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PhD Students Embark on ‘Open Curriculum’ Paths

March 14, 2013

Nine doctoral candidates got their wish to pursue broadened graduate studies as part of the second class of the Open Graduate Education program.

“I showed up at Graduate School wanting to do this crazy thing – using computer science to learn about ancient Egyptian language – and found out it is actually possible,” said Christian Casey, a second-year doctoral candidate in Egyptology who will study computational methods as a master’s student in Applied Math. For his dissertation, he plans to develop innovative computational approaches that will allow him to document and study the evolution of Egyptian handwritten scripts.

The Open Graduate Education program is, he says, “about taking different ideas and putting them together and seeing what works.”

Under the pilot program, called “Open Graduate Programs: Graduate Education - Uniquely Brown,” doctoral students gain the flexibility and resources to pursue a master’s degree in a secondary field while they earn their doctorates at Brown University. The aim is to enhance the educational options for excellent graduate students, catalyze new interdisciplinary pursuits, and prepare students for the demands of the job market.

Five of the nine new participants will cross into other disciplines, with a humanities student entering physical science, one social science candidate entering the humanities, one life science student going into social science, and two social science students going into life science.  The second cohort includes:

  • Christian Casey, Egyptology, seeks a master’s in Applied Math
  • Apollonya Porcelli, Sociology, pursues a master’s in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
  • Amy Teller, Sociology, also seeks the master’s in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
  • Lakshmi Padmanabhan, Modern Culture and Media, enters the History program
  • Brian House, Computer Music & Multimedia, enters Modern Culture and Media
  • Malay Firoz, Anthropology, also enters Modern Culture and Media
  • Dennis Johannssen, German Studies, enters Philosophy
  • Jing Feng, Electrical Engineering, undertakes the PRIME program
  • Arielle Schilit, Neuroscience, seeks the Master’s in Teaching in Secondary Education (Biology)

Porcelli came to Brown because of her interest in this program and the migration demography research of her advisor, Leah VanWey, Associate Professor of Sociology. Having focused on the natural sciences as undergraduate at Cornell University, Porcelli wanted to continue working in ecology while grounding herself in the discipline of Sociology. When I was looking at graduate schools and saw the Open Graduate Education program, I thought it was “super cool,” she says. “It stood out as highly unusual to get a degree and have it be funded,” she says, compared with institutions that allow affiliation with a center in another field.

Under the program, she will spend two summers in Brazil for her interdisciplinary research on the hydrological conditions and the demographic composition of rural riverine dwellers before and after the construction of a dam and mine there. Her challenge, she says, is showing depth in the ecological method. She aims to be a professor of geography, sociology, or ecology, and hopes the dual studies will improve her job prospects.  

'Munificent' Faculty

 “There are unusually low barriers for interdisciplinary work at Brown,” says Firoz, a first-year doctoral candidate in Anthropology who decided to come here because of the Open Graduate Education program and the community of scholars. The additional master’s work in Modern Culture and Media will expand his “toolkit” as a scholar, allowing him to “read images” and enrich his study of visual technologies in wartime environments. Another benefit of the program, he says, is being able to pitch “more eclectic training” to a broader market after receiving his degrees.  

For Casey, the extra summer support and additional year of funding give him what he calls crucial mini-sabbaticals, which will allow him to focus on creating paths between his two fields.

He appreciates the openness and time commitment of the faculty members who are collaborating to advise him on his combined projects. “There are sections they aren’t equipped to look at,” Casey explains, “but together, they could help me. It’s a magnanimous, munificent gift.”

Each year, doctoral students are invited to propose a combination of studies, explain their rationale, describe their career plans, and list the courses to be pursued for the master’s program.  Those selected in this round can begin the secondary work as early as 2013-14. Participants receive additional financial support and professional development opportunities.

A team of deans and senior University administrators selected the nine participants from among 17 applications, which were received in February. They join nine participants tapped last year for the first year of the pilot program. Last year, the Graduate School received 20 applications.

'Creativity and Intellectual Force'

Persistence can pay off. Casey’s second application to the program was accepted. In the intervening period, he took a statistics class. “It reassured me that I had the background.” He also kept working on this project and was able to describe his research more specifically in the second application. 

Open Graduate students gather on a nearly monthly basis to talk about how they are navigating their combined studies and to learn about each other’s projects. “Interacting with these exceptional students is among my favorite activities at Brown,” said Peter M. Weber, Dean of the Graduate School. “They show great creativity and intellectual force as they present what they want to do and how they will accomplish their academic goals.”

Overall, the pilot initiative, which is funded in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will enable up to 48 doctoral students from any discipline at Brown to pursue a master’s degree in any other discipline offered by the University. Graduate students already enjoy the latitude to pursue interdisciplinary scholarship, but this program expands and formalizes the opportunity. The program also more closely aligns the Graduate School with the spirit of Brown’s open undergraduate curriculum, a cornerstone of the University’s pedagogy

“We congratulate all the applicants for proposing ways to broaden their knowledge and differentiate their credentials,” says Weber. “And we invite the other applicants to talk to us about how they could improve a future application.”

~By Beverly Larson