Top quality graduate students flock to UC Berkeley despite budget woes

Despite a budget shortfall, hiring freeze and higher fees, the University of California, Berkeley, continues to attract more and higher quality graduate students, according to new data from the campus’s Graduate Division.

By far, students say their top reasons to come to UC Berkeley include the chance to work with distinguished faculty and to earn their degrees from world-class graduate programs.

Applicants to UC Berkeley’s graduate programs increased 40 percent between 2001 and 2009, and applicants for fall 2010 are on course to surpass the 36,600 who applied for fall 2009.

Doctoral students at a glance, Fall 2009

Total number of doctoral degree students: 5,959

women: 43.1%
underrepresented minority: 11.4%
international: 20%

average age: 28
youngest: 18
oldest: 70

Top 20 majors

Chemistry: 381
Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences: 306.5
Mechanical Engineering: 283
Molecular and Cell Biology: 270
Physics: 244
Education: 234
Computer Science: 210.5
Environmental Science, Policy, and Management: 180
History: 176
Civil and Environmental Engineering: 169.5
Bioengineering: 163
Political Science: 150
Mathematics: 146
Economics: 144
Sociology: 133
English: 132.5
Integrative Biology: 114
Chemical Engineering: 108
Psychology: 108
Anthropology: 104

Doctoral degrees awarded in 2008-09 academic year: 863
Average time to degree: 6.8 years

Within 18 months of receiving their Ph.D., nearly 60 percent of graduates are employed as faculty or post-docs at colleges and universities.

A higher percentage of prospective students are accepting admission offers as well. In 2009, 55 percent of them chose to attend UC Berkeley, versus 45 percent in 2001.

Even more impressive, many graduate students are arriving on campus with prestigious fellowships. In 2009, 30 newly-enrolled graduate students were recipients of National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships, joining 293 other NSF fellows already on campus. Over the past decade, UC Berkeley has had more NSF fellowship winners than any other university in the nation.

“This is a testimony to a great faculty and a great institution,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. “Even in these constrained budgetary times, our graduate programs and faculty continue to be perceived as among the best in the country.”

One aspect of this excellence is the diversity of UC Berkeley’s graduate students. Of the new graduate students who arrived in fall 2009, 43 percent are women and 11 percent are from historically underrepresented groups. Among the NSF fellows, 16 percent are underrepresented minority students. Over the past 10 years, UC Berkeley students have received more Ford Foundation Diversity Fellowships than have students at any other institution.

“We attract the very best applicants, and they are more likely to decide to come here when we offer admission,” said Andrew Szeri, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate Division and a professor of mechanical engineering. “Our goal is to provide full financial support for all doctoral degree students so as to stay competitive with the world’s other top schools, which already do that. In this way, we support the campus’s mission to be a leader in research and teaching.”

Szeri said the campus currently is able to offer healthy financial support to many, though not all, graduate students. Those not arriving with fellowships can apply to a huge range of private foundations or seek appointments as teaching and research assistants, but the campus also offers an increasing number of multi-year fellowships. UC Berkeley’s current fundraising campaign, The Campaign for Berkeley, has already raised $102.5 million toward a $340 million goal for graduate fellowships. The Hewlett Challenge, launched in 2007 to raise a $220 million endowment for faculty excellence, also will help fund graduate fellowships.

Federal stimulus funds also brought to UC Berkeley an additional $5 million over the next five years from the NSF to fund graduate fellowships for 40 more doctoral students.

Such fellowships are crucial to attracting and retaining top students.

For Saori Haigo, a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, a Berkeley Graduate Fellowship gave her confidence in her skills and, she said, “confidence to search out other types of graduate funding” once her two-year fellowship ended. Now on an American Heart Association fellowship, she considers UC Berkeley “a phenomenal school in terms of the quality of the graduate students, who are really motivated by the science.”

Fellowships also allow graduate students to concentrate on their studies without having to work other jobs.

“I probably would have been offered more money per year by a private institution on the East Coast, but I really wanted to come to Berkeley. And with a graduate fellowship, I felt that I could come here without sacrificing anything. I could focus on developing my skills and scholarship without having to search for other sources of funds or carrying a crazy teaching load,” said sixth-year graduate student Jonathan Combs-Schilling, who is working toward a Ph.D. in Italian studies. “Berkeley’s Italian studies department is one of the best in the country.”

This fall, each two-year Berkeley Graduate Fellowship came with a larger stipend than in 2008, as the campus is trying to keep pace with stipends offered at competing institutions, the comparatively high cost of living and increased graduate fees. The fellowships also include two or three years of departmental support.

For those without full fellowships, teaching assistantships are an important source of financial help. Although class and section offerings have declined slightly, the number of UC Berkeley graduate student instructor (GSI) positions in fall 2009 decreased only 3 percent from fall 2007.

Steadily increasing research funding, both federal and private, also provides increasing support for graduate students, who are hired as graduate student researchers (GSRs) to assist professors in the laboratory or scholarly research.

Nevertheless, keeping up with financial offers made to prospective graduate students by rival universities in order to attract the best and brightest to UC Berkeley is becoming increasingly difficult in tight budgetary times, Szeri noted. Some private universities competing for the same graduate students offer five or six years of full support to 95 percent of their admitted graduate students in all disciplines. UC Berkeley can offer four to five years of support to 90 percent of graduate students admitted in the biological and physical sciences, and to only half of those admitted to the humanities and social sciences.

“While our success in attracting and supporting the best graduate students is good news for prospective and current students and for the campus,” Szeri said, “the numbers illustrate the need for increased graduate student support.”

Last year, 5,431 students were admitted to the campus’s 99 graduate and professional degree programs for fall 2009. Of these, 2,893 new graduate students enrolled, swelling the graduate population to 10,000, 6,000 of whom are pursuing a Ph.D.

UC Berkeley’s graduate programs are now reviewing applicants for fall 2010, and will begin sending offers of admission in March and April.