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2015 January 19

Community colleges as farm teams

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In Confessions of a Community College Dean: Farm Teams, “Dean Dad” responds to an article in Inside Higher Education, describing a program at Western Governors University (a private, non-profit, online college) that hands off weaker students to the StraighterLine (a cheaper, unaccredited program of online college courses that does not lead to a degree, but which are accepted for transfer by WGU and a few other colleges).  Dean Dad does not talk about this specific program, but writes,

But the basic idea makes sense. When selective institutions—especially public ones—are physically close to community colleges, sending “near-miss” applicants to the community college to prove themselves and get up to speed offers a smart answer for everyone involved. The elite public institution gets to manage the difficult trick of maintaining both standards and openness to the public at the same time. The near-miss student gets a chance to prove herself, and at lower cost. And the community college gets a pipeline of strong students with something to prove.

It’s especially smart for students who have a distinct, isolated area of need, such as English language learners or students with math gaps. In those cases, students would benefit from the relative specialization that community colleges offer. For the strong-ish student who just needs a little more time to get to the next level, a setting with small introductory classes taught by faculty hired to do exactly that is probably better than a 300-student auditorium lecture in which the main interaction is with a t.a. And I say that having been one of those t.a.’s.

A farm system is different from the “transfer” system we have now. In the usual “transfer” system, a student applies first (or simultaneously) to the community college, and moves on when ready. (Ideally, that’s at the point of graduation, though many students leave earlier and hurt our “performance” numbers even as they succeed at the next level. But that’s another post.) In a farm system, the student applies initially to the elite institution and is referred to the community college. I see no reason the two systems should be mutually exclusive.

I see a lot to like in the “farm team” system that he proposes. We certainly get a fair number of students at UC who are not ready for UC-level work (thanks to the “eligibility in the local context” admission policy, which admits students even if their high school teaches only to grade-school levels of competence). It would be useful to be able to encourage some of these students to do remedial courses in the community colleges first, since UC does not do a very good job of remediation, and the community colleges do much better.  And it isn’t just the weakest students who could benefit from taking some community college courses—there are plenty of standard courses (calculus, physics, intro to programming, chemistry, … ) that are taught as well or better at the local community college.  According to the undergrad assistant dean for the School of Engineering, our transfer students do slightly better in courses that depend on these as prerequisites than the students who took the corresponding lower-division courses at UC.

The current system is set up to discourage students from taking community college classes once they are admitted to UC, making the transfer paperwork far more onerous after admission than before, both for the student and for the advising office. Perhaps this is a practice that needs to be rethought by the UC faculty and administrators.

2015 January 6

New quarter, lots of work

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The Winter quarter started yesterday, and my schedule is going to be even fuller than I thought.

I only have two classes this quarter, both 2-unit courses. One course is the freshman design seminar, the other is the senior thesis writing course, so I’m getting students at both the beginning and the end of their undergraduate experience. Two 2-unit courses sounds like a pretty light load, but the courses are more work for me than most 2-unit courses.

For the freshman design seminar, I’m having to create content as I go—we have some lab access this year that we didn’t have last year, and I want to get the students building stuff as soon as I can. But that means my having to build the stuff, to make sure it is feasible, and to figure out how to digest it down to the point where students can have success in the design and construction. I’ll probably be spending more time on the course than any of the students—they’re supposed to have 3.5 hours a week in class or lab and 2.5 hours a week on their homework—I’m expecting to spend more than that prepping for class, and even more on grading.

At the end of last quarter, I filled out a form on the library web site asking for an information session for the course, and I filled it out again yesterday.  Usually the librarians are pretty good about responding to the requests, and I was wondering why I hadn’t heard from them, so I sent e-mail to a couple of the librarians I’d worked with in the past—it seems that the forms on their web page weren’t entering the data into the request system (reason still not known), and they’d never gotten my requests to schedule the information session.  They forwarded my request on to other librarians (a different team handles lower-division information sessions, which worries me a bit, because I don’t want the sort of pablum they usually give freshmen—the ones I’m used to working with know that I want solid training on search techniques), but I’ve not heard back from that team yet. It’s a good thing that I haven’t figured out my schedule for the quarter yet, as I’ve no idea when they’ll be available.

