Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Coursework and the PhD

I find the varying attitudes towards coursework for PhD students really interesting. Some of my colleagues insist that their students MUST take specific classes right away, or they can't be productive students. Others think all coursework is a total waste of time, and students should spend all their time in the lab. A corollary to this is that as a result, some PIs think that classes should be as easy as possible to satisfy graduation requirements without requiring serious work (and who cares about the 3 hours per week of class time wasted).

Personally, I think that classes round out the PhD. My students tend to take some courses that provide methods, models, or background information that they will find useful in their work and/or in understanding the literature they will be reading and/or in placing our work in the broader field. These are the classes that most people in my group take, because they cover information that my students really need to know in order to become experts in our field. I want these classes to be rigorous so they 1) don't waste my students' time and 2) so that my students actually learn something from an expert who also gives them resources on where/how to start looking for more information.

The other sort of classes my students take are courses they are interested in, but don't seem obviously related to their research problem. We have a minimum number of courses required for the PhD, and not all are set by the department. I think students should get to take a class or two in something that interests them--it is their PhD after all. Not every class has to be directly relevant to research to be useful or worthwhile. Sometimes I get great ideas from seeing talk by people outside my field. Students actually do have the time to take a class in something "fun" so I don't see why I shouldn't let them. And sometimes these classes do end up relevant in the end.

As a PI, I don't mind if my students spend time on their coursework, particularly in their first year. Most of the first year is really about training and acclimating to grad school/our city/my group, so coursework fits in well with that theme. I do find it irritating if my students leave it until after their 3rd year to finish up their coursework, since by that point, they should be really productive in the lab, and classes break up the time and reduce productivity.

Some of my colleagues want to end course requirements, but I think that is really a bad idea. The good students will make sure they have a broad enough knowledge base no matter what, but weaker students need to be lead into it sometimes. A PhD student should not just be a set of hands in the lab--we are supposed to be training them with the skills they need to be successful in our areas of expertise, and classes are a pretty useful tool for that.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Drowning in paperwork

Over my time at ProdigalU, the paperwork load has definitely increased. Things are not yet as bad as they were at National Lab, but they are clearly headed in that direction. We have to fill out more forms with more information each year, but the number of administrators in the department has dropped. We are entering Catch-22 land with some of these recent examples:

  • We now have to include "original programs" from conferences to demonstrate that we actually presented something to get reimbursed. This, at a time when most conferences have switched to electronic only/require payment for programs. This is particularly a problem for students, who don't have the money to cover their credit card bills on top of the time to waste on this merry-go-round with administration.
  • We also need to provide "original boarding passes" at a time when most people use their phones or print them out at home. I've taken to printing boarding passes from the self-check in booths, since these are never rejected. When I remember to do so. 
  • The number of people required to review expense reports (and the large number rejected for stupid things like the above) means that in its attempt to stop fraud, ProdigalU is paying out more than many requested reimbursements in salaries. This was also the case at National Lab.
  • We are having some orders rejected by the overseers for buying things like pens, notebooks, and tape, since those things are classified as stationary not research supplies. Because we don't need pens or notebooks in the lab or something.
When I first started, I had students tell me they didn't want to be academics because they didn't want to spend all day writing proposals. Now they tell me they don't want to be academics because they want to do science, not paperwork. Things are bad if even the students can see it.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Modeling life in academia

A few of my students (both grad and undergrad) have told me that they really appreciate the way I don't hide my life from them. At first, I had no idea what they meant, but then I remembered that when I was a student, I didn't know any professors with young kids. As a result, I was pretty sure that family life was incompatible with academia, which is why I originally planned to leave academia when I finished my PhD. I also had no idea what my advisor did all day. We used to joke about it in the student office.

One thing I really appreciated about my PhD advisor was that he never pretended that being a professor was anything other than an interesting job. He went on vacations (and told us about them) and left work early sometimes to do fun things. Sometimes, he would walk though the lab in the afternoon, tell us we needed a mental health day, and take us all out for drinks/snacks/coffee. Of course, he was late career, and had a stay at home wife, which was why I didn't think of him as a life role model.

I find that I do similar things sometimes. I don't treat my job like a calling. I tell my students when I am going on vacation vs. travel for work. I don't talk much about myself in general, but when I need to reschedule something because of a sick kid, I don't hide my reasons for doing so. Everyone in my group is aware that I have children, that I usually don't stay late at ProdigalU so I can spend time with them, and that I don't spend all of my free time working (nor do I expect them to do so).

I take my turn presenting in group meeting, and once a year or so, I talk to my group about finances and proposals (how to write them, how long I spend on it, what goes into one). My group has a general idea of how we are doing in terms of how freely we can spend on things. I go through my annual budget, so the group is aware of how much we spend on consumables, travel, and user fees. All of these things were mysteries to me before I joined the staff at National Lab. Few of my students come in interested in an academic career, but you never know where life will take you. I make sure my students leave my group with a good idea about what the academic life is like (good and bad).