February 14, 2006

Grad-student gripes…

Posted in GTD, Lifehacks, Mac at 2:20 am by a11en

aside: I need to organize and edit down this post- skip if you don’t want to read the blatherings of a Grad-student who’s frustrated.. more goodies below this post…

Parking: Ok, if you know a grad-student lives far away from his office (this type of info is available in the phone book on campus), and you find his car sitting in the lot across from his office- let’s say at 4am… why in the hell do you ticket his car?! I mean, what do you think the grad-student is doing in his office? Partying? My guess is he’s freakin’ **working** at 4 am in the morning. And most likely, he hasn’t slept in like 20 hours. So, why for the love of God does he need to find a parking ticket on his car?

My idea: the university should **facilitate** their graduate students. Perhaps it’d be a good idea to offer them free parking spots near their offices such that they can work at any hour of the day or night doing the critical work their department needs them to accomplish (be it TA-work, or RA-work). Hell, if there was money (most likely there never is), I’d make sure there was a computer on each Grad’s desk, and once a week a grad luncheon of modest levels. A happy Grad-student is a productive grad-student. šŸ™‚ [Especially if the university is giving the grad-students the health-care plan that they previously rejected for every other worker… :)]

Secondly, we need to change the face of graduate studies… I wish to see two professors for every grad-student: one professor who is his academic advisor/thesis PI, the other who is his graduate mentor. It may even prove helpful to have the mentor to be a prof. who is at odds to his PI/Thesis advisor. With this setup, there is now the possibility to evaluate the graduate student/professor relationship and various work ethics. Both the student and advisor can benefit from constructive evaluation of performance. The key here is to advance both the advising and mentorship of the graduate student as well as the graduate student’s work and performance. In order for this system to work well, there also needs to be ramifications for poor performance for both the graduate student *and* the advisor. I hate to even bring this up, but we should be attempting to improve performance in all arenas in our Universities. We need both a flexible and advancing study environment which is focused on growth and not necessarily on hitting the grad-student with a big stick if he doesn’t accomplish what he’s “supposed” to accomplish. šŸ˜‰ Often the big-stick hurts the student’s ability and motivation to work. And this brings us back into the realm of management and mentorship. The Universities are lacking the advancements that the current HR and Managers have gone through in the recent past. Pitting gradstudents against each other or using fear-mongering managerial practices have been proven more harmful than good. And are the cave-man equivalent to management. Why be advanced in the arena of science and be backwards in the world of management skills? The prime key here being that no professors have ever gone to class to mentor or manage grad-students. They learned by being thrown in the pool head first, and they also feel that being thrown in head-first is pretty much the way grad-students learn. But, should we do this just because we’ve always done this? Where is the discovery method, the new ground-breaking moves forward in management techniques and forward thinking approaches to growing graduate-student ability to mentor and manage tasks in the research environment?

Now, I feel the head-first in the deep end approach has some merit- there’s freedom for the professor ’cause he can just shrug his shoulders and say: “You go figure it out.” the whole time looking good to his other co-prof’s. It has some merit to the grad-student, ’cause he actually has to “go figure it out” or else he utlimately fails. But, I have to admit, it leaves a lot lacking. How many of us would take this approach to a 2 year old’s growth? In many ways young grad-students are 2-year olds when it comes to scientific research. So, the question really comes down to how do we make incentives for the prof. I tend to promote a positive and negative reinforcement model. The lowest scoring profs may lose grad-students, extra departmental funding or in the least not be allowed to hire more students for a predetermined time. The highest scoring profs should gain a departmental bonus for research or grad-student support, or perhaps a “chair” position for a year or semester. (See how we feed positively into the research here as well?)

The role of the mentor-advisor is to focus on the graduate student’s “life” performance. This means things like motivation, sharing and bonding with the student in an effort to be a positive support through their work. This type of prof. would help teach the student positive working methods (such as life-hacks and GTD, etc.), over-encompassing research approaches, may help in terms of specific research areas, and finally to act as a sort of evaluator of the research prof./student relationship. The mentor-advisor has the ability to determine whether or not the PI for the student is withholding his end of the relationship and ultimately can support the advisor in commendation or punishment for their role in this process. I also feel this should work in the opposite mode. If the PI/research advisor is finding their are playing an increasingly more important role as a mentor-advisor than the mentor is, the mentor may be either changed, or as well punished for their lack of attention to the student.

I will not mention various methods of punishment in regards to the student at this point, partly because this has become too long for a blog-post, but also because I feel this is the primary and only feedback loop that currently exists in this process. The feedback loop for the student is quite scary and large… ultimately, the student fails to reach his future goals in his career, and this is the ultimate motivator. Regardless of whether the prof. believes the student cares or not, I’m here to tell you the student really does care. Too often the student is looked on as the problem, when in reality many times it comes down to lack of understanding and knowledge in the ability to get their work completed. Not in the actual work, frequently, but in the method/process etc., which ultimately should be taught by the research PI or the mentor professor as suggested here.

Ok, I went on too long here… but ultimately what I want to see is more positive and negative feedbacks to support a graduate’s student progress forward. If I had the ability to raise the pay for a grad, I would… it should track inflation, first and fore-most, and also should increase with steps accomplished (as many now do). It should also track incoming graduate salaries. There’s no reason I can think of that new students be given more cash than the current students, and to help promote the forward move (not be worried about eating peanut-butter and kraft-dinners), some modest level of cash is required. Often, the level is a bit too low. [A prime example: I have heard of a student’s wages being cut in half as a punitive measure, the prof. only to recind this because he didn’t realize the pay was so low, and the tuition so high, that the student would have to drop out of his studies. Not to mention said professor didn’t even go through the University set procedures for punitive measures.]

I’m extremely concerned with the nature of this current environment, as I strongly feel it is failing heavily, and it will ultimately mean that our future economy will die a slow and painful death. It is critical for the future of this country that we excel in our work at the university research level. Positively influencing this process with proper feedback loops for advisors is ciritcal in this process.

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