I’m also still waiting to hear back from the engineering lab staff about what training the students need to be able to use the tools in the fab lab, and how I can get access.  I probably need to go and talk with them in person—I’ve gotten no responses to my e-mail requests.

Today I asked the bioengineering undergrads (by e-mail) for volunteers to lead lab tours of the labs they work in, and to explain to the freshmen how they managed to join the lab. My explanation of how to join labs never seems as convincing to the freshmen as hearing directly from juniors and seniors that are in labs. The lab tours are always rather cool, because there is a lot of interesting research going on by bioengineering undergrads here. So far, I’ve had one faculty member tell me he’s assigned some students to do the tour of his lab, but they haven’t contacted me to schedule it yet. Tomorrow, I may ask the seniors doing thesis research if any of them have time to help out.

The senior writing class meets for 3.5 hours this week, but for the rest of the quarter we’ll be meeting only 1.75 hours a week (Wednesdays 5–6:45) as a group, mainly to go over common problems and for them to practice presentations with an audience. I was expecting about 12 students in the class, but I have 19, six of whom had not taken the prerequisite tech-writing course. This pisses me off a bit, since I don’t have time in a 2-unit course to teach everything that should be covered in the 5-unit writing course. But the fault is not entirely theirs—the tech-writing class has been full with students not able to get in every quarter for the past few years.

I had to do some last-minute restructuring of the thesis-writing class because of the size.  The last time I’d taught the class (2 years ago), I read each student’s draft thesis 5 times, providing four rounds of detailed feedback before the final draft was evaluated. I won’t be able to do that this year. Instead, I’ve broken the class into three groups, who turn in their papers out of phase (6 this week, 7 next week, 6 the week after, then repeat).  This plan results in only 3 rounds of feedback before the final version, not 4, but still has me reading a thesis (50-to-100 pages) every day.

I will be meeting with each thesis writer individually for 20 minutes a week, for them to practice their elevator talk, to discuss their research with me, and to discuss their writing.  In some cases in the past, I could not understand their projects from their writing, and it took several rounds of discussion before I realized what they were trying to do, so that I could help them word it comprehensibly.  (In at least one case, the student had misunderstood the statistics so badly that what they were claiming as exciting results were all indistinguishable from chance.) Nineteen students at 20 minutes each is another 6.3 contact hours.

Another difference from the last time I taught the course is that most of the students are in the second quarter of the three-quarter thesis project, rather than in the last quarter. This was a deliberate rescheduling on my part, because I was appalled at how many students had been working for over 20 weeks and written absolutely nothing.  In some cases they hadn’t even properly done their background research, and found that they’d wasted most of the 20 weeks on rather useless stuff that didn’t address their real research questions.  (I did send some politely worded e-mail messages to the faculty who had been “supervising” them, though I wanted to scream at them for their incompetence as advisers.)  Since then, I’ve also gotten much more careful when signing the independent study forms as the undergraduate director and program chair (the forms call for both signatures, but for the bioengineering program, both signatures are mine) to make sure that the students are writing something every quarter.

In any case, the student will not have finished theses at the end of the writing course, but almost-finished ones, with just a few results to fill in next quarter and a little discussion.

So for the two small classes this quarter, I have 11.6 contact hours, 12 hours of grading, and probably 4–5 hours of prep work each week.  I also have 2 hours a week scheduled for office hours, 1.5 for meetings with the department manager, and 2 hours for the department research seminar. So I’m up to 17 hours a week of scheduled meetings and 12 hours of grading—and that doesn’t count the 2–3 hours a week I’ll need to spend with grad students and 1–2 with the nanopore research group, nor the extra advising load that will happen this quarter as all the sophomores try to declare their majors.. So figure at least 22 hours scheduled and 12 hours grading, before we get to my administrative duties.

Today was spent almost entirely on administrative duties—both the department and the bioengineering program are having to do self studies this year for WASC accreditation next year, and I’m stuck writing the whole self study for the bioengineering program and the undergrad portion for the department. I had written a draft of the bioengineering self study over the two-week break while campus was closed, but I only found the form with the prompts for the self study today.  None of what I wrote was wasted, but they wanted a whole lot more bureaucratic bullshit about “Program Learning Outcomes”, a top-down management approach that ensures that every faculty member will run screaming when asked to do anything about the curriculum.  (Actually, our faculty are much more subtle than that—they just nod their heads and disappear.)

