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Lack of social space may increase graduate attrition

This is the fourth story in a five-part series examining attrition among graduate students.

Whether it is a lounge, an office or simply a place to grab a quick snack, graduate student gathering space is becoming increasingly important and limited on campus.

By overlooking student lounge and office space, Graduate School officials said, the University is contributing to doctoral candidate attrition by not fostering a relaxing and intellectual environment in departments and by isolating students from one another and from the faculty.

"Too few departments have room for students to meet socially and talk," said Dean of the Graduate School Lewis Siegel. "Meeting space is not one of the University's top priorities."

Students and faculty agreed that the benefits of such space are plentiful, but are unsure whether space has a significant impact on attrition rates.

Three years ago, the political science graduate student lounge was split in half to create a conference room.

Thomas Scotto, a fourth-year doctoral student in the department, said that lack of lounge space, compounded with limited office areas and poor parking options, leads many advanced students to spend little time on campus.

"It adds to the overall isolating experience that graduate school can be in the later stages. People stay home and write, write, write," Scotto said. "You don't learn in the classroom in graduate school--you learn from your colleagues and through casual conversation."

Professor Henry Weller, director of graduate studies for physics, said his department is using gathering space to safeguard against that isolation by encouraging graduate students to meet regularly three afternoons a week in the faculty lounge.

"We think that graduate students learn more from one another than they do anyone else," Weller said. "New graduate students can interact with more senior students and be mentored by them."

Based on attendance at these and other events, Weller said, faculty can sometimes identify students who are isolating themselves.

"The students that tend to drop away usually break off from the group before," Weller said. "I can see it coming: they become less and less visible [in the faculty lounge] and do not attend all their classes. They're doing things on their own, and that's a sign they are not feeling part of our department."

Weller, Scotto and others, however, said they do not believe lounge and office space is a significant factor in a doctoral candidate's decision to drop out or switch to a master's degree.

"Much of [attrition] has to do with the individual personality," said Ronald Witt, director of graduate studies for history and chair of the Arts and Sciences Council. "The people we have lost--those who have taken their masters and left--were because of so many other reasons."

Heather Dean, a third-year doctoral student in neurobiology, said her department's lounge was replaced with lab space a few months ago.

"It was a good place for people to relax and get out of lab for a few minutes and eat and talk... but I don't feel [the loss of it] will play a large role in attrition," she said.

Rather than affecting attrition rates, Dean and Scotto said, lounges and offices probably have a greater impact on recruitment. Duke pales in comparison to many of its peers in providing such space, often a deciding factor for interested students, Scotto said.

By effectively using gathering space to facilitate student and faculty interaction, departments may attract and retain more students.

For example, the math department has a lounge and offices where students can hang out, study or meet, as well as a daily 3:30 p.m. "tea," during which students and faculty take a half-hour snack break.

"Sometimes we're talking about math, and sometimes we're talking about current events, the weather or basketball," said Ben Cooke, a third-year doctoral student.

He added that paramount to the topic of discussion is the opportunity to interact with other graduate students and get to know people in their department. "The space isn't so much a factor as the people," Cooke said.

Weller and Cooke said the time together also affords faculty the chance to meet with a large group of students regularly.

"If we didn't have the teas, it would be hard to interact with professors on an informal basis," he said. "Sometimes it's kind of intimidating to walk into a professor's office and ask just to chat."

Witt cited other benefits of his department's graduate lounge, including a central location for student mailboxes, computer access and postings of all grant and job opportunities.

For students who spend most of their day in laboratories, lounges may be less important.

"The nice thing about the sciences is that when you work in a lab atmosphere, you are around your fellow students pretty much the entire time," said Zach Schaefer, a graduate student in pharmacology and cancer biology. "I don't feel isolated."