Gas station without pumps

2014 December 23

A long PhD is not a bad thing

In response to, 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.

2014 January 3

Not applying for administrative role in honors program

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 17:04
Tags: , , ,

In Undergraduate Honor Programs and What is the point of honors programs? I talked about the part-time faculty administrative position opening up for building up the honors program at UCSC and what the point of the honors program is.  I’ve decided that I won’t apply for the administrative position, because the largest and most important task is one that I’m not good at.  In the What is the point of honors programs? post I ended with

… what are the short-term goals?

  • Recruiting top students (say students with 2 SAT scores ≥ 700, or one ≥ 740).
  • Retaining top students past the first year (we still lose a lot who transfer to schools with a higher reputation).
  • Creating a community of peers for top students—it is too easy for top students to compare themselves with the average students around them and end up not challenging themselves.  Having a peer group who are just as bright can push them to achieve far more than they would have in an environment where they are always the “best”.
  • Finding a way to fund the honors program that does not rely on start-up funds that expire nor build up jealousy from faculty not teaching honors courses.

In a subsequent post, I’ll muse about ways that we can achieve these goals.

It is that last goal, finding funding either within the campus or from an outside source, that I see as being the biggest hurdle to creating a meaningful, lasting honors program. Fundraising (internal or external) is something I’m not very good at and hate to do, and so I don’t see myself as being the administrator needed for the honors program now.

If they were looking for a faculty adviser for honors students, I’d volunteer. If they were looking for someone to design an honors program with already identified funds (even if limited ones), I’d probably apply. But with no resources already allocated, the program will need a much more entrepreneurial person than me to have any hope of lasting.

If whoever does get hired for the post wants help, I’d be glad to give suggestions on what the honors program should try to do and discuss approaches for getting there within the campus culture.  Things I’d like to see include the following:

  • Dedicate a dorm (or two) to honors-college students, so that they are surrounded by other top students, not spread out thinly all over campus.  This should not just be a freshman dorm, but ideally a 4-year dorm.  This shouldn’t cost anything, since it is just a reallocation of housing assignments.  I would locate the dorm at Crown or at Cowell, since those two colleges seem the most conducive to instituting an honors program.
  • Set realistic size and admissions standards for honors college membership.  For example, Michigan State had 503 new honors-college members out of 7924 new full-time students (6.3% of entering class).  This got them an average SAT score of 1390 (CR+M) and average GPA of 4.09 for the entering honors college members.  Of course, they’ve been running their honors college for a long time—we’d probably have to start much smaller, with maybe 2% of the entering class (about 75 students/year).  I have no idea what the top 2% of our applicant pool looks like, nor what the yield is at the high end of the pool.  Part of the point of creating a robust honors program is to improve the yield there.
  • Waive all prerequisites at course registration for honors-college students.  These students are bright enough to figure out whether or not they really need a prereq, and could be encouraged to talk to instructors before exercising their waivers.
  • Provide priority registration for honors students (open their registration a day or two earlier than for other students).
  • Require honors college students to meet quarterly with a faculty adviser to discuss how they are shaping their education.  This would require some faculty time, but not an enormous amount (if we assume a steady-state of 300 honors college students and half-hour meetings, we get 450 faculty hours.  That’s a lot for one faculty member, but not a lot for 10 faculty.  It may be necessary to provide some prestige award (Fellow of the Honors College) to reward faculty for the advising load, but probably does not require monetary compensation.
  • Waive all general education requirements for honors-college students.  (This is the Brown University approach to general education, for all their students.) The advising meetings should, of course, include warnings that losing honors college status would result in the general education requirements being reimposed, so students might want to follow enough of the general ed that losing honors college status would not be a disaster.  Note that discipline-specific requirements for a major would not be waived.
  • Create honors versions of any course that has over 200 students a year in it (except for remedial courses, of course).  This would cost real money, and I can’t see the current department chairs supporting this out of their own budgets.  Finding the funds for a 10–30 classes a year taught by ladder-rank faculty is expensive (3–15 FTE positions).  Although this is an important part of a good honors college program, I don’t see it is likely to happen at UCSC.
  • Funding a number of National Merit Scholarships on campus. None of the UCs or CSUs participate in the National Merit Scholarship program, but other public universities in other states do. For example, University of Oklahoma offers five-year tuition waiver, $5,500/year for expenses, $5,000 National Merit award, $4,200 housing scholarship, $2,000 textbook/technology stipend, $2000 research and study-abroad stipend—that’s not a full-ride scholarship, but it is big enough that OU has over 700 National Merit Scholars. According to the National Merit Annual Report, OU gave out 160 new National Merit Scholarships for the 2012 competition (starting college in 2013)—and that isn’t the largest number from a state school (University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa gave out 208).  Over half the 2012 National Merit Scholarships are funded by colleges and universities (4554 out of 8064).
    Of course, most of the National Merit Scholarships are not as generous as the OU one, but even a few scholarships at the average value ($4,800) would be a strong inducement for top students to attend.  This is moderately priced, but would probably require finding new money from donors, and UCSC has always taken the approach of having rather secret scholarships that no one has ever heard of, plus UC-specific ones like the Regents scholarships.