I was particularly annoyed by the loaded question in one prompt:

Overall, how has program assessment (including all steps: defining the program learning outcomes, developing the curriculum matrix or rubrics, interpreting the findings) been used to guide improvement of the program? Provide at least one example since the last review of an improvement made to some aspect of the program’s curriculum or course effectiveness.

My current draft answer (which I’m afraid will have to be toned down a bit) is

This prompt assumes that the Program Learning Outcome process has some beneficial effect on improving the program, for which there is no empirical evidence in the bioengineering program.  The improvements in the program have come despite the time wasted on the PLO process, not because of it. The extensive curricular changes described in Section 2 considered data from senior exit interviews, careful thought about what concentrations were uniquely offerable at UCSC, what made pedagogic sense, and what courses and resources were available.  The overly bureaucratic PLO process, particular the curriculum matrix and “rubrics”, took time away from thinking about and discussing the curriculum and pedagogy, diverting it to satisfying arbitrary bureaucratic requirements.

As you might gather, I’m pretty pissed about the PLO process, which calls for an annual report on assessment of one of the Program Learning Outcomes.  I had to make up the outcomes myself last year (none of the faculty were interested), and I’ll have to do all the “assessment” and writing of the report this year for two programs (none of the other faculty are interested). If the process served to trigger discussion about curriculum or pedagogy among the faculty, it might be worthwhile, but it has had the opposite effect, making faculty even less willing than usual to engage in discussions of the curriculum. So I’m stuck writing bullshit reports for administrators who’ll probably never read them, when I’d much rather be teaching, advising students, or fixing problems in the curriculum with other faculty.  (Or even, gasp, doing some research!)

Note: there have been some substantial improvements to the curriculum since the last review—I spent countless hours last year meeting with other faculty (one-on-one or in small groups) to completely overhaul the bioengineering curriculum.  I’m pretty pleased with the result (and students who’ve compared the old and the new curriculum wish that I’d overhauled it a couple years earlier, so that they could have done the new curriculum). But it really was the case that the “Program Learning Outcomes” was a distraction and a sideshow that cut into the time I had to think about and fix the curriculum.

Anyway, after meeting with the BME chair and department manager this morning, to set the agenda for this Friday’s monthly BME faculty meeting, I spent most of the rest of the day trying to wrestle the draft of the bioengineering self-study into shape so that I could share it with the bioengineering faculty, while answering the loaded questions of the administrators. (I’d shared the first draft and gotten feedback from only two faculty out of the thirty—both of them instructors, not tenure-track faculty—two of the best teachers in the School of Engineering.)  I’m unlikely to get much out of the rest of the faculty—I have no carrot or stick to encourage compliance (the program chair of the bioengineering program comes with 0 resources, not even a course buyout for hundreds of hours of work on the curriculum and the self-study).

I had been planning to spend the afternoon doing a first draft of the undergraduate self-study for the bioinformatics program, but the amount of extra work needed on the bioengineering one took up my whole afternoon. I spent a lot of it asking staff for the data that the administrators wanted—much of the data they asked for was not available and will take the staff several days to try to compile. Some of the prompts were particularly irksome:

Provide a brief description of the learning outcomes assessment process, including a multiyear assessment plan, references to assessment instruments provided in Appendix III (e.g., a capstone rubric), and a summary of the annual assessment findings regarding each of the program learning outcomes (as many as have been
assessed to date). Comment on what the indirect evidence from the undergraduate major (UCUES) survey, such as students’ self-reported competency levels and satisfaction with educational experience, indicates in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of  the program. How do measures of direct evidence of student learning agree with indirect measures?                           

What is the UCUES survey data I’m supposed to analyze?  Well, after trawling through my e-mail I found a promise that I’d get the data in December. I never did, so I asked. Oh, they might have that by next week, maybe.  So much for trying to get the self-study written before the thesis-a-day grading starts tomorrow!  The “assessment instruments in Appendix III?” There aren’t any—I only wrote the bloody outcomes last year under duress, and there haven’t been any “assessment instruments” (by which they probably mean bullshit surveys and meaningless statistical analysis of portfolios using made-up “rubrics”). So, summary of annual assessment findings: “there haven’t been any and they wouldn’t mean squat even if there were some”.

