Gas station without pumps

2012 February 8

Thoughts for revising a grad curriculum, part 1

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 23:30
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Our department is thinking of doing a major overhaul of our graduate curriculum. I’m going to do a series of posts on my thoughts about curricular design, both to clarify my own thinking and to provide a place where people can argue with me, so that I can either revise my ideas or come up with better justifications and explanations for them.

This first post is going to be fairly general, talking about broad goals that could apply to many different fields.  In later posts I hope to get down to nitty-gritty details that are more specific to bioinformatics and biomolecular engineering, and even to just our department.

We do little tweaks to our program every couple of years, but we haven’t done a really major revision since we set up the program in 2003.  Our department has tripled in size since then (we now have about 10 faculty), and each new faculty member has created at least one new graduate course, and so we now have more grad courses than our students can take.  Because we require our graduate students to take several courses from outside the department and have had a fairly steady number of grad students, we’ve ended up with too few students per course. With the recent and upcoming budget cuts, we can no longer afford the luxury of so many “boutique” grad courses.  Grad courses don’t need to be huge, but we can’t afford to have professors teaching classes with just 2 or 3 students unless they do it as overload (as I did last year).  We can’t build a grad curriculum under the assumption that the professors will do overload forever.

So one goal of the redesign is to reduce the number of grad courses offered each year, without depriving students of needed material.  We made a first stab at this already, by switching a lot of courses to alternate years (and cancelling a few completely) based on how popular the classes have been recently and how essential we thought the classes were. But this rationing of courses is not really a redesign—we can (and must) do better than that.

Students have also complained of some duplication of content between courses, though we have not yet done a careful analysis to find out what duplication they are seeing (there was little, if any, deliberate duplication, but faculty are not always aware of what other faculty have covered).  Obviously, de-duplicating material will allow us to reduce the number of courses without removing material, but I suspect that the duplication in the entire 9-course program amounts to substantially less than course, so it won’t help much in increasing efficiency.  It’ll make the students happy that they have been listened to, but would only result in minor edits, where a more major restructuring is needed.

A bigger problem to address is that our notion of the core of our discipline has evolved over the past decade, and so some of the requirements we set up at the beginning no longer seem to be a good fit.  As our department has grown, we’ve picked up new topics of research that call for rather different preparation than our original topics, and some of the topics we started with are no longer active areas of research. Ideally, we’d like to set up a system in which the topics can evolve more freely without having to redesign the requirements every five years.

Our faculty also have a variety of different models for what a graduate education is supposed to be, and these different models are sometimes incompatible.  Two extreme positions (which may not be held in pure form by anyone in the department) are the research-only model and the course-only model.  In the research-only model, students take no courses whatsoever and do nothing but work on one thesis project.  Producing an original piece of research is the sole goal of the research-only model, and anything that distracts from that goal is a waste of time.  In the courses-only model, graduate school is a continuation of undergraduate education, in which students take more specialized courses, eventually learning the most cutting-edge techniques of the field. The research-only model celebrates depth of learning, often at the expense of breadth, while the courses-only model leans in the opposite direction.

Because I characterized those as extreme positions, you can conclude that I don’t believe in either of them.  The model I have for graduate education is that it is a transition from learning about the field to becoming a professional researcher or professor in the field.  The requirements of a grad program need to support that transition, not assume that it has already been made nor that it can be put off into the indefinite future.

Because our graduates will go on to a variety of different careers (including industrial research, national labs, professorships at research universities, professorships at colleges that emphasize teaching, core bioinformatics support positions, software development positions, and others jobs that may not even exist currently), we need to prepare them for a broad range of possibilities. This argues against the research-only model, which prepares students only for pure research in the narrow specialty of their thesis—something almost none of our students end up doing as a career.

But we can’t be so broad and general that they come out being all “potential” with no track record of accomplishments. Even our MS program, which prepares students more for research support and software development positions than for research positions, must include projects that require substantial creativity and original work.

Currently our undergrad bioinformatics program relies heavily on first-year grad courses for the senior-year requirement.  The efficiency of teaching both the undergrads and grads in the same course is essential, particularly given that our undergrad program is small and unlikely to get much larger.

So here are some broad goals I have for the redesign:

  • We should have an MS program that prepares students for research support and development careers.
  • We should have a PhD program that prepares students for both research and teaching positions.
  • The programs should be a suitable mix of breadth and depth, possibly balanced somewhat differently for the PhD and MS programs.
  • Students should be able to transition fairly easily between the programs, as their career goals get more refined and their strengths and interests become more apparent.
  • The grad courses should be teachable by our current faculty, even if 1/9th of them are on sabbatical.
  • The requirements should be flexible enough to accommodate changes in the field, in the interests of the faculty, and in the backgrounds of our students, without needing frequent redesign of the curriculum.
  • The grad program should provide needed courses for the senior year of our undergrad program.
  • We should be able to teach all our courses, undergrad and grad, without faculty having to take on overload.

Undoubtedly I’ll think of more goals as soon as I post this, but I’ll save them for subsequent posts.



  1. […] This is the second in a series of posts on my thoughts about curricular design (the first was Thoughts for revising a grad curriculum, part 1).  I am hoping to get pushback from colleagues around the world, former grad students, and even […]

    Pingback by Thoughts for revising a grad curriculum, part 2 « Gas station without pumps — 2012 February 9 @ 21:10 | Reply

  2. […] This is the third in a series of posts on my thoughts about curricular design (earlier ones were Thoughts for revising a grad curriculum, part 1 and Thoughts for revising a grad curriculum, part 2).  The first post was applicable to almost any […]

    Pingback by Thoughts for revising a grad curriculum, part 3 « Gas station without pumps — 2012 February 26 @ 15:19 | Reply

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