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USM Graduate School Has Experienced Amazing Growth Over Past 73 Years

Thu, 02/27/2020 - 10:52am | By: Van Arnold

Dr. Karen CoatsDr. Karen Coats firmly believes that she has landed in a utopian position as Dean of The University of Southern Mississippi Graduate School.

“It’s the best job on this campus because I get to work toward enhancing graduate education at Southern Miss, providing opportunities for professional development for our students and improving the experience of graduate students and faculty by ensuring the Graduate School offers efficient and outstanding service to all constituents,” said Coats.

USM’s Graduate School features a renowned cadre of faculty who are mentoring and nurturing the next generation of educators, scientists, entrepreneurs, nurses and psychologists among a variety of esteemed disciplines.

The school has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception in 1947. The following year 59 students were accepted into the University’s first graduate school class. A master’s degree was conferred on those meeting requirements in Education only. Emphasis could be placed in four different areas: School Administration and Supervision, Secondary Education, Elementary Education and Health and Physical Education.

Figures from the fall 2019 semester showed 2,548 students enrolled in USM’s Graduate School. A further breakdown revealed 1,406 master’s degree candidates, 987 doctoral candidates, 62 graduate certificate candidates and 23 specialist candidates.

Enrollment qualifications have certainly stiffened since the early years which required a grade-point-average of just 1.5 or higher. Today, applicants must present evidence, by official transcript, of a grade-point-average equivalent to at least 2.75 (calculated on a 4.0 scale) for the last two years (60 hours) of undergraduate study.

To say graduate students have a full academic plate, is a little like saying USM alumnus Jimmy Buffett has many fans.

“To be successful, they must complete very challenging coursework with outstanding grades and pass rigorous comprehension exams,” said Coats, who has served as dean since 2014. “They must perform high-quality research or capstone projects resulting in a thesis, dissertation, or project report which must be defended before a faculty committee. Students in some disciplines must engage in exemplary creative work and juried performances.”

Coats adds that many graduate students serve as teaching or research assistants and are held to high expectations for job performance.

“It is difficult to earn a graduate degree, but as I frequently tell our students, any accomplishment of real value should be challenging to achieve, otherwise it wouldn’t be valuable. And a graduate degree is priceless,” said Coats.

No need trying to convince Kimberly Smith of the challenges and rewards associated with graduate school. Smith, a Pelham, Ala., native, earned an Institutional Research Graduate Certificate from USM in 2019; a Master of Science in Educational Research Studies at USM in 2019 and expects to earn a Doctor of Philosophy in Education with an Emphasis in Research, Evaluation, Statistics, and Assessment from USM in August. She also owns an undergraduate degree from the University of Montevallo in Kinesiology and a Master of Arts in Human Performance degree from the University of Alabama.

Smith, who serves as President of the Graduate Student Senate, says that her particular graduate program track encompasses the best of all worlds.

“Receiving a degree from this program gives students endless opportunities,” she said. “From working as a data analyst at a Fortune 500 company or being an external evaluator for multimillion-dollar grants, to working in administrative roles as directors of institutional research.”

Smith credits the innovative and dedicated faculty at USM for pushing her to excel as a graduate student.

“It is one thing to take classes, pass exams, and write papers; but the true test is the ability of the student to step into the real world and be successful,” she said. “As one of my professors mentioned, ‘our job is to give you as many tools in your toolbelt that you can handle; it is your job to find out when, where, and how to use them.’ ”

After earning his undergraduate degree in geography from Brigham Young University (2013), Rancho Cordova, Calif., native Christopher Hair entered USM’s Graduate School the following year and completed his master’s degree program in 2016. He is on track to earn his doctorate in Geography from USM in May.

Hair spent almost half of last year in Cotacachi Ecuador on a Fulbright-Hayes Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship. While there he studied small-scale indigenous agriculture. He used state-of-the-art small unmanned aerial systems technology to create interactive aerial maps and inventory biodiversity. His goal was to provide a resource to help preserve agrobiodiversity, educate future generations and advance the appreciation for the historical and cultural value of these farming practices.

Hair concedes that USM was not on his radar when initially considering graduate school options. After starting out cautiously in his graduate studies, Hair ultimately seized upon the distinguished benefits derived from the program.

“As a master’s student I did not take advantage of the many offerings of the graduate school,” he said. “As a Ph.D. student, I have been able to benefit from travel grants, Professionals in Preparation Seminar, and other programs. During my time here I have come to better appreciate the caliber of the graduate program and the incredible support that the graduate school offers to students.”

Smith hopes to pay her experiences forward as she envisions a career as an educator and mentor in the same vein as those who are guiding her now.

“USM has provided me with some of the best examples of being a professor,” she said. “With their help, I have grown into a strong, well-rounded, candidate for future jobs. My experience and time at USM have shaped me into the person I am today. I can only hope to continue the legacy in which I have been fortunate enough to experience, continuing forward as a professional in academia.”

To learn more about USM’s Graduate School, call 601.266.4369 or visit: