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.