Duke University Alumni Magazine


by Nannerl O. Keohane
President, Duke University

he following is adapted from the president's address in an August welcoming convocation for entering graduate and professional-school students:

Most of you are probably curious about what graduate school life is going to be like, and how it will be different from what goes before and after. Your experiences in universities and colleges so far have mostly been limited to learning first-hand the joys and sorrows of undergraduate life, and observing from a closer or greater distance the preoccupations and practicalities of faculty life.

Graduate students, if they mean anything to undergraduates, mean TAs [teaching assistants]--and if you were lucky enough to have an excellent graduate teacher in college, that will ring a positive note. But if not, this will probably bring connotations of second-best: "Oh no, it's not a real faculty member teaching this course, but just a TA." Apart from that, grad students are not the most visible folks on campus, and you'll soon discover why. You have too much work to do to hang out as much as undergraduates, and not enough money to fly around to conferences as often as faculty members do.

And now you are about to discover the paradox of tough challenges and deep rewards, loneliness and close comradeship, intellectual exhilaration and irritating dry spells, which is what graduate and professional student life is all about. Rewarding, rich, exciting--absolutely, at times! But also, anxiety-producing, frustrating, and downright difficult, at times.

Most of you will learn something about being poor, but you will also, if you are fortunate, form friendships and intellectual ties that will enrich you for your entire life. There is not a lot of money in being a graduate student. But, the experience of many decades tells us, there will somehow prove to be enough. And the conversations you have over pizza or tuna casserole, latte or cheap wine--conversations ranging over every conceivable topic--are likely to be among the very best conversations you will have in your entire life.

The activity you will engage in over the next few years is truly at the heart of the university. Your life, as a committed scholar given a few precious years to develop your craft and find your muse, or a budding professional given a few precious years to clarify your vocation and take your place among the leaders of your field, is in a very real sense central to what a university is all about.

Last year I served on a committee of the Association of American Universities charged with reviewing graduate education in the research universities. Our Duke report to that committee stressed the pivotal role of graduate education in the life of the university.

We argued that graduate students are crucial in shaping the larger intellectual conversations that make universities such exciting places, at least potentially. We noted that many of the most exciting breakthroughs in many fields come from the cutting-edge work of bright and innovative graduate students. That many of the most fertile social/cultural debates--about race, gender, individual and national identity formations--are extensions of discussions and conferences sponsored by graduate and professional students. We argued that the whole intellectual climate of our research universities depends fundamentally on the fact that we have so many bright young researchers and developing new professionals among us.

As the report put it, "Graduate students provide many of our faculty with their only true colleagues in specialized subfields. Furthermore, as graduate students migrate across departmental lines and through laboratory rotations, they pollinate the intellectual climate of discrete departments and cross-disciplinary programs."

I bet you never thought of yourselves as providing pollination, which may not be the best metaphor we could have chosen, but you get the point: Your own restless intellectual adventures and search for the best possible training lead you to ignore disciplinary barriers and bureaucratic silos in order to put together the best possible contexts in which to explore the things that matter to you; and that's how the most exciting interdisciplinary work gets done.

The report describes graduate students as "the central nodes or gateways of the modern research university." They bring faculty from across disciplinary units together on dissertation committes to focus collectively and often uniquely on a common theme or subject; they make, through their work as teaching and laboratory assistants, the vital links between cutting-edge research and the foundational levels of undergraduate instruction."

And thus, we argued, "The intellectual capital that is represented in our graduate student bodies is probably the most widely underutilized resource of the research university."

You will be both teachers and learners, placed squarely amid the continuum of intellectual development on campus, from the rawest first-year undergraduate to the most senior emeritus professor. You can, if you care enough, be the best and truest link across the other parts of this continuum, interpreting faculty insights to bewildered undergraduates in language they can understand, and presenting jaded faculty members with the incredible jolt of deep fascination with the field, and insights nobody ever had before.

The fact that graduate and professional students are too seldom given the opportunity to provide such linkages in mutually rewarding and innovative ways is part of what we meant by speaking of all this intellectual energy as an "underutilized resource." We hope to improve Duke in this way during your time here.

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