I do have several years’ worth of portfolios from graduating seniors as well as notes from exit interviews (both portfolios and exit interviews are requirements for graduation), and I’ve actually read a lot of the student theses in depth. That’s useful to do, and a lot of the ideas for the curriculum overhaul came from discussing the curriculum with graduating seniors at the exit interviews, but turning the portfolios and interviews into an “assessment instrument” using their 50-page guide to the process?—pure, unadulterated educrap.

 

2014 December 28

Public univerisities as mass quality

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Chris Newfield, in Trends we can work with: Higher Ed in 2015 ~ Remaking the University, wrote

I never tire of pointing out that the only reason for the existence of public universities is mass quality—mass access to top-quality teaching and cutting-edge research—that puts regular folks on the level where they can genuinely match elites. It’s not too soon for faculty to join students in putting the quality back in mass quality, while creating new kinds of quality to reflect on current conditions. The success students had this year in holding off major politicians like Jerry Brown—and in getting cited in revenue arguments by governing boards—signaled to at least some faculty that it’s time to step up.

Chris Newfield, like me, teaches at the University of California (though he is on a different campus). I think we both see the University of California as having a combined mission: teaching and research at a very high level of quality and at a low price to the students. Unfortunately, high quality does not come at low cost, so the only way to achieve a low price is through subsidies. Because the public universities do not have the massive endowments and enormous philanthropic contributions that schools like Stanford get, the subsidies have to come from the state.

Unfortunately, our state politicians have been fooled into thinking that the University of California can be simultaneously controlled by the legislature and paid for by the students—thanks in large part to Regents who sincerely believe that unregulated markets are the best way to achieve everything.  As a result, the University of California has become much more expensive for students while having a lot less money for instructional purposes.  It’s been a slow process, played out over the past 20 years, but the UC educational experience has gradually been cheapened while becoming pricier.

The problem is not inefficiency on the part of the University or spiraling costs (see Cost of college remarkably stable), but simple cost shifting from public funding to student loans.  The legislature and the governors have given up education as a public good and decided to slowly privatize higher education in California. This is not a popular position with the people of California, so they disguise the moves and find ways to make the University look like the bad guys in raising tuition.

The University administration has been aiding and abetting this political movement to privatize the University, by raising tuition every opportunity they get and by paying their top executives ridiculously large salaries, while simultaneously treating the faculty and unionized workers worse and worse (health benefits are much worse now than when I joined UC 28 years ago; salaries are about the same, after correcting for inflation; and workloads are higher).  I think the UCOP (University of California Office of the President) made a particularly bad mis-step this year in the way that they raised tuition right after giving top executives pay raises—it made it look like they were just interested in lining their own pockets.  It would have been better to come out with a plan for lowering tuition while raising state contributions—then the legislature would be properly seen as the ones causing the problem, rather than offering the legislature an opportunity to look virtuous while cutting funding for the University.

Quite frankly, I’m not convinced that the UCOP executives have any interest in the University as a university—they certainly seem to pay much more attention to ways that they can extract money from it (like using the retirement funds for speculation on UC venture capital projects) than on education or research.  Neither UCOP nor the Regents listen to the faculty or the students, and I think that they have no idea what damage their self-centered decisions have already done to the University, much less what damage their most recent decisions will do.

2014 December 27

We create a problem when we pass the incompetent

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I finished my grading earlier this week, and I was little distressed at how many students did not pass my graduate bioinformatics class (19% of the students in the class did not pass this fall, about equally divided between the seniors and the first-year grads—note that “passing” for a grad student is B– or better, while for an undergrad is C or better). Some students were simply unprepared for the level of computer programming the course requires and were not able to get up to speed quickly enough.  They made substantial improvement during the quarter and should do fine next time around, particularly if they continue to practice their programming skills. Others have a history of failing courses and may or may not make the effort needed to develop their programming skills before their next attempt.