I think that UCSC has the potential for creating a very strong honors college, but that the resources needed to create and maintain such a program are unlikely to be forthcoming in the next couple of years (unless some donor pushes for an honors college), because the administration is just dipping a toe in the water and not committing to creating a robust honors program.  I’m not the right person to try shaking the money tree, so I’ll have to pass this opportunity by.  Maybe if the administration commits some real funds to the honors program, I would be interested in the position.

2013 December 15

What is the point of honors programs?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:35
Tags: , , ,

In Undergraduate Honor Programs I asked

Why should we have an honors program?  What is the point of honors programs in general, and this one in particular?  What resources does an honors program need? How can the program be made a permanent institution, and not just a quick burn through startup money (which seems to have been the fate of all previous attempts to create honors programs here)?

I’ll start making a stab at those questions today, starting with “what’s the point?”

The basic assumption of any honors program is that it is worth putting some effort and resources into attracting and retaining students that are substantially better than the average students at that institution.  Highly selective colleges (like Stanford, MIT, or Harvey Mudd) do not need to have an honors college, as their average students are already at the top of the pool of available students—there aren’t “substantially better” students available for them to attract and retain.

But why don’t the top students just go to the highly selective colleges? Two reasons: there aren’t enough slots at them for all the top students, and many of the highly selective colleges are quite expensive—middle-class students often can’t afford to go even if they get in.  Thus many of the top students will end up going to public universities or other colleges that aren’t as highly selective.  How can these students best be served?  Ideally, we’d like to duplicate the experience of the highly selective colleges as closely as possible: top-quality faculty teaching small classes of students who are intellectual peers.  (Yes, this is definitely a rose-colored-glasses view of the highly selective colleges, some of which do have huge lecture halls stuffed with athletes and legacies, taught by underpaid contingent faculty—but we’re talking about the ideal here.)

From the standpoint of the honors students, an honors program at a “lesser” college should provide them a close approximation of attending a more selective college, but at a price they can afford.

There are other stakeholders in any university planning besides the students: faculty, alumni, administrators, … .

What do faculty have to gain or lose by having an honors program?  First and foremost, teaching honors students is a joy—they understand points quickly, they do the reading, they respond to guidance, they can participate fully in research, … .  Having one or two top students in a class does not help much—the material has to be presented at a pace suitable for most of the class, and  the top students quickly get bored and tune out.  Having a class full of top students can be incredibly energizing, though, and can compensate for other classes where enormous effort is needed to get marginally competent performance from the students.

So why don’t faculty whole-heartedly embrace honors programs?  Simply put, not everyone will get to teach an honors class.  If the honors students are only the top 2–5% of the students, and are concentrated in honors classes, then most faculty will never get to teach them.  Jealousy of those who do get to teach smaller classes of top students can erode faculty support for honors courses. Furthermore, teaching resources are usually allocated based on raw numbers  of students taught (the “butts-in-seats” metric that administrators and legislators use), so any small courses that are offered have to be paid for by making other courses bigger.  Those who teach the big courses understandably object to increasing their workload so that someone else gets to teach a more fun class.

Also, some public-university faculty see the point of public university as social leveling—providing a ticket to middle-class jobs and lifestyle for students from poorer families. Honors students tend to be disproportionately from middle-class and upper-middle-class families, so faculty with social-leveling as their main goal do not want to help them—it is easier to narrow achievement gaps by holding the top down than by bringing the bottom up.

What is the value of an honors program for alumni? Mainly the reputation of the college. College reputation these days is based mainly on research output (which has little to do with undergraduate education—some would even argue for a negative correlation) and on the few students who later attain celebrity status.  Having exceptional students graduate from a college increases the reputation of the college, even if the average students are decidedly not exceptional.

What is the value of an honors program for administrators?  Two-fold: improving college rankings and improving alumni loyalty.

College rankings are based mainly on numbers like the SAT scores of incoming freshmen, the retention of students into the second year, and the fraction of students that graduate within 4, 5, or 6 years.  Increasing the number of honors students improves all those numbers, though a small program (<5% of students) will not move the 25%ile and 75%ile numbers on SAT scores much by itself.  However, having an honors program can increase the number of top applicants, allowing the admissions office to be more selective and move those numbers up.

