UW Graduate School

Q&A with Graduate School Dean Joy Williamson-Lott

How will your research on social movements and higher education inform your decisions as Graduate School dean?

My research has taught me that post-baccalaureate education is integral to a vibrant society that rewards independent thinking and discovery.

In the middle-20th century, the federal government and philanthropic foundations pumped millions of dollars into higher education to promote the knowledge economy.

At the same time, activist students and professors (and even some administrators) argued that their institutions should be intellectual spaces where free inquiry reigned. More important, they argued that colleges and universities should become the place where the answers to society’s problems were conceived. 

Decisions made in the Graduate School will be built on that belief — that the university is an epicenter of knowledge production that not only fuels innovation and cutting-edge scholarship but educates students and postdocs toward becoming responsible global citizens ready to make a positive difference in the world.

How will you consider and include disciplines you are not personally familiar with?

I plan to familiarize myself with our range of programs but will rely on the expert counsel of those across the University. 

Thankfully, I will regularly intersect with deans, department chairs, the Graduate School Council, and Graduate Program Coordinators from across the three campuses.

At the same time, there are commonalities across units: finding the right size and right mix of undergraduates and graduate and professional students, of master’s students and doctoral students, or of doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows; struggles to provide multi-year funding packages for students; the shifting landscape of federal and philanthropic funding; constraints on collaborative and laboratory spaces; and a desire to diversify the student body and postdocs. 

What unites all our programs is a deep commitment to providing a high-quality education and relevant experiences for those in our programs. I strongly believe that we can work toward that common goal. 

Why did you want this job? What appeals to you?

I have seen — in my own life, in my scholarship, and in working as the associate dean for graduate studies in the College of Education, Seattle — that a rigorous, supportive and enriching graduate program can improve individual lives, institutions and society itself. 

The fact that our graduate and professional students and postdocs use their experience to become leaders in their communities, stretch the boundaries of knowledge, and ameliorate social ills makes the work worthwhile.

What do you enjoy most about working with graduate students?

I enjoy the enthusiasm and curious minds of graduate and professional students. I thoroughly appreciate watching them stretch themselves, take intellectual risks, pull apart their long-held assumptions, and learn from each other. 

In the courses I taught, Education as a Moral Endeavor, especially, they pushed me and pushed each other out of our comfort zones. No matter how many times I’d teach the same text, I learned something new about the materials — and my own assumptions — with each new group of students.

What are some of your favorite things about UW?

Being at a highly ranked large R1 institution means the breadth of possibilities for study are just about endless.

I constantly encounter faculty colleagues who research and write on the most fascinating topics. I love to listen to how they think, how they make sense of reality, and what their work means to them. Our faculty members are passionate about what they do, and I believe that’s infectious.

I also appreciate the University’s commitment to the public good. It’s an institution that believes in strong university-community partnerships, which engage community members and world-class researchers and students in addressing local, state, national and international issues.

Lastly, our location in the Pacific Northwest can’t be beat.

A lot of people are unclear on what the Graduate School even is or does. What do you want people to know about the Graduate School?

The Graduate School is tasked with overseeing the quality of graduate education, promoting a campus-wide culture of excellence, and supporting departments, schools and colleges in reaching their full potential in graduate education.

We do that by centralizing some administrative tasks, helping various programs locate their work and their students within the larger context of the University, and creating opportunities for cross-discipline relationships and synergies that would go unrealized without a central unit that has a view of the entire breadth of our graduate programs.

Also, we are focused on supporting graduate and professional students and postdocs who have needs that are very different from those of undergraduates. For instance, many are working as Teaching Assistants or Research Assistants, have families, and engage in long-term scholarly projects that demand a lot of resources. These students and postdocs deserve concerted attention to ensure a high-quality experience.

What was your graduate student experience like?

I was fortunate enough to have fellowships that paid my tuition during my years as a graduate student, though I also TA’ed and had an hourly job throughout to make ends meet. That funding allowed me to focus on my studies and complete my doctoral degree in a timely manner.

Also, I had an adviser who supported my scholarly interests and professional development. I began attending and presenting at national conferences while still a student. It was a nerve-wracking experience but a necessary one to prepare me for the job market and my future career.

Lastly, I made some life-long friendships while in graduate school. We are now spread out across the country, but I continue to rely on them and their advice.

What do you see as some of the challenges that graduate students face, and how can the Graduate School work to ameliorate these challenges?

One of the biggest challenges facing graduate and professional students is a lack of multi-year funding. Some units lose top students to other institutions who can provide more competitive packages, and some of our students take on large debt. 

While most student funding happens with individual faculty or within programs, the Graduate School will continue to build its own funding sources to support graduate programs in recruiting and retaining high-quality students across all units.

Another challenge our students and postdocs encounter is in the realm of mental health. Many experience a high degree of stress and alienation. The Graduate School will continue to offer and hone its programming to support their sense of belonging, preparedness and professional development. 

Also, we will partner with the Counseling Center and other units to ensure that graduate and professional students and postdocs have access to high quality mental health services that are tailored to their specific needs and to the communities that sustain and support them.

Outside of your job and academic research, what do you do for fun?

My husband and I have two young boys so we spend a lot of our time exploring different parts of Seattle and the surrounding area by hiking and biking, swimming, snow-tubing, playing soccer and basketball, and eating Menchie’s.