I don’t like to have students fail my courses (particularly not repeatedly, as some have done), but I can’t bring myself to pass students who have not come close to doing the required work. When I pass a student in a course, it means that I’m certifying that they are at least marginally competent in the skills that the course covers (most of my courses are about developing skills, not learning information).  I’ll give the students all the help and feedback I can to develop those skills, but I grade them on what they achieve, not on how much work they put in, what excuses they have, nor how many times they’ve attempted the course.

I often feel alone in holding the line on quality—I’m afraid that there are not enough faculty willing to fail students who don’t meet the requirements of the courses they are teaching.  Those teachers are just kicking the problem of inadequately prepared students on to the next teacher, or to the employer of the student who graduates without the skills a college graduate should have.

In The Academe Blog,  in the click-bait-named post Nude Adult Models, William Bennett, Common Core, Rotten Teachers, Apples, Robert Frost, Ulf Kirchdorfer wrote

The reality is that many teachers, whether prompted by supervisors or of their own volition, continue to pass students so that we have many that reach college with the most basic of literacy skills, in English, math, science, the foreign languages.

Tired of listening to some of my colleagues complain of college students being unable to write, I went to look at learning outcomes designed for students in secondary education, and sure enough, as I had suspected, even a junior high, or middle-school, student should be able to write a formulaic, basic five-paragraph theme.

Guess what. Many college students, even graduating ones, are unable to do so.

While I don’t often agree with Ulf (who often takes extreme positions just for the fun of argument), I have to agree with him that many of my students are not writing at what I would consider a college level for senior thesis proposals, even though they have had three prerequisite writing courses (including a tech writing course) as prerequisites to the senior thesis.  And it isn’t just writing coherent papers in English that is a problem, as evidenced by the failure rate in my bioinformatics course due to inadequate programming skills (despite several prerequisite programming courses).

In an article about Linda B. Nelson’s “spec” grading system, which attempts to fix some of the problems with current grading practices, she is quoted:

“Most students (today) have never failed at anything,” Nilson noted, since their generation grew up receiving inflated grades and trophies for mere participation in sports. “If they don’t fail now, they’re going to have a really hard life.”

It doesn’t do anyone any favors to pass students who do not meet the minimum competency expected—the students are deluded into thinking they are much more competent than they are (so that they don’t take the necessary actions to remediate their problems); future teachers are forced to either reteach what the students should already have learned (which means that the students who had the prerequisites get shortchanged) or lose a big chunk of the class; the university degree loses its value as a marker of competence; and employers ratchet up credentials needed for employment (as the degrees mean less, higher degrees are asked for).

There is pressure on faculty to raise pass rates and pass students who don’t have adequate preparation.  The University administration wants to increase the 4-year graduation rate while taking in more students from much weaker high schools. I worry that the administration is pushing for higher graduation rates without considering the problems caused by pressuring faculty to pass students who are not competent. The reputation of the university is based on the competence of its alumni—pumping out unqualified students would fairly quickly dissipate the university’s good name.

Four-year graduation is not very common in engineering fields—even good students who start with every advantage (like several AP courses in high school with good AP scores) have a hard time packing everything into 4 years. Minor changes to course schedules can throw off even the best-laid plans, so an extra quarter or two are completely routine occurrences. And that’s for the top students.  Students coming in with weak math preparation find it almost impossible to finish in 4 years, because they have to redo high school math (precalculus), causing delays in their starting physics and engineering classes. If they ever fail a course, they may end up a full year behind, because the tightening of instructional funding has resulted in many courses only being offered once a year.  There is a lot of pressure on faculty to pass kids who clearly are not meeting standards, so that their graduation is not delayed—as if the diploma was all that mattered, not the education it is supposed to represent.

There are things that administrators can do to reduce the pressure on faculty.  For example, they could stop pushing 4-year graduation rates, and pay more attention to the 5-year rates. The extra time would allow students with a weaker high school background to catch up.  (But our governor wants to reduce college to 3 years, which can only work if we either fail a lot of students or lower standards enormously—guess which he wants. Hint: he favors online education.) Students who need remedial work should be given extra support and extra time to get up to the level needed for college, not passed through college with only high school education.

Or they could stop admitting students to engineering programs who haven’t mastered high school math and high school English.  This could be difficult to do, as high school grades are so inflated that “A” really does mean “Average” now, and the standardized tests only cover the first two years of high school math and that superficially (my son, as a sixth grader, with no education in high school math, got a 720 on the SAT math section).  It is hard for admissions officers to tell whether a student is capable of college-level writing or college-level math if all the information they get is only checking 8th-grade-level performance.