Thus honors programs are particularly attractive to colleges that  want to increase their selectivity.  For example, UCSC is currently near the bottom of the UC system (above Riverside and Merced) with 25%ile SAT scores of 470, 490, 480 and 75%ile scores of 610, 630, 620 (that’s for reading, math, writing). Only about 6–7% of UCSC freshmen scored over 700 on the SAT.  Many of the faculty would like to see something closer to the UCB numbers (25%ile: 590, 630, 620; 75%ile: 720, 770, 750, with 36–56% of students over 700).  Even a small honors program could increase the number of students scoring over 700 at UCSC substantially, since there are so few (about 250 a year) to begin with.  (Numbers from 2012–13 Common Data Sets.)

Alumni loyalty is a subtler effect.  Alumni are loyal to an institution if it gave them a strong sense of belonging while there were there.  That is part of the reason that colleges tolerate fraternities and sororities, despite the terrible press and scandals (hazing, alcohol overdoses, racism, …) that seem to accompany that decision so frequently. It is also the justification given for college sports, though the evidence now is pretty strong that college sports does not increase alumni giving by nearly as much as it costs to operate.  At UCSC, with few frats or sororities and only Division III athletics and club sports, the usual approaches for invoking alumni loyalty without actually doing anything are not available.

For a number of years the college system at UCSC evoked a lot of student loyalty (particularly at Cowell College), but the growth to about 1500 students per college, with few classes taken with one’s fellow college students and the loss of a number of traditions (like weekly College Night at Cowell Dining) has made college loyalty much less of a draw than it used to be.  An honors college, where the students really did often have classes in common after their freshman year, could restore some of that luster to the college system.  It seems to work fairly well for the Honors College at Michigan State University, for example, though they have even lower SAT scores than UCSC, except in  math (MSU 25%ile: 430,540,460; 75%ile: 590, 680,580; 4–22% over 700).

So, assuming that we want an honors program at UCSC, what are the short-term goals?

  • Recruiting top students (say students with 2 SAT scores ≥ 700, or one ≥ 740).
  • Retaining top students past the first year (we still lose a lot who transfer to schools with a higher reputation).
  • Creating a community of peers for top students—it is too easy for top students to compare themselves with the average students around them and end up not challenging themselves.  Having a peer group who are just as bright can push them to achieve far more than they would have in an environment where they are always the “best”.
  • Finding a way to fund the honors program that does not rely on start-up funds that expire nor build up jealousy from faculty not teaching honors courses.

In a subsequent post, I’ll muse about ways that we can achieve these goals.


2013 December 14

Undergraduate Honors Programs

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:31
Tags: , , ,

My campus has recently announced an administrative opening for a Faculty Director of Undergraduate Honors Programs, and I’m considering applying for it. I normally try to avoid administrative positions, since they usually call for being nice to lots of idiots, which is not something I’m good at.

But I’ve been a (not very vocal) advocate of honors programs for years, and my campus has only just started dipping its toe into the water in recent years, so maybe this goal would be worth overcoming my distaste for administrative positions to try to achieve something.  And the position reports to the “Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education”, who is a very reasonable and sensible person that I’ve worked well with in the past, so I wouldn’t have to be fighting a higher administrator all the time.

Here’s the problem, though: there are no resources associated with the position,  just “compensation: $12,500 annually in an allowable combination of stipend and course relief, subject to negotiation” and “Assisted by the Honors Coordinator and other divisional staff as needed and available.”

The compensation is not very important: $12,500 would be a nice replacement for summer salary, but I don’t really need the money, and it isn’t enough to do much with if spent on an honors program.  I don’t particularly want course relief—I’m teaching entirely courses that I’ve designed, and there is only one other person I trust to do a good job with one of them (he covered the course when I took my sabbatical).  I’ll need to train people to take over some of my courses so that I can take sabbatical (and eventually retire), but for next year that seems unlikely. It bothers me when some of our best teachers get sucked into administrative positions—no matter how good they are as administrators, I can’t see the administrative work as being as important as good teaching.  Unfortunately, some of the poorer teachers, who would be good to replace through course relief funds, would also make lousy administrators, so the incentives don’t line up well for getting the best people for each job.

Currently, we only have a first-year honors program, and that a tiny one that is only for first-year students.  The scope of the position seems to be only doing small tweaks to the existing program that don’t cost anything, not a major expansion of the program to be a 4-year program, which is what I’d like to see.

Before I decide whether to apply for this position, I need to figure out what I could achieve by taking it, and whether that is worth the effort it would take. Is there some other candidate for the position who would do a better job (or even nearly as good a job, so I that I don’t have to do it)?

More fundamentally, I need to have solid answers for questions like these: Why should we have an honors program?  What is the point of honors programs in general, and this one in particular?  What resources does an honors program need? How can the program be made a permanent institution, and not just a quick burn through startup money (which seems to have been the fate of all previous attempts to create honors programs here)?

I’ll try to address those questions in posts over the next couple of weeks—after I’ve got my grading done and the draft curricula put together for all the tracks of the bioengineering major.

%d bloggers like this: