Things I Wish I Had Known Before Becoming a Graduate School Dean

By Alyssa Crittenden

University of Nevada Las Vegas Graduate College Dean Alyssa Crittenden
November 21, 2022
(Josh Hawkins/UNLV)

While a rapidly growing number of faculty and administrators acknowledge that graduate training (particularly at the doctoral level) needs serious renovation, systemic change is slow across the U.S. university system. It begs the question as to why, particularly as we have known many common barriers to graduate student success for decades (Calarco, 2020; Cassuto & Weisbuch, 2021; Nguyen & Yao, 2023). Some of these include:

  • financial barriers
  • lack of access (particularly for first-generation, low-income, and/or minoritized students)
  • low salaries/stipends for graduate students
  • long time to degree
  • reduced or no sense of belonging
  • and lack of consistent professional development across disciplines that prepares students to serve society outside of the professoriate.

Many of us took our positions because we wanted to jump in and address some (or all) of these barriers by making changes within our institutions. But it can be challenging, if not impossible, to do so right away. There are a variety of reasons why this is likely the case and often depends on the resources available to you in your role. Below, I highlight two of the things that I wish I had known before becoming the vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate College at my institution. Knowing them ahead of time, or very early on, would have helped me better navigate my first year. While there is, of course, no one-size-fits-all approach to preparing for your first year as the dean (or equivalent) of a graduate college/school, I am hopeful that what I share below may be helpful.

(1) Understand the executive decision-making process at your university.

Every win, loss, opportunity or lack thereof is tethered to a decision that someone at your institution made at some point. There can be ambiguity as to who makes the final call, financial or otherwise. The reasons for this are complex but can often be tied to university structure. Some universities don’t have an autonomous stand-alone graduate college/school and some have the unit housed within another administrative unit (e.g. the division of research, etc.). Regardless of where your college/school sits within your university ecosystem, it’s important to understand the structural decision-making process. This entails who you report to, who your supervisor reports to, and who makes the ultimate call on a decision.

Depending on the context, timing, and nature of the decision, you may be a key recommender, a person responsible for proposing new initiatives or making suggestions. Or you may be an endorser, a person responsible for signing off on an initiative before it moves up the chain of command. You may also be the decider, the person who holds the accountability for an initiative and commits the unit or university to act on that initiative. It is probably the case that you hold all of these roles, in various situations, depending on the situation at hand. It is important to learn in what circumstances and with what initiatives each role comes into play. It will help you better determine what changes you can move forward, in what capacity, and in what timeframe.

(2) Give time and attention to transition management.

Universities change and reorganize all the time for a multitude of reasons. These can be tied to changes in leadership, changes in budgetary structures, or even changes due to natural disasters or global pandemics (Cherry, Graves, & Grasse, 2023; Olson, 2010). Whether your appointment to your new role is part of a larger structural reorganization or not, it is representative of change; change for your team, your larger parent unit, and for the university at large. Transition management isn’t something we readily think about as academics, but it is something that most businesses operationalize. What this looks like in a university setting can vary, but the basics of the process include managing the transition and, perhaps most importantly, the people involved in the change. This includes the team you lead as well as the team you are a part of (in my case, this is the other deans and vice provosts at my university). I will offer some suggestions for strategies that I found useful as I worked with the team that I lead.

After my first few months in the role, I realized that my team needed to be included, as much as possible, in all phases of the transition process in order for them to feel comfortable with me as the new dean and to be empowered to be successful in their new work environment. One thing that helped me immensely was utilizing my university’s existing resources for organizational development. I signed up our unit for every team development service offered and also made sure that our team had some unstructured time together (i.e. a lunch-time potluck, a voluntary movie night after work, an end-of-semester group paint party). These events brought us closer together and provided an opportunity to get to know our new dynamic.

I also made it a point to discuss the changes in our unit, which gave us a shared vocabulary for discussing how roles would change, etc. This allowed us to come together and find common ground readily, preparing our unit for the big task that the university needed us to do: create a strategic plan that aligned with our institutional mission to better serve our graduate students. The short-term lists of action items and procedural changes were made easier to comprehend and adhere to when the larger purpose of our goal was made clear and shared. Now, with one year in the rearview mirror, we are building our unit’s strategic plan together, as a team, where all voices are included.

Calarco, J. M. (2020). A field guide to grad school: Uncovering the hidden curriculum. Princeton University Press.

Cassuto, L., & Weisbuch, R. (2021). The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Cherry, B. D., Graves, B., & Grasse, N. (2023). Causes, processes, and effects of academic reorganization at public master’s universities in the United States. Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 27(2), 51-59.

Nguyen, D. J., & Yao, C. W. (Eds.). (2023). A Handbook for Supporting Today’s Graduate Students. Taylor & Francis.

Olson, G. A. (2010). Why universities reorganize. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 15.