Or administrators could encourage more transfer students from community colleges, where they may have taken several years to recover from inadequate high school education and get to the point where they can handle the proper expectations of college courses.  (That would help with the attrition due to freshman partying also.)

Or administrators could pay for enough tenured faculty to teach courses with high standards, without the pressure that untenured and contingent faculty feel to keep a high pass rate in order to get “good” teaching evaluations and retain their jobs.

Realistically, I don’t expect administrators to do any of those reasonable things, so it is up to the faculty to hold onto academic standards, despite pressure from administrators to raise the 4-year graduation rate.

2014 December 23

A long PhD is not a bad thing

In response to http://xykademiqz.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/the-7-year-phd-itch, where she argued in favor of 5-year PhDs, and producing many papers as a grad student, I commented

I spent 8 years on my PhD (of course, I changed fields from pure math to computer science to computer engineering in that time). I only had a few papers when I was done, but I was in a hot new field and got a tenure-track position immediately. Unfortunately, it was not a good fit, and I ended up moving to another institution after 4 years, where it took me 7 more years to get tenure. So my BS-to-tenure time was 19 years. (The second job was a good fit, and I’m still at that university, though in a different field and in a different department.)

I find it difficult to advise students to race through grad school or to write huge numbers of crappy papers. I think that it is more important for students (and researchers in general) to write one or two high-quality papers that might actually make a difference.

Of the papers I wrote in grad school, one has never been cited (probably only one other person ever read it), one is my 6th most-cited paper (350 citations in Google Scholar and 86,600 hits with Google), and one has had very modest citations (85). My thesis itself was one-year throwaway work (only cited 9 times).

Note: I had fellowships for most of grad school, so only worked as an RA for 2 quarters and a TA for one. The highly cited paper was one that was not the result of any funded project, but an idea that another fellowship student came up with on his homemade computer and that we played with for a few years. The idea made over $100,000 in license fees for the campus and is what got me into the hot field that I was later hired for. I think that a lot has been lost by pushing students to be “hands in the lab” for senior researchers.

I’ve been sitting on this comment since March, with the idea of turning it into a full blog post.  I’ve seen a lot of different attitudes on the part of both grad students and faculty about how long a PhD should take and how much should be done for it.

My personal take is that a PhD education should be both broad and deep—one should have enough breadth of knowledge to teach several different undergrad courses and enough depth in one subject to have contributed original work to the field.

Research faculty generally want students to stick around for a fairly long time, so that they get payback in terms of co-authored papers for investment they have made (usually with Federal money) in the students’ initial training. A lot of them see no value to breadth, though, and just want someone to do the tough work in their lab.  They want students to start in research labs right away and see any time spent in coursework as wasted. These faculty often value research much more highly than teaching, doing the bare minimum teaching that the university lets them get away with—they also don’t pursue further education themselves, not attending any research seminars unless the seminar topics are directly tied to their current research projects.  The students they turn out are often very narrow researchers—good in one field, but not adaptable to changes in technology or research funding fads. Although these faculty often have impressive research teams, I’m not impressed with them as professors, as they have too narrow a view of what the role entails—they should be working in a private or national research lab rather than as professors at a university.

A more balanced professorial view sees the role of grad students primarily as students, learning how to be researchers and teachers, rather than as hired hands in the research lab.  As students, they should be continually learning new things, not just getting lab results in a narrow specialty.

Some grad students want to get the PhD certification as quickly as possible with as little effort as possible.  They generally end up in jobs that don’t require a PhD, so I don’t know why they bother—they’d be better off in most cases getting an MS degree (which is much faster) and going to work in industry.

Other grad students end up getting in a rut: not making much progress on their research, not taking any classes, not working on other research projects—basically just marking time.

Others start many projects, but don’t bring any of them to the state of completion needed for a thesis (that was me as a grad student—always busy, always learning, but not wrapping things up). Both the students in a rut and the students flitting from project to project may need to have their funding cut off, to motivate them either to finish theses quickly or give up—my thesis was written in a year after I was told I had only one year of funding left.  I think that there is some benefit to letting productive students have a free rein for a while, though—forcing students into a narrow niche too soon results in narrow researchers.

