A $1.675 million grant will support an innovative program at Brown’s Graduate School that enables doctoral students to earn a master’s degree in a complementary field of study.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded the Brown University Graduate School a $1.675 million, five-year grant to support the University’s Open Graduate Education program.

Launched in 2011 with prior support from the Mellon Foundation, the program enables doctoral students to simultaneously complete a master’s degree in a different field of study.

“The Open Graduate Education program is inspired by the Open Curriculum for undergraduate students at Brown,” said Andrew G. Campbell, dean of the Graduate School. “We are leading the way in one of the most notable movements in graduate education today: seeking to bridge fields of knowledge and types of inquiry from multiple academic disciplines.”

The program currently comprises 72 doctoral students. More than half of those students are pursuing master’s degrees in academic divisions distinct from those that house their Ph.D. programs — enabling them to graduate with distinctive degree combinations rooted in the humanities, social sciences, life sciences or physical sciences.

The majority of the grant funds will support fellowships that replace teaching assistantships for Open Graduate Education students, freeing valuable time to pursue their research and allowing them to complete both degree programs in the same time it would typically take to complete a traditional Ph.D.

The program engages graduate students in learning across disparate fields of study in an innovative, entrepreneurial way, with as many different combinations of study as there are students in the program, said Vanessa Ryan, associate dean of the Graduate School. Rather than conducting research within the boundaries of established academic centers, students propose their research based on their own interests.

“This is a distinctively Brown, bottom-up approach to uncovering and supporting emergent boundary-crossing research,” Ryan said. “This student-centered program empowers scholars to devise innovative research that might not be possible in a traditional doctoral course of study. These are the scholars who will be launching the cross-disciplinary centers of the future.”

Samantha Lash, who is working toward her doctorate in archaeology, said she jumped at the opportunity to enroll in the program. She applied in 2015 during her second year at Brown, as many students do, to pursue a master’s degree in Earth, environmental and planetary sciences.

Though the two fields of coverage might not converge on most campuses, Lash said the unique combination has enabled her to conduct research on climate change and archaeology in ways that would be impossible if she were focused solely on only one area of study. Her research focuses on the physical responses to climate change in countries surrounding the Western Mediterranean during the first millennium BCE, examined through a political ecology lens. 

“The Open Grad program allows you to become literate in different fields because you are constantly interfacing with a different peer group on their terms,” Lash said.

Integrating these two disciplines has also broadened her career opportunities, she added.

“The repertoire of jobs I can apply for is greater, especially in shrinking academic markets,” Lash said. “The combination has put me in a good position in both the U.S. and abroad, where the tradition of this combination is more common.” 

The Open Graduate Education program has established the pursuit of collaborative scholarship across fields of study as a priority within graduate education at Brown, Ryan said. It also paved the way for a set of doctoral certificate programs introduced in 2016, which recognize graduate students who complete a required number of courses in a different field.

While the Mellon Foundation grant supports students in the program conducting research in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, Brown has also invested more than $1 million to support Open Graduate Education students in the sciences and will invest an additional $1 million in the program over the next five years, Ryan said.

During the grant term, the Graduate School will continue to offer additional financial support for Open Graduate students, as well as work toward a financial model that will fully fund the program without external support.

Ryan said the Graduate School also plans to expand mentoring initiatives that support research across different fields of study, create more professional development opportunities, and strengthen outreach, promotion and data gathering efforts on the impact of the program.