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Old Main on the NAU campus.

Northern Arizona University has high hopes in the face of impending challenges as it expands its academic catalog with three new doctoral programs.

The College of Engineering, Informatics, and Applied Sciences (CEIAS) has received approval from the Arizona Board of Regents to introduce doctoral programs in mechanical engineering and applied physics and materials science (APMS) this fall, followed by civil and environmental engineering in fall 2020. CEIAS will be the first college at NAU to offer a doctoral studies in all of its departments, with the new programs joining existing ones in informatics and computing and bioengineering.

The new programs will strive to increase university research and grant competitiveness by attracting high-quality students and faculty.

“I consider it a chance for us to compete now. We’re in the game. This is not the finish line for us, it’s really the starting gun. Now we get to do this – we get to compete, we get to develop this expertise,” Diane Stearns, interim dean of CEIAS, said

Although CEIAS – a reorganization of the College of Engineering, Forestry and Natural Sciences – launched in July, the programs have been in the works for years.

“This was a longtime wish that finally came to fruition," Constantin Ciocanel, chair of the mechanical engineering department, said. "Everybody in the department was rooting for this and was looking forward to having such a program.”

NAU will bring in new faculty members – a tentative 23 in the next seven years – for the three programs, which will be re-evaluated in three years to ensure they are meeting their goals for enrollment and output of research and student employment.

More competitive faculty means more funding, Stearns said, and hopes by the seventh year, all five CEIAS doctoral programs will keep a steady count of 150 enrolled students.

“It’s important for engineering and applied sciences that we are on the cutting edge or we are not doing our job,” Stearns said.

To compete at this higher level will require external funding for faculty salaries, research, recruitment and student support. The board warned university representatives of these challenges at its Feb. 7 meeting.

Regent Lyndel Manson said doctoral students are expensive because they are often paid to teach and assist faculty. These students could become a financial burden if not handled properly.

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NAU administrators, though, are confident funding will not be an issue. Gabriel A. Montaño, director of the APMS program, said members of his department will be pursuing external funds aggressively because they want the new program to be successful.

Doctoral students can help secure those funds and use them appropriately.

“When you have Ph.D. students, you can have them work with you for a longer period of time. You train them and after a year, it starts to pay off," Ciocanel said. "Whereas if you only have master’s students, when you finally train them, they take off. Your return on investment is not the same.”

Introducing doctoral students to these departments will increase the competitiveness of related programs, not only because of the ability to conduct innovative research, but also because they can serve as mentors to both master’s and undergraduate students.

The new programs will also be a pathway for new disciplines to develop in Arizona.

Montaño said the APMS program will be a unique combination of two different fields with a foundation in applied science instead of engineering. He said the closest offerings at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona are their graduate level mechanical engineering programs.

“We’re setting the market. I don’t think we’re chasing the programs. People are going to be looking at us as a model of how to do this at a non-Ivy League institution,” Montaño said.

Ciocanel said the programs will also allow northern Arizona residents to advance their careers without being displaced.

Though the research benefits are highly anticipated, NAU representatives agree that, ultimately, undergraduate students will benefit the most from these programs through competitive faculty and increased opportunities for undergraduate research.

“We will not divert from our core missions of undergraduate education and, in fact, this expansion of curriculum and of research provides more opportunities for students, not less. But we are not naive to the challenges,” NAU President Rita Cheng said at the ABOR meeting.

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 

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