The University of Chicago has 18 different biological sciences division graduate programs, which are organized into a combination of clusters, committees, and departments. The Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs hoped to redesign its existing website in order to more clearly represent the structure and organization of its graduate programs, and also make the program more appealing and recruit more high-quality graduate students. The client asked Web Services to conduct a discovery project to determine whether combining all 18 graduate programs into one website would help them achieve their objectives.
I worked with the client to identify 6 stakeholders for interviews. I interviewed the following roles: Director of Planning, BSD Dean’s Office; Professor of Ecology and Evolution; a Professor of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, two graduate students, and a postdoctoral researcher.
The current structure and organization of Biological Sciences Division graduate program websites consists of one Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs website and 18 different websites for each cluster, committee, or department. A stakeholder from the client organization named the following challenges with the current website structure:
Some departments have very few resources (time, money) available to dedicate to maintaining a website.
Many BSD sites duplicate the same information (i.e., “things to do in Chicago”)
Different departments have contracted with different website design/development vendors, and this has resulted in sites that differ greatly in quality and maintainability.
The current program structure confuses some students, and this leads them to make uninformed decisions about a BSD graduate program, or perhaps to not apply at all.
These confused students contact faculty who “trade” them between programs to find an appropriate match.
Some programs have trouble recruiting enough strong applicants.
There is no central database for division statistics and this affects the department’s ability to get training grants.
The current name of the Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs office sounds bureaucratic and may not be appearing in search results for a specific BSD graduate program.
Is 1 Website > 18 websites?
In order to test the client’s assumption that combining the 18 different Biological Sciences Division graduate program into one comprehensive website will attract a larger pool of high-quality graduate students, I put a peer site that combines several biological sciences graduate programs in front of current University of Chicago Biological Sciences graduate students. Here are the graduate students’ impressions of the Washington University Biological Sciences website:
An umbrella website makes it seem like students come out with a general biological sciences degree, which is less desirable than a PhD in a specialization.
It makes the program seem smaller since there is only one site.
Specializations seem like they have less weight since you never leave the site.
Programs lose their individual character when combined into an umbrella site.
An integrated site takes away valuable information.
They feared that the integrated site hides or buries programs.
The navigation structure required by this type of site is confusing.
Students had the following general feedback on the idea of combining all program sites into one website:
Extremely competitive applicants know what they want to study, and will not be “comparison shopping” or need to see a comprehensive list of all programs offered by BSD. Really competitive people already work in a lab in the field and know what they want to study.
An integrated website may bury information about specific programs, and it may take a prospective student longer to find that information.