Some students try to turn their PhD thesis into a life work—as if the thesis is the best thing they’ll ever do.  This is a serious mistake that results in their staying a grad student for much too long. The point of a PhD thesis is to get the student a PhD—it is to establish that the student is capable of original work that contributes to the field and of writing that work up, no more. My own thesis was basically a throw-away research product.  By the time I was done with it, I realized that it was the wrong approach for tackling the design problem.  The only interesting part was a cute NP-completeness proof for a routing problem, all in pictures, but that was a time when new NP-completeness results were basically unpublishable, so I never bothered publishing it anywhere other than my thesis.

Having students do original work is not enough—the check that students can write things up is an important one. I’ve seen more students fail to get PhDs because they couldn’t write up their work than because they couldn’t do the research—that is one reason why our advancement to candidacy requirement consists mostly of writing a long, detailed research proposal, essentially a first draft of the thesis.  Students who can’t write either need to get help or find a job that does not require as much writing as most jobs that require PhDs.  (Incidentally, the problem of writer’s block often hits hardest those students whose writing is the best, when they can get it out—the problem is often one of perfectionism. So the strategy for addressing the problem has to be primarily psychological, not just instruction in writing.)

In recent years there has been considerable pressure on universities to pump students through faster, at both the undergraduate and graduate level. The effect has often been to deny students the chance to explore things outside a very narrow field—once undergrads have completed major requirements and university-mandated general education, there is no time left for other interests (and general-education requirements rarely are satisfied by other interests—they are usually mandated to be a bunch of low-level courses distributed across the curriculum to ensure butts in seats for various departments). Grad school pressure to reduce time-to-degree has often resulted in reducing the coursework requirements and getting students into research labs sooner, again reducing the breadth of student education.

Personally, I like “honors” programs, where at least the top students get released from the rigid bureaucratic requirements of general education and are free to shape idiosyncratic programs that get breadth and depth by following multiple interests, rather than by taking large numbers of survey courses.  I had such a program as an undergrad (the Honors College at Michigan State) and my son is currently in such a program (the College of Creative Studies at UCSB). It may not work for all students, but it is a good way to handle the students who are actually interested in learning things, not just in getting a degree.

In addition to my math degree, as an undergraduate I took a variety of other courses, some of which were interesting, some of which turned out to be duds. As a grad student, I continued this practice, and some of the just-for-fun courses turned out to be crucial to my future success.  For example, the computer music class lead to my taking the VLSI design class, in order to make a single-chip implementation of the plucked-string algorithm that Alex Strong and I had developed.  I ended up teaching VLSI design for over a decade, and the plucked-string paper is my 6th most-cited paper (365 citations on Google Scholar). Neither the plucked-string algorithm nor the VLSI design would have happened if Alex and I had followed the more conventional route of joining a professor’s lab and working on the problems that professor was funded for.  I would have finished my degree sooner, but would have developed a much narrower view of what research is worthwhile.  Although I took a long time as a grad student and a long time as an assistant professor, I still made tenure when I was 38, which is (just barely) below the average age for scientists getting tenure (over 39 according to Physics Today).

My son plans currently to take a lot of courses in his major (computer science), in his other academic interests (math, maybe physics and linguistics, maybe computer engineering), and in his recreational interests (acting)—it looks like he’ll only be required to take one or two classes that are of no interest to him.  He has taken more time in his pre-college schooling than I did, so he’ll probably not get his BS until he is 22 (I finished mine at 19), but he probably won’t need as long in grad school as me, because he’ll have had more time and opportunity to explore his interests earlier. (I certainly wasn’t ready to found a company at age 18!) For that matter, he might decide to go into full-time engineering with just a BS, and not go the academic route at all—his entrepreneurial spirit is more like his uncle than like his father.

Perhaps he’ll do what a lot of the students I teach have done: work for several years (or decades) in industry, then come back to grad school when bored with that, wanting a more interesting challenge.  The re-entry grad students generally do not take a long time to the PhD, because they are focused on their research, though they don’t seem to be much better than other grad students on planning what comes after the PhD.

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