA Tip Sheet: How to Write About Graduate Schools

Most journalists covering universities focus on undergraduate programs, even though, in many cases, the graduate student population is larger and has a bigger impact on the school’s financial health

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Most journalists covering universities focus on undergraduate programs, even though, in many cases, the graduate student population is larger and has a bigger impact on the school’s financial health. So graduate schools can be a trove of fresh, under-covered story ideas, according to graduate student representatives and researchers who spoke at the Education Writers Association’s 2019 National Seminar.

Among the story ideas journalists should consider exploring at the colleges they cover: graduate student working conditions and unionization drives, revelations of longstanding patterns of sexual harassment of graduate students by faculty members who hold career power over them, and a possible “Trump effect” on international recruitment and enrollment.

Participants who contributed to this advice:

  • Hironao Okahana, Council of Graduate Schools
  • Evelyn Smith, University of Michigan
  • Emily Yen, Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions

Story Ideas

  • Unions: Are your graduate students unionized or trying to unionize? If so, what are the issues that drove or are driving the organizing? If there is a union, has collective bargaining helped with those issues? Has a union improved graduate student pay? If there isn’t a union, why not? Have administrators resisted organizing efforts?
  • Sexual harassment: What process exists for graduate students who feel like they’ve been treated unfairly or harassed by a professor? Who investigates reports of sexual harassment – a university employee or a third party? How has the university or its graduate programs evolved in how they handle sexual harassment complaints?
  • International students: Graduate student interest in U.S. schools has dropped slightly, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. Some college administrators worry that the drop may be a reflection of a “Trump effect” – the theory that the policies and rhetoric of the president are causing international students to rethink studying in the U.S. Check to see if the decline is affecting the universities you cover. How are they changing their overseas marketing or making international students feel welcome?

Reporting Tips

  • The “DGS” is your friend. Every Ph.D. program has a director of graduate studies (DGS). This is the professor, usually a senior one, who is the chief administrator of the program. No one knows the details of the program and where the bodies are buried more than this person.  Even those who are press-shy can be fantastic “off the record” sources.
  • Talk to everyone. Unlike undergraduate education, there are a scarcity of groups that are dedicated to advocating for and tracking graduate education. So it’s especially important for reporters to talk with people involved in many different roles – including  professors,  administrators who run graduate programs, and, of course, graduate students themselves.
  • Be gentle. Among the most vulnerable students on campus are Ph.D. students, especially international ones. They have very little to gain, and everything to lose, when talking to a reporter. So building trust and recognizing their precariousness can go a long way.
  • Track rumor boards. Message boards such as Poli Sci Rumors can serve as early alerts to fast-breaking stories about, for example, allegations against professors or trends in the post-doc job market. Be careful, though. Much, if not most of the content is, as the name suggests, unsubstantiated rumors.

Data Sources

One big challenge of covering graduate education is the lack of uniform national data. There’s no comprehensive data set that allows comparisons, for example, of how much programs pay their graduate students, how long it takes students to complete their programs, or where their Ph.D. students end up getting jobs. But many associations that represent specific fields of study publish data on their specialty. Here are some sources with trustworthy data on graduate students:

The Survey of Earned Doctorates, which is administered by the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies, is released annually each December. It provides data on those who have earned PhDs. It is the most comprehensive such data set available, offering numbers on race, country of origin, field of study and student loan debt of all new PhDs.

AACSB International provides some general data on MBA programs.

The American Economics Association links to several surveys that document the job market for economics PhDs.

The Association of American Medical Colleges provides application and matriculation data on medical and MD/PhD schools by state and institution.

The Council of Graduate Schools publishes data on topics ranging from international graduate enrollment to graduate student mental health.

The Modern Language Association occasionally publishes data on the career paths of humanities PhDs.