Q&A with Andrew Szeri, provost and vice-president academic

Andrew Szeri, provost and vice-president academic, UBC

On July 10, 2017, Andrew Szeri became the provost and vice-president academic of UBC, succeeding Angela Redish, who held the position pro-tem since 2015. Professor Szeri comes to UBC from the University of California at Berkeley, where he held a number of roles since 1997, including seven years (2007-14) as dean of the Graduate Division, with academic quality assurance and financial responsibilities extending to nearly 11,000 graduate students and 100+ degree programs campus-wide.

UBC Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Dean and Vice-Provost Susan Porter had some questions for Professor Szeri regarding his thoughts on the importance of excellence in graduate education, and what he learned from his time at the Graduate Division at UC Berkeley.

You were Dean of the Graduate Division at Berkeley for seven years. What are you most proud of accomplishing in that time? What could UBC learn from those accomplishments?

Given the financial challenges of the time, I worked very hard with many, many good people to diversify the funding sources for graduate student support, including a significant deepening of involvement in fundraising from the philanthropic community in partnership with the academic deans and development staff, as well as encouraging students to pursue external prize fellowships and faculty to support students as research assistants on grants. The Berkeley campus as a whole raised more than US$250 million for graduate fellowships, prizes and awards thanks to the generosity of our alumni and friends and the hard work of many.

Of course, graduate education is fundamentally about human development, so I made a strong push to improve mentoring. During that time, we developed a best practices document on faculty mentoring of graduate students through the Academic Senate; we established the Sarlo Distinguished Faculty Mentoring Award (which is now permanently endowed as the Carol D. Soc Distinguished Graduate Student Mentoring Award); and in collaboration with the Academic Senate, we established campus guidelines for evaluation of the quality of graduate student mentoring in faculty reviews and promotions.

But graduate students are in a wonderful position also to provide mentoring themselves I had observed. But, like many of us, they could benefit from some training in how to be most effective. Therefore, we developed and piloted (2012, in Physics and in History) the Student Mentoring and Research Teams (SMART) program: a structured program of specifically trained PhD candidates mentoring undergraduates in research, all with the oversight of a faculty member. We later added Public Health, Sociology and Chemistry and then went campus wide at Berkeley. This novel program has since been awarded significant funding from the US National Science Foundation to study its effectiveness and to develop the means to seed such efforts at other universities.

Are there any graduate student or postdoctoral initiatives at UBC that you are particularly excited to work on?

I’m excited to learn that Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies is in the process of strategic planning. I am very keen to see what are the main places where the effort will conclude the most important gains are to be made. I have some early indications that my favorite topics: mentoring (receiving and giving), improved financial support, and skills preparation for multiple career paths will be among the areas to focus!

From your limited time here, what do you feel are UBC’s greatest strengths in graduate and postdoctoral education?

UBC encompasses a vast scope of activity, which I am every day learning to appreciate even more. I think that graduate students here can take advantage of a tremendous range of expertise and resources to create new knowledge, to deepen their scholarship, or to master their ability to practice an important profession.

At Berkeley, you instituted new awards for faculty mentoring of graduate students, and in your own teaching practice, you have received several awards including two Tau Beta Pi teaching awards and a recent award for excellence in student mentoring (2017) at UC Berkeley. From your perspective, why is excellence in faculty mentoring of graduate students important?

I feel that graduate students come to a great university for the chance to have significant contact with great faculty members. Time in graduate school is a possibly singular opportunity in one’s life really to get to the heart of the matter – whatever your interests. Having a guide to help orient you to what is important, how to plan and execute your studies, how to think about your longer-term prospects is invaluable. To me the greatest joy of my professional life has been my time with the more than two dozen PhD students I’ve been privileged to work with closely. I see each one being on a journey – sailing into the unknown. It’s both a journey of disciplinary (or interdisciplinary) discovery, and also a journey of self-discovery. I see my role as providing the smallest possible nudges to the tiller at first, then later withdrawing from the more active role, simply to make suggestions about course adjustments, to make sure we’re making forward progress in a satisfying way.

And, as a graduate supervisor and student mentor, what advice do you have for other graduate supervisors?

Given my field, I am most familiar with how to work with PhD students so I will focus my description of a working style to that activity. Of course, there are lots of other important kinds of mentoring, of professional students, students on clinical rotations, etc.

With my PhD students, I try to learn who my students are as individuals: aptitudes, anxieties, and aspirations. I listen very, very carefully to them, and try to ease them into research (in my problem-solving discipline) with warm-up problems that first I pose, then we enhance together. Before the student knows it, their work becomes both more facile and more profound. I find this is a successful way to cultivate a sense of self-confidence in the student. At some moment, every student achieves what I think of as ‘lift-off’. That means so much to me.

Academic excellence is part of your portfolio as Provost. Do you have any advice for graduate students on how they can excel here at UBC? How can faculty best support them?

To students, I would encourage you to think deeply about the great value and personal importance of your time in graduate school. It is a very special time that you should endeavor to make something of, which will support your ability to think and learn over a long lifetime of thinking and learning. Life as a graduate student is a bit – or very much more – self-directed than the life you lived before. So, the sense of responsibility for what you’re gaining from the experience should increase in proportion.

In 2014, you joined our Reimagining the PhD symposium, and you will be joining us again for Reimagining the PhD 2017. What does reimagining the PhD mean to you?

Yes, it was a privilege to join colleagues at UBC in 2014 and it will be a privilege to do so again in 2017! To me, reimagining means appreciating that graduate education can be – indeed, is – a firm foundation for a variety of different types of careers that we learned Berkeley students later enjoyed, and I understand UBC students do, too. Remember I am an engineer, so for me the practical question is: how do we enhance this firm foundation? I think about exposure: to contextual issues that surround your discipline, or to interdisciplinary work, or to entrepreneurship, or to alumni who work in corporate R&D or in think-tanks or in museums or in government, and so on. I think about opportunities to enhance your ability to make persuasive arguments, or presentations; to mentor or to experience directly different kinds of working environments. Any of these can be aspects of broadening the traditional experiences of graduate education to provide that firmer foundation for a lifetime of thinking and learning, on various different possible career paths you may tread.

Why is this an important topic?

Because graduate education is about the students.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017