Monday, December 18, 2017

How undergrads spend their time

The 2017 results from the National Survey of Student Engagement have been out for a little while. I tell my undergrad students the "3 hours outside of class per credit" rule of thumb, but we all know no one really spends that much time on average on classwork--I certainly didn't. But I did spend more than the current average of 17 hours per week on my classes! For a typical 4-5 course load, this averages to about 3-4 hours spent outside scheduled hours per course. This result is in line with the results from 5 year averages (2011-2015) found by the American Time Use Survey at the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, where students said they spent 3.5 hours per day on educational activities on a typical weekday. My first year teaching a new class, I can spend about that much time per lecture!

This does explain a lot of my observations in my sophomore level undergrad class, though. A surprisingly large number of my students are convinced that attending class should be enough to teach them everything they need to know to get an A, no matter what I say about problem solving and practicing. Some of those appear to be attempting to learn by class osmosis, since they pay no attention to me while in class. Another cohort of students is convinced that there is no reason to attend class, since they can just cram from the textbook or the problem set answer keys the night before the exam like they did in high school. I'd say that about 40-50% of my students regularly attend class, and at least 20-30% of the students in class are doing something else instead of paying attention. I teach a required class that is a prerequisite for many later courses in the undergrad program, so I get that many of the students are not all that interested in the subject matter, but it is definitely material they will need to know in upper level courses. The lack of understanding about this is a bit concerning. It also makes me glad I don't teach the required upper level courses!

Since so many of my students are mailing it in, I sometimes have a hard time pitching the level of the class. Recently, I decided to focus on my more engaged students, and not worry so much about the ones who don't seem to be working, and that strategy seems to be working well. The separation between the top of the class (I have many really great, hard working students in my courses) and the bottom is getting larger, and the middle is emptying out.  My grade distributions have always been a bit bimodal, but now it is getting extremely so. I usually put one or more questions assigned on problem sets on my exams unmodified, and find that fewer than 60% of the students get them correct anyway, implying that many (most!?!) of my students are not doing the assigned work, or don't understand it and don't care enough to get help. Concentrating on those who are there to learn is less frustrating for me and I think for the students who care. My teaching evaluations are consistently good, so I am not getting feedback otherwise.

I actually think that a number of the students who seemingly don't care are just lacking study and/or time management skills. They don't know how to learn material on their own or how to prioritize, which are part of any University level course. I've started giving in class study tips on the first day, and exam taking tips right before my exams, but I feel like that is preaching to the choir in a lot of ways. Also, many of my students who need such help are convinced that they know better, and ignore me anyway.

The time management is a much bigger problem. Some of my students are convinced that they have an exam conflict when they have more than one exam on the same day. Some of my students ask me to change exam dates due to an exam the day before, or a major assignment due that day. Some of my students tell me about exam conflicts the week of the exam, rather than at the beginning of the course when it is easier for me to do something about it. For almost every course at ProdigalU, exam dates are given on the syllabus, which is available on the first day of class, as are the due dates for major assignments. It boggles my mind that some students don't think to use a calendar to help them plan their study time. A really large number of my students lurch from deadline to deadline, working on whatever is due in the next day or so, rather than using any sort of schedule to reduce the pressure on themselves. Even stranger, many of my unsuccessful students seem to have no idea what they need to do to pass the classes they are in danger of failing.

When I was a student, I wasted a lot of time during the day to do most of my work at night, I started a lot of assignments much later than I should have (sometimes the night before), and I didn't always do problem sets that weren't graded, all of which are pretty typical student behaviors. I also didn't "discover" office hours until junior year. So I do get where my students are coming from. But I also attended lectures and tried to concentrate on class when I was there, I focused on work when I was working (no multitasking), and I made sure I did enough to get at least a C+, even in required classes I hated.

I don't want this to be a "kids today" post, because current students also spend a lot of time on average working for pay (13 hours), volunteering (2 hours), doing extracurricular activities (4.5 hours), and caring for dependents (3.5 hours), all of which are also important. The standard deviations on all of these values are quite large (50-140%), because the range of experience is so large. It is still concerning that 1) there is a huge disconnect for many students between desired outcome and what is required to get there, and that 2) each generation of students has more and more background knowledge they need to know and tries to learn it in less and less time. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Academic jobs and the Survey of Earned Doctorates

The Survey of Earned Doctorates for 2016 (SED) is out (at least in data form). I was just playing around the numbers a little bit (I am in physical science), and I am finding the results quite interesting. The percentage of doctorates earned by temporary visa holders remains below 30%, which is a lot fewer than I would have expected. The percentage of women earning degrees in my field has not changed much since I got mine.

The really interesting thing is in the employment plans (at least in my field). For all we hear about the pyramid scheme that is academia, in my field, the "mismatch" between the number of qualified potential academic job seekers and the number of openings is not all that large. This is, of course, a very simple analysis, since it ignores the presence of people with other sorts of degrees that apply for positions in my field, as well as people with degrees in my field that go to other departments. It also assumes that all TT positions are equal, which is clearly not the case, since University type and location also make a huge difference.  So, what do I mean by a small "mismatch"? The ratio between the number of postdocs going in (defined for this scenario as "definite postgraduate study" plus the same percentage of those with definite plans applied to "seeking employment or study") is 3. Basically, according to the SED, there are 3 new postdocs produced per TT position available at US institutions in my field.

Now, I've talked about issues with the SED and other surveys before, when I looked at PhD overproduction 6 months ago. Those issues remain, and this is 1) only a rough estimate from questionable numbers and 2) ignores PhDs granted by foreign institutions who presumably make up a decent percentage of American postdocs. A survey of current postdocs and their plans would be much better. That said, given my previous discussions of search committees and their sorting of applicants, where at least half of the applicant pool is not qualified, 3 to 1 is not far from the minimum required to produce an adequate pool. This is especially true since many postdocs in my field plan on industrial positions, but want additional training (or the paid chance to live abroad for 2 years). This last bit is from anecdote and personal observation, since I don't know of any good surveys of just postdocs in my field on this issue.

Once we add in the postdocs with PhDs from non-US institutions, of course, the number of potential applicants for TT positions is much higher. And of course, applicants self-sort, since most people are looking for a specific TT job type (primarily undergrad, research intensive, etc) not just a random TT position, and most people have location preferences that determine which positions they apply to. Thus, colleagues at less well known universities in rural locations have problems filling out their pools sometimes, while colleagues in highly desirable locations have many hundreds of applicants.

Personally, my students are still finding jobs that they enjoy, so I don't feel any job-market induced pressure to decrease the size of my group below that which I can comfortably support. For better or worse, the recent numbers suggest that not much has changed in my field over the last 10 years or so.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Observations on searches

One of my most popular posts ever was from 2010 on how our search committees deal with applications for TT positions based on my early experience at ProdigalU. The process certainly is very opaque until you are on the other side, so I can understand this. It is now 7.5 years later, and I have some more thoughts on academic searches.

It is still the case that about 2/3 of the applicants are removed from consideration from the CV alone. Those who have the minimum qualifications (like a PhD in the right field) are usually eliminated by lack of productivity. Someone who can't publish reasonably regularly at the level of good society journals in an already established and funded lab is unlikely to be able to do so when starting from scratch no matter how wonderful their ideas are. Also, there MUST be non-review first author publications. There is no minimum number really, since productive means different things in different fields and sub-fields.  In my area (a physical science), 3-5 publications from grad school is typical (usually 2-3 first author, the rest as a contributor). Postdocs typically are 1-2 years, so 1-2 first author publications is pretty normal, also usually with some mid-author contributions as well. In my field, one Science/Nature publication does not make up for having nothing else, so trainees who plan to stay in academia that are currently in glam hunting research groups should make sure to look out for other publishing opportunities (like find a collaborator). 

For the remaining 1/3, the research plan/proposal is the main difference maker. For a TT hire, we are looking for someone who can both teach our classes and set up a successful research group, where success is ultimately determined by the ability to get funding. This means TT applicants need to demonstrate that they can write clearly and communicate the excitement and novelty of their ideas effectively. In addition, they must have SOME idea about research practicalities (like how much things cost, how much time things take, and what sorts of instrumentation they might have access to). This really comes out more in the interview, but I have seen some application research plans that require access to some unique instrument found at the PhD or postdoc institution, or that rely on unreasonably large amounts of synchrotron time/user facility time.  Fit is also important--we already have people at ProdigalU, so we want to hire someone who brings something new, but not so new that they can't find students in our applicant pool.

Reference letters are also important, but usually not the clincher. A good letter will address the specific contributions the applicant made in research as well any other important relevant ways the applicant contributed (mentoring, writing proposals, teaching assistance, etc). This is so useful in evaluation! I find it is often helpful to letter writers to respectfully suggest specific things to address in a letter, because the letter writers are busy people who may not remember to put in something important to the applicant. Letter writers can also help address specific issues that are hard or inappropriate for an applicant to bring up, which can be important as well. Red flags in a letter are taken very seriously (also true for grad student applications), and can definitely sink an application.

The teaching statement matters. Honestly, we don't usually look at the teaching statement until the long list point, but at that point, it is part of the decision. We are a University looking for people to teach our students, so we want someone who takes teaching seriously.

The perceptions of job seekers and search committee members are far apart, but also strangely both correct. When I was looking for a job, all I heard were horror stories about 500 applicants for one opening, and about how people spend years searching and never get a position. Now that I am on search committees myself, I hear about searches where there are hundreds of applications, but practically none are good enough/have the right qualifications to be brought in (this is usually caused by a bad ad, in my opinion), and I hear horror stories of searches taking 3 or 4 years to make a hire.

The funny thing is that both things are true, in my experience. There are searches with 30-40 people under consideration for the interview list (usually 4 or 5 people at ProdigalU), all of whom look really good, but only one of which can be hired. There are also searches where the committee didn't end up finding anyone the department wanted to make an offer to.

The prior experience/training time is getting longer. When I first started, it was pretty typical that most of our pool consisted of applicants in their first postdoc. While postdoc length remains 1-2 years in my field, more and more of our applicants are applying from a second postdoc or from a non-permanent, semi-independent position (like group leader, other sorts of fellowships, or contract positions). So the time between finishing the PhD and starting on the TT is rising. Not as dramatically as in the life sciences, but the experience level of our new hires is also creeping up.

In talking to potential applicants at conferences and/or our own interviewees, some of this is voluntary (commonly this is from people who wanted experience abroad and then wanted to apply from a position in the country), but some is not (people who couldn't get a permanent job and/or perceive themselves as not competitive without a second postdoc). I am not sure what to do about this, but it came up for discussion in our last search as issue in evaluating productivity.