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Cluster FAQs

General questions

What are clusters?

Clusters bring visibility to focused research areas and enable interdisciplinary networking. Within each cluster, faculty, graduate students, and postdocs come together to build community and encourage interdisciplinary engagement.

Why affiliate with a cluster?

Clusters give a fast-track into interdisciplinary training that crosses the boundaries of degree programs. By attending workshops, lectures, symposia, reading groups, dissertation writing groups, professional development training, and other events graduate students and postdocs get to know Northwestern faculty, meet visiting experts, and find peers in other graduate programs whose interests intersect with their own. Often, these connections lead to research collaborations. Additionally, students identify potential exam and dissertation committee members.

What do clusters focus on?

For information about specific clusters, see lists on the following webpages:

Student FAQs

How can I get involved?

Humanities and qualitative social science students affiliate with Mellon clusters by two routes: a few receive fellowships upon matriculation, while many more opt into the clusters as their research interests coalesce. Clusters coordinate a three-course requirement which is optional for affiliates. Many clusters also offer five-course certificates which appear on graduates’ transcripts. Fellows and other affiliates alike constitute the core constituencies of the Mellon clusters and are eligible for interdisciplinary conference travel support from The Graduate School.

PhD students in the Interdisciplinary Biological Sciences program (IBiS) and the Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences (DGP) explore research areas through courses and lab rotations. During the second year, all these students affiliate with a Life and Biomedical Science research cluster associated with their thesis lab. Often, students remain involved with the cluster until graduation. Other students interested in a Life and Biomedical Science cluster are welcome to contact the cluster’s director and get involved.

There are also numerous clusters in interdisciplinary approaches to science and engineering. First-year students are invited to take part in the symposia, work groups, and colloquia offered by all of the clusters to see what may interest them later in their career. At the end of their first year, interested students will apply to a cluster. There is highly-competitive funding available for second year students.

Faculty FAQs

What do cluster directors do?

Each cluster is administered by a director (sometimes in collaboration with a colleague). Responsibilities include organizing events; advising cluster students; attracting faculty, student, and postdoc affiliates to get involved; advising TGS of students’ completion of cluster (and, when applicable, certificate) requirements; and liaising with TGS about the cluster. If you can, keep in touch with alumni so that their career successes can be shared and celebrated among current affiliates.

How are cluster funds administered?

Funding distribution varies by cluster.  Please refer to the cluster budget guidelines distributed to all directors each September, or contact TGS Academic Affairs at any time.

What makes a good cluster?

By getting people together clusters catalyze new research. Clusters are essentially conduits of information: between faculty, students, and postdocs; visiting scholars and the Northwestern community; and across other allied and intersecting departments, degree programs, centers, and institutes. Anything that gets the right people together in a room can address a cluster’s mandate. For example:

  • Organize credit-bearing and non-credit-bearing events (courses, lectures, symposia, conferences, workshops, reading groups, etc.) that bring your community together.
  • Coordinate a centralized listing of relevant courses.
  • In conjunction with DGSes, advise students on a relevant course of study supporting research interests.
  • Support affiliates’ ability to pursue inter- and extra-disciplinary research. Sometimes this takes the form utilizing cluster funding to support students’ research and travel to conferences.
  • Maintain a website and/or social media presence to distribute information about upcoming events.
  • Liaise with other clusters, degree programs, centers, and institutes to jointly sponsor programming. This not only builds attendance but also shares costs.
  • Sponsor professional development workshops, job talks, and career development relevant to the cluster’s focus.
  • Develop partnerships with similar entities at other institutions.

How can clusters enhance strong recruitment?

Mellon clusters are directly involved in applicant recruitment during winter quarter. For more information about how this works contact TGS’s Office of Admissions and Recruitment.

All clusters can play a role in attracting students to Northwestern. Ensure that feeder programs have access to information about your cluster. Encourage faculty to talk about it with prospective students

Who can be a cluster student?

Technically, any TGS student can get involved in clusters. In practice, participants are almost always PhD students and postdoctoral fellows.

What is my role in advising?

The sooner you can get students involved in a cluster the greater the impact on their intellectual development and the shape of their committees and dissertations.

Mellon cluster directors should meet with new fellows as soon as they matriculate, then again periodically for several quarters. Emphasize coursework options, connect students with faculty who share their interests, encourage full participation in cluster events, and introduce students to the range of conferences (beyond their home discipline) that will eventually be good places to present research.

Other cluster directors take a role in helping first-year students identify clusters that are suited to their interests and encourage involvement not only during but after a match to a cluster is made. Directors of the interdisciplinary science and engineering clusters also determine which students will receive quarters of funded support during their second year of enrollment at Northwestern.

Who can I call on for help?

TGS Academic Affairs will assist with financial management and ensure that the cluster is appropriately described on TGS’s website. We also help you network with other cluster directors to learn about effective activities and best practices. Beyond that, each cluster typically has a group of core and affiliated faculty who participate and advise on all matters.

How are new clusters created?

As research interests and trends evolve, some clusters may be dissolved and others created. To propose a new cluster, send an initial inquiry to TGS’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs.