Reflecting on the Purpose of Graduate Education

A message from Dean Cooley

May 16, 2024

Dear Graduate Students,

As we reach the end of the academic year, I want to take a moment to reflect on the journey we’ve shared, marked by both challenges and remarkable achievements. We have contended with questions of labor, free expression, and social justice, among others, not only in the abstract but in our daily lives. These are immediately pressing matters that nonetheless require the critical thinking, academic rigor, and constructive dialogue that underpin our purpose as a graduate school. Indeed, many of our faculty and graduate students study the issues we are living through, providing a timely example of the many ways in which the scholarship we produce matters to the world.

It is during moments of great uncertainty that we rely most on our communities. You may remember my talking at your matriculation about what the Romantic poet John Keats called “negative capability,” or the capacity to thrive in the midst of uncertainty and doubt. While it may sound like an unpleasant state, Keats, and others after him, understood "negative capability" as a positive prerequisite for discovery and creativity while seeking new knowledge. We have all been affected by uncertainty in recent years and have benefited from engaging thoughtfully in difficult conversations. I take this as evidence of the negative capability that has positively buoyed us through political turmoil, even as we continue our mission of education and research. We may doubt, we may disagree with one another, but in doing so we develop our tolerance for nuance and refine our understanding of the world. Our communities encourage us through these junctures and celebrate our accomplishments with us.

Accepting uncertainty does not mean giving up. Now more than ever, we must continue pushing the boundaries of knowledge through research and teaching and recognize our progress as a community of scholars engaged collectively in responsible thought, work, and dialogue. We recently announced the winners of our Graduate Mentor Award and Prize Teaching Fellowship, each of whom reminds us of the strength of that community and the importance of engagement.  The Commencement we will celebrate this weekend also reminds us of our success in our shared endeavor. This year, we will award 1,020 Master’s and 410 PhD degrees to scholars who will go on to serve society in myriad ways. I implore you all, not only those of you who are graduating in May, to use your scholarship and the skills you learn in graduate school to counter skepticism and foster trust in the power of graduate education.

Thank you for your hard work, your resilience, and your unyielding commitment to excellence. I hope the summer months include rest and rejuvenation, preparing us to continue our ongoing journey of learning, discovery, and growth.

To our graduating class – congratulations on reaching this milestone and very best wishes for what lies ahead!
With regards, 
Lynn Cooley
Dean, Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences 
Vice Provost for Postdoctoral Affairs 
C.N.H. Long Professor of Genetics 
Professor of Cell Biology and of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology