The University Record, September 11, 1995

Time to take chances, grad students advised

By Jared Blank

A former astronaut helped new graduate students get their feet planted on the ground at last Tuesday’s graduate student convocation in Rackham Auditorium.

Associate Dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies and space shuttle astronaut Anthony W. England was one of a group of administrators and faculty members who urged the students to continue to push the boundaries of intellectual discovery throughout their lifetimes.

England said that he never held a job in the field of his dissertation after he left graduate school. “An engineer can expect eight major career changes,” he noted. He told the students to “follow the interesting work. There are many interesting jobs out there.” England explained how he jumped from getting his doctorate in geophysics to attending Air Force flight school to being a mission scientist on two Apollo missions to studying geophysics in Antarctica.

Since changing fields can be a difficult experience, England suggested that the students “always focus on your work but keep track of the big picture.”

President James J. Duderstadt said that graduate school was the best time to expand that “big picture.”

“This is one of the few times in your life when you can try to do things that may seem foolish at the outset,” he said. “You now have the potential for doing something extremely important. This is the time to take some chances.”

Duderstadt passed on advice that a professor once gave to him. Likening the learning process to a sine curve, he said that people learn at an exponential rate while they are young, but learn at a slower rate as they get older.

“Work in the exponential part of the curve now. Because of your own naiveté, you won’t commit the same mistakes or fall into the same traps as the crowds of people with experience. Try to work on the extremely difficult projects that have the possibility of providing high reward.”

While he said that the U-M is an extraordinary place for learning, Duderstadt also told the group that there is more to Ann Arbor than academics. “Try to lighten up a bit—work hard and play hard.”

Rackham Interim Dean Robert A. Weisbuch advised students to use each other as resources, rather than competitors, to enhance their experience.

“It’s always shocking to go from undergraduate life where one is a very gifted, and often flattered student to an environment where all of one’s colleagues are the same kind of student,” he said. “You need to get past that first set of anxieties” and learn from each other. “Satisfying your intellectual hunger will feed others.”

And when you are up studying at four in the morning and are struggling to work through something, he said, “you should remember that you chose to be here, and we chose you to join us.”

Weisbuch said he set his expectations high for the group. “We seek to graduate more than competent practitioners, we seek world-changers.”

He also advised working to break new ground in your field of study. “You need to know the end and the existing, and then destroy it.”

Patricia Smith Yaeger, associate professor of English and of women’s studies, also said that the key to the graduate experience was pushing the existing boundaries.

“It’s not possible to conduct your business anymore without an outstanding amount of knowledge in a field other than your own,” she said. She suggested that before starting on a project, students should immerse themselves in as much material as possible.

Yaeger also warned of becoming trapped by the politics of academia and of interdisciplinary study. “Forget politics altogether. Don’t worry about whose territory you are invading with your dissertation.” She said that worrying about politics simply adds to the stress of academic work.

“The University is not just a degree-granting institution, it’s a place to open up the universe of knowledge,” said Lester P. Monts, vice provost for academic and multicultural affairs.

“Diversity is a cornerstone of our efforts to achieve international excellence,” he said. While some critics argue that the infusion of multiculturalism into the curriculum is a passing trend, Monts said, “increasing multiculturalism in the academic mainstream increases our understanding of ourselves and others.

“It is up to you, as the most recent additions to the academy, to help us sustain our progress.”

Kenneth C. Fischer, executive director of the University Musical Society, presented his traditional closing word of caution.

“I am here to warn you. There is a mighty force on this campus and it did me in. It was 29 years ago that I started graduate school.” Fischer said he has yet to finish because of the vast amount of extracurricular activities that take place in Ann Arbor.

To prove just how vibrant the city is, Fischer presented his list of the top 20 cultural events in Ann Arbor that people should not miss.

“Of course,” he said, “you shouldn’t use me as an example. I never did get my degree.”

The program was hosted by Elaine K. Didier, Rackham associate dean, and entertainment was provided by the Galliard Brass Ensemble.