Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Maybe we're just TOO nice.

So, I had this student last semester. This semester he enrolled in another class of mine, which I co-teach with another faculty member (one of the ones from this episode), and it's pretty much the same story: nice kid, NOT up to graduate level work.

My colleague, having felt burned by our struggle last semester with the grad student thesis issue, wants to do something or say something to somebody - and I can't say I totally disagree. On the one hand, graduate school is this student's responsibility. On the other hand, we accepted him, and we're paying him to be here.

But, what would we say, and to whom? Perhaps the major professor? But in many ways, it's also a college and departmental issue. I'm starting to think that problems like these - students kind of languishing in a program that's maybe not a great fit for their skills or aptitudes - are more widespread than just one or two students here and there. A friend of mine in another department relayed to me that he'd recently been on a master's committee for a student in my department that he felt was clearly not up to the task, and whose thesis he thought was a total joke (but as the most junior member on the committee, and as somebody outside the department, he felt hamstrung, and ultimately went along with the rest of the committee, and just decided never to serve on any committees in my department again).

Other faculty members in my department, when I was consulting with more senior folks than I during my struggle with that grad student of mine last year, have pretty much told me the same thing, that there are some problems with quality control, but there's not really any mechanism to catch that and act on it early. (I think that was something at the root of my problem with that grad student - if there had been a way to reroute her to a more appropriate program, perhaps a non-thesis option, I might have done it. But, having already invested a year of money in her that would go wasted if she left or went non-thesis, I decided to take my chances that we could squeeze her into a more researchy mold, which was only marginally successful).

Maybe it's no different when this is not the case, but the fact that all these students are funded on grant money, where you are on the hook for delivering some results, creates a weird dynamic when things go wrong, because as a faculty member you absolutely NEED your grad students to be successful, and you can't really afford to have ones that aren't. So maybe we sometimes push or coddle students that we really shouldn't be pushing.

My department is nationally ranked, in the low single digits. So we ought to be attracting and recruiting high-quality students (of course, there's another issue of it being difficult to know the quality of a potential graduate student just based on their undergraduate academic performance, and it's even more of a struggle when the applicant is from a foreign university - which most of them are). And we ought to be fair to the students that do come here, and not let them slip by when there's palpable trouble.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am a grad student. If I were in a situation where my professors felt that my strengths were not well matched to the department, I would like to know. You've spent a lot of time helping this student get through the classes, but it might be more helpful to everyone if you helped the student find something at which he could succeed. Maybe he is as unhappy with his performance as you are. A way to broach the subject could be something like, "I noticed that you've been having trouble with the material lately. Are you unhappy or is there something else the matter?"

Science is mostly delayed gratification with little feedback until late in the game. Honest discussion early in a graduate career could save a lot of heartache and funding. I think it's worse to lose a fourth year student--or let an unemployable student graduate--than to gently help a first or early second year student find a better path.